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No one messed with
the King's Attorney

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By Charles W. Brewster

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

The Buckminster House - Occupants - Nathaniel Warner's disappointment - Lettice Mitchel - Wyseman Claggett - The marriage - Domestic troubles - Sketch of life - Official acts - Character.

THERE is little need of travelling over the regions of imagination to get a touch of the romantic. Were the history of the past in Portsmouth fully written, as brought forward in the reminiscenses of our old mansions which have numbered their century of years, there would be enough to make several interesting volumes. Almost every old house has its traditionary story, as yet unwritten, and in time destined to pass into forgetfulness. Perhaps it were better that some should so pass.

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The Buckminster House

The house on Islington street, nearly opposite the Academy, where Mrs. Tompson has for several years kept a boarding-house, has recently been made a new house, by its present owner, George Tompson, who has shown excellent taste in carefully preserving its original exterior appearance. It was for many years the residence of Col. Eliphalet Ladd, and of his widow, afterward the wife of Rev. Dr. Buckminister. Before Ladd's removal to this town it was at different times occupied by Clement Storer, Daniel R. Rogers and John Wendell, the father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. About eighty years ago it was owned and occupied by Nathaniel Nichols, who then owned and improved the distillery which stood on the spot where the Concord depot is now located. He was the uncle of Rev. Dr. Nichols, late of Portland. The house was built in 1720 by Daniel Warner, who came from Ipswich, Mass. His son, Jonathan Warner, was born here in 1726.

Prominent among the belles of the time, a lady of great beauty, was Miss Lettice Mitchel (a daughter of Dr. Mitchel, who then resided in the house No. 19, South street), to whom Nathaniel Warner was engaged, and for whom his father designed this good structure, which (with all its antique fixtures) has ever been a public ornament. Mr. Warner made a voyage to Europe for his health, leaving his lady-love to shine in the brilliant circle of which she was a prominent star, intending on his return to make her the occupant of this large house.

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Lettice Mitchel : The Stolen Bride

In that age the appendages of royalty extended to this side of the Atlantic. The officers of the crown were decked in such regalia as simple republicanism would now look upon with astonishment. In 1758, there was a new officer located in Portsmouth, who bore the title of King's Attorney. His name was WYSEMAN CLAGETT. The King's Attorney was a single man, and made quite an excitement in the first circles. Among all the ladies, none was so attractive as the beautiful Lettice Mitchel. She was pleased with the attentions given her, but she had pledged her affections to another. The officer of the King, in his glorious apparel, was, however, to the mother too strong an allurement, and her persuasion overcame her daughter's better feelings, and in the year 1759, at the early age of eighteen years, before the return of Mr. Warner from Europe, she was united in marriage to Wyseman Clagett. Warner returned--he could love no other--and he died, it is said, of a broken heart.

We will now introduce the reader to another house of historical interest, next east of the Cutter house, now owned and occupied by Miss Leavitt. It was for some years occupied by her father--previously by John Abbott, about fifty years ago by J. Tufts Pickering--and for twenty years before that time by George Doig, a painter. This house was formerly occupied for several years by Wyseman Clagett, who removed to this place from the Hart house, corner of Daniel and Penhallow streets, after the fire of 1761. But this house was far from being the scene of that happiness which Lettice's mother had anticipated for her. The King's Attorney, in his official capacity, was in the main just, but his decision was marked with that severity which made him a terror to evil doers, and even to some who did well. In his domestic relations, all his decision and severity were brought into requisition. Being congratulated by a companion for having married a fortune, he replied, "I have not married a fortune, sir, I have only married one of Fortune's daughters, a Miss-Fortune." This early prophetic idea he seemed to carry through life. He would permit nothing to be done in the house without his special order and direction; and if everything was not to his liking, the most violent demonstrations would be made. The washing and fresh sanding of a room without his order, has been met with a command for the servant to scatter mud or snow over the floor. For putting vinegar on the table in a cream pitcher instead of a cruse, his wrench of the table cloth scatters the whole contents of the table on the floor.

The idea that his wife's affections rested on her first love, was a source of constant irritation to him, and brought with his other rough treatment the taunt,--"This is to pay Warner's debts." Two of their children were sent to school for a quarter, but attended only a week. Mrs. Clagett called on the teacher to pay for the quarter. The teacher declined receiving full pay. "You must take it," was the reply, "or I shall never dare to see his face again." Thus, through fear, she was in a constant state of unhappy bondage. They had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Judge Clifton Clagett of Amherst, was one of them. Wyseman was born in Bristol, Eng., in 1721, and died at Litchfield, N. H., in 1784. His lady lived six years a widow, and afterwards married Simon McQueston, and died at Bedford in 1827, aged eighty-five.

