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Witches, Fire and a Haunted House

Portsmouth on fire at

Continuing his series on the Great Fire of 1813, Brewster describes the enormous Portsmouth Pier before the blaze, details the shops along the narrow main streets, then launches into superstitious legends surrounding a legendary "haunted house" – and tells what really happened.




Central Portsmouth previous to the Great Fire -- Portsmouth Pier -- New-Hampshire Hotel -- Jacob Sheafe's -- Daniel Webster's -- North side of Buck St.--The Haunted House.

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

ABOUT Charles Brewster 
SEE ALSO: The Three Fires of Christmas 

BEFORE the conflagration of 1813, the principal business mart of Portsmouth was State (then Buck) street. At its eastern termination was the Portsmouth Pier; near it was the New Hampshire Hotel; in this street the Post Office was located for many years, and also the Custom House. Here too was the public grammar school of the town. The street was very narrow and irregular, not averaging much more than half its present width of sixty feet.

RamblesBetween Washington and Atkinson streets it was only about twenty five feet wide -- comparing well with Hunking street of the present day. On the north side of the street, outside of the side-walk, in front of the Episcopal

chapel, can now be seen the stone covering of a well. This well was in the front yard of Abraham Isaac's house before the fire. Measuring the same distance from the opposite side of the street so as to reduce the width just one-half, will give an idea of State street before the fire.

This street was the first to be furnished with paved side-walks, and here was the place of promenade of the elite of the town. There were continual arrivals at the Pier, of ships, brigs and schooners; and through this street there were more goods transported than any other in Portsmouth. Then the commerce of our merchants was extended to Europe, South America and the East and West Indies. We find that in 1800, no less than twenty-eight ships, forty-seven brigs, ten schooners and one bark were employed on foreign voyages, belonging to Portsmouth. Seventeen of these vessels were built here in the year 1800. Twenty coasting vessels were also employed.

The Portsmouth Pier in those days was a corporation of some magnitude. The company was chartered in 1795. They constructed the Pier or wharf which still bears the name, 340 feet in length and averaging sixty feet in breadth. On the south side of it they built an edifice which was not at that day equalled by anything in New England, not excepting the warehouses of Boston of that day. It was three hundred and twenty feet in length and thirty feet in breadth -- three stories high. It was divided into fourteen stores. On the north side of the Pier was another building of the same height, divided into two stores. The site of the latter is now occupied by Mr. Hall Varrell's coopery.

The occupants of the large Pier building were, first on the east end, Thomas Manning, then Daniel Huntress, Aaron Lakeman, John McClintock, Elisha Lowe, James Shapley, Theodore Chase, Clement Storer, Clement Jackson, Martin Parry, Elijah Hall, George Long and William and Joseph Chase. In the third story was Joseph Walker's sail loft. Benjamin Holmes and others occupied the other Pier building for counting rooms and storage.

These stores at the time of the fire were full of merchandise -- such as liquors, molasses, sugar, salt, coffee, and one store was filled with yellow ochre, much used for painting in those days.

On the west of the Pier edifice and nearly adjoining it, on the north corner of Water street, was the New Hampshire Hotel, a large brick building, where ship masters, mates and the public generally, found accommodations. In this hotel the celebrated ventriloquist Potter, whose fame was world-wide in his day, was in his early life a servant. This hotel as well as the site of the Pier wharf, was formerly the property of the Sherburne family -- Capt. Benjamin Sherburne occupied the hotel about seventy years ago, and it was disposed of by him to the Pier Company. The last landlord of the hotel was Mr. Geddis.

Water street before the fire varied in width from twenty-two to thirty feet. Daniel street, from Penhallow street east, was about thirty-five feet wide.There was a front yard to the mansion of Elijah Hall -- and the building opposite set out five feet into the present street line.State street being so narrow, and very compactly filled with wooden buildings, the fire extended through it with irresistible fury. The flames from both sides of the street uniting in a grand but terrific arch over the centre. How powerless then was the feeble force of the only three small engines owned by the town; and how hard to collect a company at any point, when almost every one thought his own premises in danger.

On, on it swept, and its voracious appetite not only took in all of the edifices that were combustible, but much of smaller matters that had been treasured up as invaluable. Prized heirlooms were burned to ashes; valued paintings gave their oil and coloring to feed the flames; treasured manuscripts, souvenirs, books, jewels, all disappeared; and those carefully hidden bank notes, or coins, laid up in some hidden crevice for a rainy day, it is vain to seek for among the ruins.

The Hon. Daniel Webster lived in a house on the corner of Court and Pleasant streets. It was built by Oliver Whipple, about the time and in the same style of the house of the late John K. Pickering. Mr. Webster was enjoying the festivities of an entertainment at Jacob Sheafe's, whose house was on State street, near the east corner of Penhallow street. The house was large, of two stories, with gambrel roof; the capacious yard on the east paved with flat stones. When the cry of fire was raised, Mr. Sheafe turned out a fresh supply of his wine, and with "we will take a parting glass, Mr. Webster," the action was suited to the word; and Mr. W. went home to see his house already on fire. Not much time intervened before Mr. Sheafe found his own house surrounded by burning buildings. The efforts of his company, aided by recruits from the Navy Yard, for some time kept his premises a dark spot amid the flames. The next morning, in writing to a friend in Boston an account of the fire, with characteristic brevity he said, "I have lost about $50,000 and my faithful dog Trim." Notwithstanding his great loss, he headed a subscription for the sufferers by a liberal sum.

