Here to return to
A TERM of the Court of Common Pleas was always held in the town in the month of September, and “court week” was a regular time of holiday for the pupils of the higher schools. Some of us attended upon these solemn proceedings with extraordinary interest, especially when criminal cases were before the court. I know not how it is, but suppose it to be the expected revelation of incidents, as in the plot of a novel, which draws crowds together, in most uncomfortable contiguity in a courtroom, whenever a culprit, especially one of more than usually notorious antecedents, is put upon his trial. While most of the old-fashioned lawyers of the Essex Bar were more than respectable for professional acquisitions and legal skill, there were persons among them of distinguished ability and character; and real eloquence seldom fails to prove peculiarly fascinating to youthful hearers. Who could forget, for example, with what rapt attention he listened, at a somewhat later date, to the glowing language and was stirred by the honest warmth of Salton stall, incapable by nature of attempting to make the worse appear the better reason; or watched that marvel, the matchless ingenuity of Choate, whose faculties shone brightest, the more apparently hopeless was the cause at stake; or thrilled with profound admiration, under the resistless influence of Webster’s force and closeness of argument, rising, with due occasion, to the highest point of eloquent illustration, when some more than usually important matter for adjudication by the court called him from the ordinary sphere of his great practice to the forum of a comparatively inferior tribunal.
Years afterwards, when I had the honor of a place at that Bar, I was much struck with the testimony of a respectable witness, a farmer named Sheldon, who lived near Beverly Corner, upon an indictment of a fellow for burglary, in entering Mr. Sheldon’s house by night and taking the money from his pockets in his sleeping chamber without disturbing the occupants. One of the earliest questions proposed to him was, “How did the robber gain entrance to the house?” and, by the way, the man had been previously employed as a laborer by the farmer. “I suppose he came in by the usual way,” was the answer. “He came in by the door, do you mean?” “Yes.” “How did he get it open?” “I suppose he lifted the latch.” “Do you mean to say, that the door was not fastened?” “Yes I do; we never fasten it.” The culprit was convicted upon various satisfactory testimony; but the incident betokens a state of security, at that period, and a rarity of flagitious offences, which puts to shame the demoralization of our own day.
For the house in question stood on the high road and was scarcely more than half a mile distant from a populous neighborhood, and within less than three miles of a town with many thousands of inhabitants.
Strangely enough, considering the want of precaution on the part of the farmer, coming down, doubtless, from a still simpler period of social life, not half a mile from Mr. Sheldon’s house stood a solitary habitation upon a desolate tract of land, and also near the highway, which at a time not long subsequent had acquired a very evil reputation; and with this house became connected circumstances which some may think scarcely admit of the solution of merely accidental occurrence. At the autumnal term of the court just indicated, when I had become a young practitioner at the bar, a certain vixenish old beldam was put upon trial for the offence of maintaining this ill reputed establishment. Her demeanor was singularly exceptional; for she did not scruple to interrupt the proceedings with the most fluent billingsgate, and upon receiving sentence berated the presiding judge in language betokening an extraordinary depth of desperate hardihood. Inquiry revealed the fact, that her solitary house, standing upon an elevated plain of some extent, the ground rising from the shores of Wen-ham Lake, in front but little removed from the road, and the space in its rear interspersed with scattered groups of funereal pines, had been the resort of various desperadoes, several of whom had suffered punishment for their crimes, and one of them had not long before committed suicide in jail, to escape public execution for a most atrocious murder.
