Here to return to
I SHOULD scarcely deem it expedient to enter at much detail into the eccentricities of our good townspeople, though it seems to me that in our own street I could recall enough to make a pretty sizable volume.
But one feature of the times deserves a passing notice. I refer to the inconsiderable number of insane persons, compared with the sad increase of that unfortunate class in our own day, and the manner in which they were treated. Of course, a more widely extended population multiplies the sum of every description of disease. Besides, our ancestors were a hardier race than their descendants, more inured to the regular routine of physical toil, less given than the men and women of the present day to hurtful indulgence, and far less exposed to the disturbing excitements of business and pleasure. So far as I know, there were but two really insane persons in our population of some seven or eight thousand, though doubtless certain others were more or less “light-headed.” One of those two was sullenly crazy, and accounted dangerous, and therefore subjected to physical restraint; the other, generally harmless, roamed through the town at his own will, calling occasionally upon the acquaintance of his better days, and making magnificent promises of the benefits he intended to bestow, “when his ship came in.” If I had inherited only a moderate dividend of the proceeds of the successive ships and their cargoes, which he promised my mother, on the above favorable contingency, usually calling her out from dinner to whisper to her these magnificent promises, more to her alarm than satisfaction, though being a woman of spirit she put a brave face upon it — I should look down upon a Rothschild, an Astor, or a Vanderbilt with natural contempt. Sometimes, incarceration was thought necessary, also, in his case; and I have a vivid recollection of the place of confinement allotted to each patient.
This was in the yard of the almshouse, for state and county asylums had not then been thought of, and the strong wooden building in which they were placed consisted of two apartments, perhaps twelve feet square, one above and the other beneath the surface of the ground; the latter, in fact, a dungeon with one barred window on a level with the yard. Here they passed their gloomy hours as they might, in solitude and darkness, scarcely relieved by light from without, with nothing to alleviate the horrors of their condition, and probably considered in a state too hopeless to admit of any remedy. The tenant of the upper cell was comparatively lively, on the occasion of resort to his window for conversation, or out of curiosity, which was freely permitted; but his neighbor in the dungeon was dangerous; and I can never forget the terror inspired by a sudden and vicious attempt made by him to seize the legs of us children through the bars, as we stood conversing with the inmate of the room above. Science and humanity have done very much, in modern times, toward the restoration of such unhappy beings, who are in a majority of cases susceptible of cure, or of improvement enough to warrant their return to domestic life. But it is to be feared we are yet far behind, in this country, the more enlightened and effectual methods pursued for this purpose in some other civilized nations.
On one side of the street above alluded to lived for a long time, in my boyhood, an ancient shoemaker entirely alone; and as he guarded his residence with great secrecy and sold none of his wares, curious people were puzzled to understand how he supported existence. He was known to be partially deranged. Mischievous boys, sometimes, gathered in numbers, would often assail his door with stones, standing ready for a start. But if they were on the watch, so was Pettengill, from previous experience, waiting behind his door with a heavy wooden bar in his hand, and giving instant chase to the flying urchins, would send the bar rattling at their heels. One day, after a season of unusual quiet, one of our lads anxious to penetrate his mystery, ventured to knock gently at the barred portal, was admitted, and expressed his wish to purchase a pair of shoes. The old man opened several chests containing the articles sought for, and finally selected a pair which proved a fit; but upon his visitor’s making known his readiness to buy, the maker deliberately returned them to their receptacle, locked it fast and gravely declared, that he did “not like to part with them, for fear of spoiling his assortment.”
The next building was occupied by a respectable English couple as a dwelling‑place, with a small grocer’s shop in front. They had no children, except one strapping son of the old lady by a former husband, grown to man’s estate, and whose business seemed to be to lounge about the premises in drab small-clothes; for I never saw him do anything. The old lady might be seen of a morning, with iron pattens on her feet and her clothes tucked up, mopping the floor of the shop; but in the afternoon much more genteelly attired in silks of an ancient fashion. Mr. Brown was a very quiet, inoffensive person, the wife a little high-strung. It is certain that they had occasional domestic bickerings, perhaps about the young man in the knee-breeches; for on one occasion it is alleged that the old matron was overheard to address her spouse, with a slightly Hibernian accentuation, — “Brune, Brune, ye case-knife looking son of a gun! I married ye neither for love, nor for money, but the pure convanience of the shop!” As these worthy people have long ago passed away, there seems no scandal in detailing this little family incident.