It is worthy of note, that no lives were recorded as lost of more value than Trim's. By a remarkable providence, no person suffered severe personal injury except our late fellow citizen John Smith, who exhibited in his walk ever afterwards the evidence of the breaking of one of his limbs on that occasion.

As in opening the ruins of Herculaneum, not only the remains of edifices but also the little details of the furniture discovered are regarded with interest, so may some of the details of life, which a half a century ago would have passed as scarcely worthy of comment, now be brought out as characteristics or marks of a former age.We have already spoken of the extent of the ravages of the great fire of 1813, and described some of the buildings destroyed. We will now begin at the river on the north side of State street. Before the Pier wharf was built, more than sixty years ago, the cap-sill of Sherburne's wharf on that site was nearly on a line with the east end of where Mr. Hall Varrel's cooper's shop now stands. Within a few feet of the wharf was a carved statue of a man, with extended arm, and from his forefinger a stream of water was continually issuing. This was a fanciful vent of the Portsmouth Aqueduct, which had recently brought the water from a fountain two and a half miles distant.

On the northwesterly side of the street, there was a two story store extending from the river to a narrow passageway for teams to Langdon's wharf. The easterly end was occupied sixty years ago by Capt. Elisha Lowe as a grocery store, and the westerly end was improved for the storage of heavy imported goods.

Next west of the passageway stood a two story store with the end to the street, which at one time was occupied by Abel Harris, for cleaning flax seed, of which he shipped several cargoes to Europe. It was afterwards occupied as a wholesale crockery ware store by Zebulon Robinson.West of this store was a small two-story house occupied as a dwelling by Mr. John D. Seaward. In the westerly end of this house he worked at shoemaking.

The next was a long one-story building which served Mr. Sam'l Sherive for a painter's and glazier's shop and dwelling house for his family, consisting of himself, wife and twenty-two children which she bore him, only a part of whom survived their parents. One of the daughters (Phebe) was married to "Stephen Delande, who makes sugar candy," by which cognomen, being a confectioner, he usually introduced himself and his business to strangers. Mr. Sherive's house was bounded westerly by a narrow passage way, directly opposite Water street, leading to a small dwelling house of Mr. Joseph Stoodley. The intervening lots from the passage way leading to Langdon's wharf were afterwards built upon by Nathaniel W. Fernald, William Varrell and others.

On the lot next to the passageway leading to Mr. Stoodley's house, Mr. George Nutter, house carpenter, erected a two-story double dwelling house, in the northeasterly corner of which he sold groceries, &c.

Next, on the spot where Christian Johnson now resides, was a large double two-story dwelling house, occupied for some years by John Samuel Sherburne, attorney at law, who subsequently held the offices of District Attorney and Judge of the District Court. This house, after Judge Sherburne vacated it for his residence next west of the Court house, was deemed by the superstitious to be haunted by evil spirits and the rendezvous of witches and wizzards who were supposed occasionally to infest the town and dwelling houses which happened to be vacant. The superstitious were therefore very careful about passing such houses by night, especially in dark and stormy weather, when, as many believed in those days, the witches would sally out from the house and if successful in casting a horse's bridle over the head of any person passing by would immediately transform the victim into a horse, and after having him shod with iron shoes, would ride the animal till it became tired, and just before daylight would turn it loose in the street. The persons thus afflicted would the next day find prints of the horse nails on their hands and on their feet, and marks of the bridle bits on the sides of their mouths. Such was the story told and believed by the superstitious, by which relations many children, as well as some of riper years, were greatly frightened. Strange noises in the night time would be heard in this house, and so many voices intermingling on stormy nights as to resemble more the abode of demons than those of human beings. On such occasions, it was said, lights would be seen passing quickly from chamber to chamber, while the witches and evil spirits were carousing below. These scenes generally were represented as taking place in the latter part of the night.

With such superstitious belief, a story obtained credit, of a man who had been absent from his home one night till nearly daylight the next morning, occasioning his family great anxiety and distress. He had been spending the evening with one of his neighbors, and as the family supposed had gone directly home on leaving their house. It was a stormy night. On his return to his home next morning he thus accounted for his absence. He said the moment he had bid his neighbor good night at his door, he saw a woman walking before him with a lighted lantern at her side. He had nearly overtaken her, when she disappeared, but the light still moved on before him and he was powerless to turn from it, and before morning was led by it into an alder swamp near the Pound, worried and greatly fatigued. It at last occurred to him that the woman who had preceded him with the light was a witch, and that if he could turn any one of his garments he had on inside out, he would get rid of her influence. So after great exertion he succeeded in getting his coat off, and, turning the sleeves, put it on again, when the light immediately disappeared and he succeeded in getting out of the swamp into South road, near the place where Dow was executed, and so found his way home.

The impressions which the story made upon the minds of the superstitious were of course confirmatory of their belief in witchcraft. Others, however, who were in the secret that the bewitched man had spent most of the night in a gambling establishment, had as strong belief in evil spirits, but in a different mode of manifestation.

The premises of the Judge however, were entirely exempt from the annoyances of those evil spirits when it afterward became occupied by the intrepid Captain Thomas Bell Stevens, if not before that time, as also from the trouble occupants were subjected to by the frequent spirit knocking at the front door by night, which unseen hands occasioned by means of a line

attached to the heavy knocker on the door and passing over the house to Daniel street -- the weaker portion of the line being attached to the knocker would break upon a sudden jerk, when there was danger of detection, and so elude discovery.

Such freaks of the boys of that day gave a name to "The Haunted House," which was retained long after all the natural causes of the light and noises were satisfactorily developed, and until it was swept away in the conflagration.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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