The Devilish Fall of General Moulton
The "New Hampshire Faust"
We New Englanders own Fall. It is our one original season against which all others pale. Trees scream, blood thickens, shadows lengthen and the moon swells. Sensing cold wintry death, life crackles in Fall. The dry air conducts high voltage scent and sound. For New Englanders, this is the time to gather fuel, press cider, batten hatches, fill larders and woo lovers before the inevitable long hunkering down.
New England literature is no less dramatic, colorful and grim. Tales of Poe, Hawthorne, Irving and others weave Fall so tightly into New England's Puritan culture that the people appear inseparable from the season. It is a literature of forced balance in which those who aim high are inevitably brought low. "What ye sew, so shall ye reap" -- is not just a farmer's maxim around here, but a law of Nature and the Word of a compassionate, yet vengeful God. The Puritan God is a God of Fall who follows a bountiful harvest and gorgeous autumn scenery with an icy killing season.
No writer does New England legends better than 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier and no Whittier character is more compelling than General Jonathan Moulton (1726-1787) of Hampton, New Hampshire. If ever a man deserved a sudden fall after an abundant harvest -- this was the man -- the folk tales imply.
Resourceful and ambitious, Moulton became the wealthiest man in town, some say in the state of New Hampshire. Only a man who had sold his soul to the devil could grow so rich so rapidly townspeople whispered. He built a grand mansion in a poor Puritan town. When it burned down suddenly in 1769, legend claimed, the devil had taken revenge on Moulton. When Moulton rebuilt the mansion and, at 50, married the 36-year old friend of his recently dead wife -- a wife who had born him 11 children -- the rumors flew. When the General died at 61 his body was reportedly not found in the coffin. The devil, any reasonable person might conclude, had carried him away.
Fascinated by New Hampshire and by the trendy study of spiritualism, Whittier often combined Hampton and the supernatural in his wildly popular ballads. A hundred years after Moulton's death, the poet published "The New Wife and the Old". In the poem Moulton's second wife Sarah Emery wakes on her wedding night to discover the ghost of her former friend Abigail who had died less than a year before of smallpox. The first wife had come to reclaim her wedding ring, given to the second Mrs. Moulton by her penurious husband.
It's a powerful image -- the glowing white wife, clattering up the mansion stairs, reclaiming her jewelry after 28 years of marriage, peeling the ring off her best friend's hand while Moulton snores nearby, then disappearing under the wedding bed. Equally powerful is the often-told tale of Moulton and the devil. Here the wealthy Hampton land-owner agrees to give up his soul when Beelzebub offers to fill his boots with gold doubloons each month. Always the businessman, the fictional Moulton has larger and larger boots made, which he hangs just inside the fireplace. Each month they are found full of gold which the devil has deposited down the chimney. Finally, propelled by greed, Moulton tricks the devil by cutting holes in the bottom of the boots so that the money spills out filling the kitchen so deep with coins that the door cannot be opened. It is only when the devil discovers he has been duped that he sets fire to the Moulton home. In reality, Moulton, his family and guests, barely escape the blaze.
The legends serve both literary and social functions. They are macabre and leveling, allowing those citizens who Moulton outstripped to explain away his success. They restore balance. Men who gain wealth, love and power will certainly be brought low because cheaters never prosper. The wheel of fortune, so obvious in all the works of Shakespeare, always comes around. It's as inevitable as the circling seasons of New England.
Indeed Jonathan Moulton has been so completely consumed by tabloid folklore that it's hard to imagine him outside the context of a Halloween campfire tale. His second house, restored at the turn of the century and privately owned, still stands in Hampton. The Moulton legends were so strong after his death, that the next owner had the building officially exorcised by clergymen. It stood abandoned through much of the 19th century and known to locals as "the haunted house." Such is the power of a New England fall and the dominance of feelings over fact.