Directly opposite these premises was a large old-fashioned house, still standing, and, a century before, the residence of the minister of the First Church. It was long afterwards occupied by a noted magistrate for the trial of small actions, who served many years as town-clerk, and was an energetic orator at town-meetings and in parish affairs. A culprit was once brought before him for stealing a gentleman’s set of new shirts. The fact was stiffly denied. “A pretty story,” said the accused party, “that I should take his shirts!” An official scrutiny, however, soon exhibited him standing with the half dozen articles of attire, one over another, upon his person. “What a villain! “said the astonished justice. “Why didn’t you tell me you was a villain and save the time of the court, of the witnesses, and the spectators, by owning up you were a villain, in the first place?”
The citizens of the old town were pretty thorough Puritans, by inheritance and inclination, at the middle of the last century. But the minister of the First Church was, in his day, a gentleman noted for his liberal tastes and accomplishments. He had a picture painted on a broad panel over the fire-place of his library, representing himself and several others of the cloth sitting around a table, in the full canonicals of wig, gown, and band, before each a foaming mug of ale, and each supplied with a tobacco pipe from which rolled volumes of narcotic fumes. At the top of the painting was a legend in the Latin language, of which the following is, I believe, a correct copy,—
“In essentialibus unitas, in non-essentialibus libertas, in omnibus charitas.”
They appeared to be having a jolly time, and evidently considered the slight indulgences to which they were addicted among the moral non-essentials, however necessary to their physical comfort. In this picture, which is still extant, the rules of perspective were not rigorously obeyed. In fact, the table is considerably tipped, whether supposed to result from some sudden hilarious movement on the part of the reverend compotators or owing to want of skill in the artist, I am not able to testify. Indeed, the manners of the times had not then attained their present professed strictness in regard to the use of exhilarating liquors, and I have inspected a tavern-bill rendered to the principal citizens, for articles of this sort consumed on some joyful public occasion, at a much later period, the amount of which in quantity, though not in price, would astonish a modern city council.
At the corner of the street stood an ancient tavern, the principal establishment of the kind in the place, at which in staging times all the stage-coaches from Boston and the eastward hauled up to change horses. It was kept by the father of the popular host of one of the best known of the long-established New York hotels. I well remember seeing a considerable body of British sailors halted there for refreshment, under guard, on their way to some prison in the interior, during the War of 1812. They were true British tars of the traditional type, with immense clubs of hair, tied up with eel-skins and hanging short and thick down their necks. They seemed in no wise depressed by their condition and in fact were treated extremely well, for the general feeling of the town was decidedly adverse to the war. I also remember a gathering in front of the tavern, when the evening coach was expected, with the idea of mobbing an unpopular general officer who was to pass through by that conveyance. But a better sentiment was inculcated by the more orderly portion of the assembly, and the obnoxious warrior was not molested, otherwise than by expressions of dislike, either upon alighting, or when taking his place to resume his journey. Politics ran very high at the time, almost to the entire suspension of social relations between the differing parties, — the Federalists, who opposed the war, and were accused of unpatriotic sympathy with the cause of the enemy, and the Republicans, often stigmatized as Jacobins, who were charged with the principles and designs which had given impulse to the great French Revolution. Doubtless these parties shared, on the one side and the other, in the hereditary enmity, long since allayed if not altogether extinguished, between England and France. But whatever might be the general turn of political sentiment, both sides felt a patriotic pride in the success of the American arms. Hence, it is probable, the temper of the crowd assembled to do dishonor to the unlucky general. While the Republicans were indignant at a supposed needless national disaster, the Federalists could scarcely rejoice at it; and thus the moderation of the latter tended to restrain the former from the display of any actually violent demonstration. At the same period, there was formed, among the older administration men of the day, a veteran military organization, of those beyond the ordinary age of military service, well-known locally under the significant appellation of the “Silver Greys.” The corps was composed of elderly merchants and traders and retired sea-captains, and their drills manifested at least the ambition of military prowess. Their opponents alleged that their company was formed for merely political purposes, and to overawe the town; but their own doubtless more just solution of the matter was, that their object was to aid in repelling invasion, in the unlikely case that the British troops should land upon their own borders. They gave more promise, certainly, of efficiente service, should danger arise, than could be expected of the superannuated Trojans chief of Priam’s court, as their catalogue is translated by Pope from the living record of Homer:
The town had suffered everything from the war and the interdiction of commerce in which it had been most actively engaged, preceding the event. Multitudes were absolutely ruined, and the gaunt wolf stood grinning at almost every other threshold. Among the memorials of that great struggle, it may be as well to mention the rusted cannon planted for posts at the corners of certain of the streets, the breech sunk in the ground and a bomb-shell fastened in the muzzle. At such a time, it is not strange that force occasionally took the place of law.