Late one day, in the beginning of the following Spring, I happened to be called upon to proceed to Boston, distant some forty miles, upon the sudden requirement of certain business to be transacted the next morning in the city. It was before the railway was in operation, and to accomplish the object in view I was to drive this considerable distance in a chaise, at night and alone. I was accustomed to this mode of locomotion, in my attendance upon the several sessions of the courts in the county, and the idea of fear never entered my mind. Accordingly, starting about dusk, at half past ten o’clock of a starlit night, I had reached a point in the journey where the road rises by a gentle ascent to the plain, on which stood “the house of evil counsel.” All at once, the scene and the narrative of the previous Fall flashed upon my mind. Before leaving home, I had bethought myself of a brace of pistols in my possession, which I had loaded and placed in the pockets of my overcoat. And now comes the remarkable circumstance to which I have already referred. These weapons had been borrowed of a friend, months before, when in the midst of an unusually exciting election for a member of congress, continuing some two years, and stirring up extraordinary rancor in the minds of some of the partisans of the several candidates, I had been threatened with violence, if I should attend the polls. I had notified my opponents that I should vote at a certain hour, on the appointed day, and placed these pistols in my pocket, by way of defence; but nothing inconsistent with my freedom of political action in fact occurred. This was the only time in my life that I had carried such implements, which were then put aside in the drawer of a bureau, and I have never thought it worth while to take them since, except on the occasion now referred to. I had thus provided myself with them, on an entirely different occasion, and took them with me, on a sudden thought, as I was about to proceed on my journey, more in the spirit of youthful bravado, than with any other motive; for the roads, at that period, were considered perfectly safe, by night as well as by day. As I have remarked, the thought of the shrewish and abandoned old woman, of her house and its evil companions, occurred to me, as my horse slowly ascended the rising ground towards the plain. In a few minutes I was in the neighborhood of a habitation which I looked upon rather with detestation than any emotion of alarm; when what was my astonishment to behold a man — the sound of the wheels of the chaise being doubtless audible at some distance in the clear, still night — come out of the gate in front of the house and station himself in the middle of the somewhat narrow highway. In fact, the stranger was within a rod of the vehicle, and must either be driven over or move out of the way. At this unexpected encounter, I own that my heart, as the saying is, jumped into my mouth; but I instantly drew and cocked my pistol, and the click probably disturbing the nerves of my proposed assailant, he turned aside without offering further molestation. In a few minutes, the lamps of the mail-stage, as it turned Beverly Corner on its way eastward, were a grateful spectacle, and my onward journey was pursued without other adventure. The driver of that stage afterwards informed me, that the trunks strapped to the rear of their coaches had more than once been cut off in that very neighborhood, and that on one occasion beams had been placed in the road so that the carriage would have been overturned, unless they had been discovered in time, and doubtless had been so placed for purposes of robbery. I inquired, why investigation did not take place on the spot; but the reply was, that the passengers were in haste to get on, were unarmed, and perhaps timid, and preferred to remove the obstacles and proceed upon their way.
The contrast, however, is striking, between the habit of a farmer to leave his door unfastened at night and the machinations of rogues not a quarter of a mile distant, who could be guilty of such crimes, I believe, however, that the existence of such a nest of villains was quite exceptional at that period, and unknown to the farmer, and that his sense of safety, without the most ordinary means of protection to his premises, was at that time the rule. The reader may draw what conclusions he pleases from the facts of my own personal narrative.
I have remarked that politics, never stagnant in our ancient communities, at the period of my story, oftentimes grew extremely warm, and then every leading citizen took his personal part. Nor is it strange that the survivors of those who had borne their share in the Revolutionary War, who had the traditions, at least, of their fathers who served with the New England troops, and followed the gallant and generous Wolfe up the formidable heights of Abraham, and after the victorious field which cost that true hero his life, stood triumphant, under the Red Cross banner, upon the subjugated ramparts of Quebec, should exhibit marked peculiarities of character; should hold fast to strong opinions; and indeed should manifest that individuality and originality of thought and action which is scarcely witnessed in the promiscuous crowd of our own tamer times. Instead of that indifference, the bane of a republic, among the upper class, the result of accumulated wealth and luxurious habits, the chief men of both parties stood at the door of the Town Hall, on days of election, distributing votes, and encouraging the timid and the doubtful, and their influence was effectively felt in the direction of public affairs, which now seem mostly to be left to the management of the least competent, and often the most ignorant, mercenary, and corrupt. I firmly believe that the equal, if not preeminent position long maintained by Massachusetts, among rivals vastly superior in territory and population, was owing to the active interest formerly taken by her leading men of all professions and occupations in the politics of the day, and that thus the sources of political well being were kept comparatively pure. At present, these men take their political opinions from the newspaper they read, and trouble themselves very little further about a matter in which their own stake, one would think, would rouse them to exertion, from the promptings of enlightened self-interest, if not from the more generous emotions of public spirit.