The historical Jonathan Moulton, for the record, was descended directly from the colonial settlers of Hampton. He spent his entire childhood as an indentured worker, and purchased his own freedom. The flesh and blood Moulton marched hundreds of miles to fight at Louisburg, then later at Saratoga. Like wealthy John Langdon of Portsmouth, he organized the raid of Fort William and Mary, served on the Committee of Safety, at the Continental Congress and served consistently in state government. He owned mills, a store and lots and lots of land. When George Washington visited the Seacoast two years after Moulton's death, he made a point of stopping to see the house of his former general. Moulton was one of the country's first big real estate speculators, turning ten's of thousands of acres of Lakes Region land into New Hampshire towns in what is today the Moultonborough area.
Those who value their status in society and history can learn from Moulton's mistakes. Politicians and dot-com millionaires take heed. First of all, watch whom you step on as you climb. Moulton didn't need the devil's money. He and a partner made plenty when they negotiated salvage rights to a beached British ship loaded with goods. Whether they paid off the pilot who wrecked the vessel is unknown. (When he returned to England two decades later, the ship captain was reportedly drawn and quartered.) But in rigidly enforcing his legal right to salvage and hogging all the booty, Moulton apparently alienated locals who were forced to give up what they too had taken from the wrecked ship. That annoyed a lot of Hampton citizens, and as declared witch Goody Cole discovered 100 years earlier - angry Hampton citizens are dangerous. Like Gen. John Sullivan of nearby Durham, Moulton was highly litigious and never missed a chance to sue for money he believed was due him. That ticked people off too.
Secondly, don't suck up to the wrong people. With the American Revolution in the wind, most locals were not terribly fond of wealthy British Governor Benning Wentworth of Portsmouth. Moulton, however, curried his royal favor, naming his fifth son Benning. In another grand gesture, Moulton marched his fattest ox all the way to Portsmouth as a gift to the governor. The 1,400-pound beast, draped in flowers, led by slaves and wearing a flag between his horns could not have been missed by the jealous locals. In return Moulton got an additional 18,000 acres of land near Moultonborough. A recent granite memorial was erected to Moulton at Hampton's Pine grove Cemetery, but his remains remain missing.
Thirdly, don't flaunt it. Moulton's Hampton mansion was the most amazing house in town. It was reportedly the first of its kind in the region decorated with costly white paint, imported from Britain. Amazingly, after toadying up to the English royal governor, Moulton managed to become a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary. He was among the first to sign a patriotic loyalty oath and fought with distinction in the American Revolution. Yet he is the only high-ranking NH war hero of that era whose grave site remains unknown. It is assumed he was buried near his first wife Abigail, in a field that was later plowed up by farmers and covered with a railroad track.
Finally, honor the dead and don't mess around. When Abigail Moulton died of smallpox after nursing local victims of the disease, she was buried not far from the mansion. Legend says her husband neglected to raise a tombstone in her honor, and recycled her considerable jewelry over to his second wife. Although Moulton was just 14 years older than Sarah, poet Whittier exaggerated her youth and his age in the famous poem. Benning Wentworth was 60 when he married his 30-ish housekeeper around the same time. That May/December wedding was turned into a poem by Whittier's colleague Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The Yankee message is always the same: don't monkey with Mother Nature. An obedient New Englander takes each season patiently n its turn. When Summer arrives in all its brief splendor, a true Yankee gets nervous. It's too good to last, we know, and so follows Fall, wonderful Fall. That month should carry a Yankee trademark (™) symbol. That's the month that reminds us what life is really all about. Around here, it's all about balance. Don't get too excited, too cocky, too happy, too rich, too lucky. If you do, the neighbors might just make up nasty tales about you, and some poet will come along and get the facts all wrong. Then they'll bury you out behind the old house without even a tombstone to mark your passing -- and the devil will have his due.
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox, Hampton Historical Society, Lane Library, early original books about Whittier and a 1930s tourism brochure called "The Seacoast Region of New Hampshire".
SOURCE: For the most complete coverage of Gen. Moulton, his legends and his home check the Lane Library web site in Hampton, NH
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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