I could recall not a few instances in which, under the impulse of political resentment, passion got the better of judgment. One day, the marshal of the United States, in his cocked hat and with other official insignia, entered the tavern I have mentioned, in quest of a fugitive from justice. He inquired of a person whom he met in the public apartment, if he had lately seen one Captain E—, who, it seems, on some supposed provocation, had only thrown a custom-house officer into the dock in one of our eastern harbors. The person addressed by the marshal said that Captain E— had just passed down the street, and when the marshal turned to pursue the culprit, that individual, who was no other than the one just addressed, slipped out of another door, ran by the stable in the rear of the tavern and called upon Jem Knox, the hostler, to harness a chaise with all speed and to follow him forthwith in his flight. It appears, that the story of the captain’s adventure was already pretty well known in the public places of the town, and as a visit of the marshal from Boston was a very extraordinary event in a place usually so quiet, a prying character who was upon the spot asked him if he was not looking for Captain E—. Upon receiving an affirmative reply, — “That’s the man,” said he, “you have just spoken to.” The marshal started in pursuit and the captain had called out to such persons of his acquaintance as saw him running, that he was chased by a United States’ officer. Half way through the street, one Clement Starr, a stalwart Englishman, who lived at the spot and whose sympathies, political and otherwise, were with the weaker party, seized the marshal by the collar and insisted upon knowing what was the cause of the considerable tumult which the outcry — “Stop him!” had raised. Escaping this obstacle, the poor marshal was soon afterwards clasped in the vigorous embrace of a spirited matron, who stood on her door-step as he passed, and, besides being an acquaintance of the captain, was of the same political proclivities as those of the retreating mariner.
While tearing himself away from this lively lady, Knox drove furiously by, pulled up as he overtook the fugitive, who, as a witness of the affair told me, tumbled into the chaise, and was soon out of the reach of the threatening danger. Whether he was ever taken afterwards, or what became of the prosecution, I have never heard.
Not far from us lived a worthy widow, with a family of children, and on one occasion she was heard to mingle rather curiously an office of devotion with a somewhat severe threat of domestic discipline. It was a day in summer, and the windows being open, a passer-by heard her objurgation. It seems the family had assembled at the dinner-table, and her oldest son began by making premature demonstrations toward the provisions, when his mother emphatically addressed him: “You Bob Barker, if you stick your fork into that meat before I’ve asked a blessing, I’ll be the death of ye!”