On one occasion, when some eager dispute had arisen, as to which of the two parties actually preponderated, for the balance sometimes wavered from one side to the other, it was determined to poll the town; that is, to assemble all citizens entitled to vote in the Town Hall, to divide them personally according to their several politics and by actual count to ascertain which was the strongest in point of numbers. I happened to be present, as a boy who heard political questions discussed with animation at home, and was curious to witness the scene, which was one really of the intensest interest. The selectmen occupied their tribune, at the head of the Hall, and the meeting was presided over by their chairman, a man of imposing height and general personal development, with flowing white locks, who commanded the respect of all parties. His father had been a soldier of Wolfe, and he and his associates were on the Federal side. When the parties were arranged for the enumeration, one worthy individual, who kept the principal tavern of the town, stood hesitating, at the end of the hall, between the two files; for, in fact, both parties of necessity made use of his house, by turns, in commemoration of some public event, or for festive purposes, which, to tell the truth, were frequently coming round; for the liquor was both better and cheaper than in these degenerate days. I shall never forget the start which the sonorous voice of the chairman gave me, as he bawled out, — “None of that, Jenkins; we can’t have any shirking here; you must take one side or the other,” — and he did, amidst the tumultuous laughter with which the Hall resounded. The contest was a good-natured one, and I have no doubt which party proved victorious, considering that the prevailing sentiment of the town was pretty well evidenced by the political leanings of the Board; but at this late day it is of little consequence to authenticate the fact.
The father of the sturdy chairman had set up the tavern, after returning from the expedition to Quebec, which he called the WOLFE HOUSE, in memory of his commander, General James Wolfe, who is presented in such a pleasing light in Thackeray’s “Virginians,” and, as a noble-minded man and true hero, deserved all which could be said in his praise. In after days, and I believe it is still there, the sign was suspended in front of the hotel, which took the place of that destroyed by the “Great Fire.” The brave general wore his red coat and cocked hat, all through the War of the Revolution and that of 1812-14, without molestation from colonial rebels, or Yankees fighting against the mother country, by land and by sea. The tavern was kept for a long time by a shrewd and active host, who had a keen eye to the main chance. Among his dinner guests were farmers who attended market, and others, content to take their meals at half price, after the chief company had finished that repast. Of these was one Major Muncheon, somewhat celebrated for his remarkable powers of making away with whatever the table furnished. One day, Wilkins, the host, who was addicted to a slightly nasal intonation, addressed him, when he had just risen from his seat, — “Major, I can’t dine you any more for twenty-five cents.” “Why not?” asked the well-satisfied trencherman. “I tell you, Major,” said his host, “the very vegetables you’ve eaten cost two and three pence” (37 1/2 cents), “saying nothing of the meat and pies.” “Pho! Wilkins,” remonstrated the farmer, “it’s only the second table.” “Second table!” replied the host; “why, Major, if you had sat down to the first table, there wouldn’t have been no second.”
But if parties in those times were often hotly opposed, there was one occasion, every year, when a broader sentiment of patriotism warmed the hearts of all in the fellowship of a common cause. The Anniversary of Independence was duly commemorated by appropriate exercises for considerably more than half a century in our spirited town, and with a general loosening of party ties on the occasion, until the War of 1812, when the parties conducted separate celebrations, though the orators were always only too apt to tighten them again by untimely political allusions, in the narrower sense of the phrase. 1
1 Of all these productions I have seldom seen one equal to the printed sermon preached by Rev. Mr. Murray, of our Old South Church, upon the Proclamation of Peace; * for its array of various interesting information upon the condition and prospects of the country, and for soundly patriotic views, enforced with fervid and striking eloquence. In one respect, it could scarcely be surpassed. We have heard of the protracted discourses of the old Puritan divines, in both countries with which most of us claim origin, and like them Mr. Murray’s sermon must have consumed at least two hours and a half in the delivery. He was educated at Edinburgh and was no doubt a native of Scotland.