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The King's Attorney

In the discharge of the duties of his office, the King's Attorney was loyal to his sovereign; but when the British Parliament passed the "Stamp act," and other oppressive laws against the rights of the Colonies, he was among the foremost to remonstrate. With Warner, Adams, Rindge, Hale, Peirce and Sherburne, he was appointed by the town "to give particular instructions to Representatives" (Dec. 2d, 1765). In these instructions they complain of the Stamp act and the danger of liberty.

He was a most persevering searcher out of petty offences against the dignity of the crown and peace of the province. There was no escape for the violater of the law, and the statutes against small offences were executed in their utmost rigor. In common parlance the word "Clagett" became synonymous with the word "prosecute," and "to be Clagetted" meant the same thing as "to be prosecuted."

There is one anecdote related of the King's Attorney which would seem to indicate, that however just he might be in administering for the King, he could swerve a little when self-interest and irritation prompted. There was one day a load of wood on the parade for sale. The man would not part with it for the sum offered. The Attorney, in a state of irritation, went home, and told one of his servants to go and insult that man, and report what he said or did. The man did as he was told--for none who lived with him dared do otherwise. The irritated teamster, with an oath and a threat, shook his goad at the man. A complaint was at once made, the man summoned before the King's Attorney, charged with using profane language. He appeared trembling before the throne which Clagett had erected in his office, on which, in his judicial wig, he presided with magisterial dignity, with the clerk's seat on one side and the shetiff's on the other. The poor man begged his honor's pardon and asked forgiveness. "I heartily forgive you," was the reply. The man began to retire. "Stop, stop, sir--I forgive you, but the law don't. You are found guilty of profanity, and fined five dollars." "0h dear, sir, my load of wood, which I brought in to raise the means for paying my taxes, will not sell for so much, and I have nothing else--what shall I do!" "Your case," said the King's Attorney, "is indeed a hard one, and in pity for you, you may drive the load of wood into my yard, and I will make up the balance of the fine myself." The favored man left his wood as directed.

As every Quixote has his squire, so Clagett had in a town constable, an associate of congenial spirit. At times they were low in purse. One day the constable called, to see if he could find a job. "Nothing to do--and what is worse, nothing to eat," said the King's Attorney. The constable goes into a hotel in Water street, and finding two sailors with their bowls of toddy on a table, he takes up one bowl and drinks it off. The sailor of course applies his fists to him. The constable retires, and has the sailor arrested for assault and battery, and summoned before the Attorney's throne. A sufficient fine is imposed to put them in funds for the day.

Many like anecdotes are told of him, but these are suftficient to show the man, and excite the wonder of the reader that one of so pure character, sound morals, and excellent political standing as his son, the Hon. Clifton Clagett, should have had such a parentage. The coat-of-arms, now in possession of the family, shows the ancestry of the "Clagett family" four generations back of Wyseman, commencing with Robert Clagett, of Malling, Kent, Eng., and in the descent is said to be connected to some of the nobility. His father, Wyseman Clagett, was a barrister at law--occupied a large estate at Bristol, called the Manor of Broad Oaks, had a mansion with twelve chimneys, lived in style, kept a coach and not less than eight servants. He died bankrupt.

Hon. Charles H. Atherton, of Amherst, who was personally acquainted with Wyseman, the son, says:-- "His person was tall and robust, his countenance stern and severe, with a strong brow, devouring black eyes, and a voice like Stentor himself. He also had a peculiar convulsive twitch of the mouth, by which it was drawn to the ear, as if he would engulph it, accompanied by a strong muscular motion of his bushy brow, and a snap of the eye, appalling to the beholder, and indicative of anything but placidity and mildness. With this forbidding exterior, however, he was a wit, fond of conviviality and not insensible to the charms of female beauty.

"When he moved to Litchfleld, he was the proprietor of a fall-back chaise, which went to decay, and was never replaced, an indifferent pony became his only aid for travel. When on horseback, as the writer has seen him, with his full bottomed white wig, his cocked hat, still retaining some remnants of its gold lace, and his coat bearing evidence of its antiquity, as well as of the original excellence of its texture, he exhibited a striking picture of dilapidated importance." The children sustained an unexceptionable respectability in life.



Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by SeacoastNH.com
Design Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com

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