The Many Stories of Paul Jones' House
If these old walls could talk,
John Paul Jones left Portsmouth 218 years ago, and except for rare ghostly sightings and the occasional Jones re-enactor, the Captain hasn't been spotted here since. But this summer the five-foot-six-inch Scottish mariner returns, permanently, to his old room in the mustard-yellow mansion that bears his name. Sure, it's only a wax dummy, but it's a hauntingly realistic, well-dressed wax dummy.
Jones is arguably the most famous person ever to live in the Seacoast region, though he stayed a mere 18 months during two visits. Had Jones not lodged with widow Purcell in 1777, the stately gambrel roof house, its flowing cedar fence and lush garden would be a brick office building today. It almost happened. Just 80 years ago this summer, the Portsmouth Historical Society opened the John Paul Jones House Museum to the public. Jones' exciting life may be an open book, but the perilous story of the house itself is rarely told. Here's that story:
In 1714 the plot of land where the house stands was part of a 30-acre pasture known as Hunkins' Orchard. It was, even then, well positioned at the intersection of two unpaved highways, one leading to "the Portsmouth Plains" and another to "the Creek." To make a long story shorter, the owner leased the land to a guy named George Jaffrey who willed it to his daughter Ann, who married a guy named Nathaniel Peirce whose family mansion is still visible across the street. Peirce sold the land (though he didn't exactly own it) to a ship captain named Gregory Purcell, most likely from Ireland. Three deeds describing the lengthy legal negotiations are on file in Exeter.
Gregory must have been an ambitious merchant shipowner because he wooed and won Sarah Wentworth, a member of Portsmouth's "royal" family and niece of New Hampshire's powerful Governor Benning Wentworth. Around 1758 the Purcell's built their three-and-a-half-story home. It is likely they hired noted builder Hopestill Cheswell who was housewright for many similar buildings in the area. Cheswell was part African American, a fact that always seems to surprise house visitors today who mistakenly imagine all 18th century blacks were slaves or domestics.
At this time young John Paul (he added the name "Jones" later) was a boy of 10 or 11, son of a gardener, growing up in Scotland. In the tumultuous years before the American Revolution, while John Paul Jones apprenticed as a seaman, the Purcell's had 13 children. In 1776 Capt. Purcell died, leaving his wife to care for as many as seven surviving daughters and a son, although details are sketchy here. He also appears to have left his wife significantly in debt with lingering lawsuits and liens to prominent Portsmouth businessmen. Overdue bills to a local doctor suggest the Captain may have suffered a protracted illness.
The "royal" half of Sarah Purcell's family were unable to help, They had only recently been driven out of town at the dawn of the American Revolution. Enter John Paul Jones, who by this time, had worked as a merchant ship owner, tried and abandoned the slave trade, fled to America after killing a mutinous crewman and added a new last name. Jones arrived in Portsmouth, NH in mid July of 1777, appointed by Congress to fit out and man the sloop of war Ranger. Legend says he and his serving man lodged with the widow Purcell until his departure for France in November of that year. Jones returned a conquering hero in 1781 to outfit the ship America and stayed about ayear.
The very next year, in March 1783, the Purcell House was sold to Judge Woodbury Langdon for 1,060 pounds. Woodbury was the brother of New Hampshire "president" John Langdon who owned the shipbuilding company where Ranger and America had been built. A next door neighbor, Woodbury Langdon owned land where the Rockingham Hotel now stands and may have occupied the Purcell house for a short time.
Over the next 30 years the house changed hands four times. Both of Woodbury Langdon's sons owned it after his death. One of them sold it to a wealthy local family named Ladd who rented it to John Parrott, a Portsmouth Postmaster and later US Senator. In 1826 the house was purchased by Samuel Lord, a prominent Portsmouth banker, industrialist, insurance man and stock broker.
Lord renovated the house and expanded the lot a bit, adding a barn, ells and a two-story polygonal Queen Anne porch. An 1853 painting shows the house, fence and grounds looking almost exactly as they are today, Only the porch has since been removed. Lord died in 1871, but his daughter Mary Morison, a widow, stayed on through the turn of the century. Here the plot thickens.
Enter Frank Jones, the local tycoon who owned just about everything in town about this time -- the railroad, the brewery, the hotels, including the Rockingham Hotel next door. In 1884, the Rockingham burned. Turning tragedy to profit, Frank Jones rebuilt the towering grand brick hotel we see today. The hotel building, now adapted to condos, looms just inches from the old barn on the property then known as the Lord House. Jones then founded the Granite State Fire company to cash in on the growing need for business insurance in the city. The dilapidated old mansion next door, he and his partners figured, would someday make way for a fine modern office building for their new insurance company. The insurance company moved, for awhile, to the brick structure across the street. Jones was playing the game Monopoly, but with real buildings.
But Frank Jones died in 1902. Mrs. Morison died in 1903. The house passed on to a number of short-term residents including two doctors who kept an office and two-bed dispensary in what had been Capt. Purcell's counting room. Some locals recall a short-lived tea room in the current museum area and rooms were apparently available for rent.
Meanwhile, a movement called the Colonial Revival was sweeping the nation. Old New England architecture was high fashion and weighty institutions like the Metropolitan Museum were "preserving" old historic houses by buying and displaying bits of demolished buildings. Other Seacoast mansions were bought and razed. Another Portsmouth gambrel later found its way to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
The wolf was at the door. Despite local protest, the Lord House at 43 Middle Street went on the auction block on Monday noon, April 16, 1917. Judge Calvin Page, also coincidentally president of the Granite Fire Insurance, Co, was the official auctioneer. Bids came in at $500, $800, $1,000 and $1,200, and the winner was "Cappy" Stewart who purchased the building "for wrecking purposes" according to an article in the Portsmouth Herald. Stewart was best known as the owner of "houses of ill repute" in Portsmouth's infamous red light district that had previously dominated Water Street. When the houses were officially shut down in 1912, Cappy Stewart had gone into the lucrative "antiques" business, selling off pretty houses instead of pretty girls.
Re-enter John Paul Jones. Ignored by America, Jones had died quietly in Europe in 1792, but he had not yet begun to fight for his old boarding house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1906, with financial help from President Teddy Roosevelt, Jones' body was discovered under the streets of Paris. Buried in a leaden coffin, well preserved in alcohol, the corpse was autopsied, identified, and shipped to the United States in a hugely publicized event. By the time the body was finally re-interred at Annapolis in 1913, John Paul Jones was one of the most recognizable names in American history.
So in 1917 by the old Hunkins' Orchard at the ancient corner of Middle and State streets, the Colonial Revival crashed headlong into the Jones Revival. By an accident of fate, no one was injured. Popular support to save the Jones house was high. Emotional poems appeared in print, but Cappy Stewart was interested in money, and the Metropolitan Museum had plenty.
Re-enter Woodbury Langdon, not the one who bought the house from Sarah Purcell, but his grandson, Woodbury Langdon III whose father had also owned the house in the early 1800s. Stewart transferred the house, not to the Met, but to "several well known citizens who intend to preserve the building for future generations," the newspaper reported. Langdon, who was then living in New York, had quietly purchased the house.
That same year, in 1917, the Portsmouth Historical Society was formed to save the famous site. They inherited an aging building stripped bare of everything that wasn't nailed down. The Society put out a call to the people of Portsmouth to bring their historic family treasures to the new museum. People responded with vigor. Those items are still on display, much as they were when the museum opened 80 years ago. This year, back in the guest room where he dreamed great dreams, the figure of John Paul Jones stands sentinel again. His famous name protects the house, and the house preserves the fame he so passionately.
By J. Dennis Robinson
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Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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