There was a worthy shipmaster, also, who used to trade to Hayti, when that stalwart colored person, Christophe, was the Emperor, who used to say, “Put a bag of coffee in the mouth of h—, and a Yankee will be sure to go after it.” On one occasion, so the story ran, Captain H— complained of some insult from one of Christophe’s ragged soldiery. The fact reached the ears of that potentate, who desired to stand well with Americans, and our townsman was summoned before him. He found in the presence of the monarch the whole body of the scanty force on duty in the town. “Can you pick out the man who insulted you?” asked the sable autocrat. Captain H— pointed him out; but beginning to fear the infliction of some punishment too severe, attempted to extenuate the offence. “Stop! “cried Christophe, and called the soldier near him. “Do you say this was the man of whom you have told me?” “Yes, sir, it is,” replied the alarmed captain; “but” — In an instant Christophe had drawn his sword, and with one blow struck off the head of the unlucky culprit. The terror of the accusing party, at such a sudden and bloody consummation, may be partly imagined. He procured his clearance as soon as possible, and I believe made his future voyages to waters under a less summarily sanguinary domination.
We had also a soi-disant nobleman, of really the humblest extraction, and ignorant to a singular degree, but known by his eccentricities far and wide, who, on the score of a little money accidentally amassed, proclaimed himself; by an inscription beneath a wooden statue of himself, in front of his residence, — “LORD OF THE EAST, LORD OF THE WEST, AND THE GREATEST PHILOSOPHER IN THE WESTERN WORLD.” He decorated his court-yard with an extraordinary amount of lumber of this sort, in the shape of human beings, and dumb creatures of many sorts, each statue standing upon its separate pillar, to the intense admiration of the gaping rustics who visited the town to inspect it; and he fairly beat the Scottish Earl of Buchan, who was infected with a similar mania. Upon an arch directly opposite his front door, he had placed Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Adams, on the right, was bareheaded, and upon an inquiry by some one why this distinction was made, since Jefferson’s chapeau was in its place, the great “lord” replied: “Do you suppose I would have anybody stand at the right hand of Washington, with his hat on?” He was said, also, upon certain hilarious occasions, celebrated in a tomb which he had constructed under a summerhouse in his garden, to have indulged in the mastication of bank-bills between slices of bread and butter, doubtless to the envy of his boon companions; not, as might be inferred, of the better or richer classes, though, considering all things, it is perhaps needless to hope that these current symbols of value were a little cleaner than most of those of modern date. All this statuary rubbish, however, was long ago removed; and the house and grounds, by the taste of the present owner, have since ranked among the most pleasing objects of inspection in the town.
This notably low and singularly eccentric character, as I have remarked, fairly beat that other oddity, — in a different class of life and contemporary with him, — the Scottish Earl of Buchan, elder half-brother of Lord Chancellor Erskine. That nobleman was possessed with a passion for the busts of persons, eminent or otherwise, not dissimilar to that of our New England “lord” for wooden statuary, and perhaps was actuated by equal vanity, though a person of real literary accomplishment, and in no sense, except as mentioned, to be put in comparison with the other. He displayed to his visitors a large and most incongruous collection of these objects of art in a sort of grotto excavated in his garden, thus reversing, however, the more conspicuous procedure of his brother connoisseur, who exhibited his assemblage of rarities in his front yard. The Scottish Earl, certainly, had some literary pretensions, while the “lord” Timothy, who could neither read nor write with ordinary expertness, honored the Muses, also, by affording countenance to a poet. Whether this patronage extended to much material sustenance may be considered doubtful, since this son of Apollo generally stood in the market‑place, when not wandering away to other parts, for the disposal of his wares, dressed in semi-clerical habiliments, himself being of a singularly grave aspect, and retailed frightful ballads of his own composition, and small wares of various kinds from a basket on his arm. It is questionable whether any of these literary productions survive to the present day; and I fear that not one of them had any spark of that vitality, potent to influence popular sentiment, which Fletcher of Saltoun attributed to the songs of the people.
In the centre of this market-place — a space inclosed on all sides by various shops or stores, and for some unaccountable reason styled “Market Square,” since its irregular outline much more resembled a truncated triangle — stood the town pump, on the spot originally occupied by the meeting-house of the First Church, already mentioned. On two sides of the pump were set the wonted hand-carts of two superannuated individuals, whose gingerbread, candies, and apples were the delight of such urchins as were lucky enough to have coppers to buy with; for those convenient mediums of exchange were not too plentiful among boys in 18—, and frequently not with their parents either. These old men were the undisturbed possessors of the ground, wheeling their vehicles to the spot at early morning, and standing by them all day, though they never seemed to me to be driving a very thriving business.
But the glory of the Square was during the week before Thanksgiving, — then, as now, appointed for a day late in November, when it was often difficult to make one’s way through the throng of teams, and especially sleighs, loaded with poultry fattened for the occasion, and sometimes venison and abundance of other commodities for domestic use. The mention of sleighs leads me to recur to a former remark upon the earlier approach of winter in those times; for the employment of sleighs implies the presence of snow upon the ground; and the farmers had frequently driven from a great distance, “up country,” from parts of New Hampshire and Vermont, even from the borders of Canada, perhaps a hundred and fifty or two hundred miles and more away, to attend the market in our town; sometimes as many as a hundred loaded country sleighs, or on other occasions as many wagons, in a single day. The construction of the Middlesex Canal, connecting the waters of the Merrimack with those of the Charles, diverted the main part of this traffic to Boston; and railways finally conveyed to the capital most of the remainder which came from any considerable distance. Wistful eyes, in the presence of these heaping dainties, were sometimes averted, no doubt, from a consciousness of empty pockets; yet there were always generous hearts and bounteous hands to meet the exigencies of every neighborhood; and we may be sure that no householder of decent repute, however poor or unlucky, and probably few others, even if a little tarnished in the moral world’s esteem, lacked some kind friend who saw to it, that the accustomed turkey or chickens smoked on the board before the eyes of his hungry children on that day, at least, of all the year.
But, unless respectable legends are to be peremptorily discredited, an incident once took place in this Market Square, of which I doubt if any other New England town can show the parallel. I am about to relate a statement made to me, not many years ago, by an elderly gentleman of excellent character and standing, a justice of the peace and of the quorum, and a devout member of the Orthodox Church. The story was told with all gravity and implicit confidence in its truth; and some may think it exhibits in a striking light the extent of human credulity and the imperfection of human testimony: “My father,” said this worthy person, “has often told me of being in Market Square when a man, a woman, and a little dog appeared, and soon collected quite a crowd by the exhibition of feats of jugglery. At length, after a due collection of tribute from the standers-by, the man produced a ball of cord from his pocket, threw it into the air, and began to ascend it, hand over hand. The woman followed, and after her the little dog. While the crowd was gaping, in expectation of the return of this mysterious trio, some one drove into the market-place and inquired the occasion of this unusual congregation. Upon being informed, he said, that he had just met such a party on the road, about a mile from the town.” I had read the most extraordinary accounts, by British officers and others, of exhibitions like this, which they alleged they had often witnessed in India. I remembered one, in particular, where tigers and other unwelcome guests, and even the somewhat unwieldy bulk of an elephant, had seemingly been brought down, before their eyes, upon a cable fastened by some mysterious agency far aloft; for I suppose it behooved to be made fast in some inconceivable region of the upper air. But that a similar demonstration could have been made in a sober New England town, at noonday, could scarcely fail to “put me from my faith.” It impressed me, however, as at least an extraordinary relation, coming from such a source; and happening to meet another ancient and equally reputable friend on the same day, one, too, who had been much about the world in the capacity of a navigator to foreign climes, I took occasion to relate to him the strange narrative which I had just heard. “Oh,” said he, “there is no doubt about it; my mother has often told me she was present and saw the whole transaction.” “In the mouth of two or three witnesses,” says the Scripture, “shall every word be established.” In this case, it will be observed, the witnesses were two, but both at second-hand. I shall not vouch, therefore, for anything except that, as Scott says, “I tell the tale as ‘twas told to me,” — and it may be set down as one of these veritable legends which all persons are at liberty to reject or accept, as they please. I expect to try the faith of the reader still further before I have finished this historical sketch. People often tell us, nowadays, that vulgar superstitions are altogether things of the past. This may be so in public; but I imagine that in private there is a lurking tinge of it in every human bosom.