Moulton House and Its Ghosts

New Hampshire Ramblings With Willard de Lue -- IX

Boston Sunday Globe -- Sunday, August 17, 1952

Part I

Willard de Lue
Willard de Lue
HAMPTON VILLAGE -- "That's where the devil disappeared," said Harland Little as we stood in front of the great fireplace in the kitchen of the Gen. Jonathan Moulton house. The old mansion lies just a little back from the main highway at the south edge of the village; but trees and shrubbery hide it, and passing travelers get only a quick glimpse of its yellow, white-trimmed facade where the driveway goes in near the Drakeside road.

This house, you should know, is not the original Moulton house. The devil burned the old one down because Moulton tried to cheat him; a fact that any sober Hampton man would have vouched for 150 years and more ago.

At that time, and even in later years, the devil himself and the unhappy ghosts of Moulton and his wife were making life interesting for the folks who then lived here.

Yet the Littles -- Mr. Little, retired Salem shoe manufacturer, and his two sisters, who have owned the Moulton house for some years -- have happily neither seen nor heard anything of the old manifestations.

* * * * * * * * * *

Mr. Little, who is New Hampshire vice president of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, tells me the authorities on old houses say that the Moulton house possesses notable chimneys. I can't say that I was surprised to hear it, since one of the chimneys is that used by the devil for funneling in the gold with which he was buying Gen. Moulton's soul. That special chimney rises above a gambrel-roofed ell, where the old kitchen is.

"The original house was burned in 1768 and this was built in 1769," Mr. Little said. "But Ralph Adams Cram, who helped us restore it, thought that the ell had been an earlier house -- perhaps 100 years earlier -- which was brought in and added to the newer one." Obviously, if the fireplace is that in which the devil appeared, then the ell must be a remnant that was saved when the Devil's fire swept the old one.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now it's probably safe to assume that any time there's a story about a man selling his soul to the Devil, it will concern a very rich man.

"Moulton was supposed to be the richest man in New Hampshire, and its largest landowner," Mr. Little said when we sat talking after I'd seen how spacious and handsome a house this is. Its woodwork is superb.

One time Moulton fatted a handsome ox, drove it to Portsmouth, and presented it to his friend Benning Wentworth, the Royal Governor.

"Payment?" Ah, no! Yet Moulton would permit Wentworth to do one little thing for him. The Royal Governor already had given him a great chunk of crown lands in the area now Moultonboro in return for what appears to have been some wholly unbloody warfare against the Indians.

"There is a small gore of land adjoining mine," said Moulton,"It has never been assigned ...."

"Say no more," said Wentworth (as the story goes) -- and Moulton was richer by that "small gore" which turned out to be the 19,000 acres of present New Hampton and Center Harbor. Since other grants compassed not only present Moultonboro, but Sandwich, Tamworth, Eaton, Chatham and a few other scattered town, Moulton was doing very well for himself.

He also owned great chunks of Hampton lands, and had plenty of gold in his coffers.

* * * * * * * * * *

"At one time a British mast-ship, one of a fleet that came here and carried away the masts for vessels of the King's Navy, was wrecked near Boars Head," said Little. "She came ashore on a clear night when she was on her way from Portsmouth to Boston. Moulton and Col. Toppan were appointed salvage agents. They found £70,000 on board, in addition to the merchandise . . . and they made fortunes."

The salvaging business made Moulton a pretty unpopular man in town, for before he took over the job, the thrifty townsfolk had done some salvaging on their own account. Moulton had the constable arrest various persons who had "purloined sundry goods," whereupon (as an old account tells) "a number of evil-minded persons in a violent, riotous and tumulus manner and being disguised, did assault the officer and did beat and wound him and evilly entreat and did release the said prisoners and let them go at large."

When Moulton's pal, Benning Wentworth, then called out the militia, the folks here in Hampton damned the Colonel roundly. That was in 1764.

Mr. Little pointed out a handsome china punchbowl that stands on a cabinet in his home.

"That's one of the things the General is supposed to have got from the St. George," he said.

Little wonder then that there were whisperings that this man with a Midas touch had sold his soul to the devil for gold. Or that in later years the whisperers hinted that he had made away with his wife so that he might marry a younger women, as he did -- though that is another story.

And so, when he was dead and gone, the whisperings became the legends.

One night, it was told, he was sitting in his kitchen and contemplating his hoarded wealth, when a shower of sparks flew out from the fireplace -- and forth from the flames stepped a richly-arrayed, dark-visaged gentleman.

"The Devil," said Moulton, astounded at the sight.

"Let's mention no names," said his visitor, though very politely; and forthwith the Devil began to bargain for the Colonel's soul.

"Gold . . . gold," said the Devil. "You'll be rich beyond your dreams."

"And what assurance have I that you can give me gold?" said the Colonel -- whereupon the Devil scattered a handful of guineas about the room.

Moulton sprang up and grasped one -- only to drop it with a cry, for it was red hot.

Well, it's a long story and it is told with variations -- but, in short, the Colonel sold his soul in return for the Devil's promise to fill a pair of boots each night with gold pieces. Moulton was to hang the boots from the fire-irons in the great kitchen fireplace.

The General Moulton mansion
Notable chimneys mark the Gen.
Moulton house at Hampton.
The devil went down the largest of them.
This view is from the back of the house.
[Globe Staff Photo by Charles McCormick]
And for once, it seems, the Devil was as good as his word; for though Col. Moulton hung up the biggest and highest hip-boots he could find in Hampton, every morning found them brimming with gold.

But the richer Moulton grew, the more avaricious he became.

In the night of March 14, 1769, the Devil made his usual visit to the chimney to drop his gold pieces down it into the hanging boots -- but this night, though he dropped them and dropped them, the boots never filled.

So the Devil went down to investigate and found that Moulton had tricked him. He had cut the soles from the high boots, and as fast as the Devil dropped the gold in at the top, it rolled out at the bottom. The kitchen was knee-deep in it.

It was then that the suave Devil was no longer suave. He raved and he ranted, and he set the house on fire . . . and though it seems that the kitchen itself survived the flames, every guinea of the Colonel's gold was gone next morning. There wasn't a trace of it.

Yet he was still a wealthy man, and he built this new house 40 yards south of the one that had burned.

Yet even then the Devil wasn't done with him. For when Gen. Moulton died and the day of his funeral came, his body had vanished from the coffin, so it's said. "And the neighbors," wrote Whittier, who knew the story as a boy, "came to the charitable conclusion that the enemy had got its own at last."

(End of Part I)

Moulton House and Its Ghosts

New Hampshire Ramblings With Willard de Lue -- X

Boston Sunday Globe -- August 24, 1952

Part II

Willard de Lue
Willard de Lue
HAMPTON VILLAGE -- If the passing tourist could get a good look at the Gen Jonathan Moulton house which is practically hidden by trees near where Drakeside road runs off the Lafayette highway in the south part of the village, he would find it a very handsome old mansion . . . and also a very peaceful one.

But 150 years ago and more, ghosts were dwelling in it -- ghosts of the General and his first wife. They frightened the wits out of the servants in Col Oliver Whipple's household (he being then the owner); and even before that, there had been a horrible affair in Moulton's second-wedding night.

Not until the minister came and "laid" the ghosts was there any peace in the place.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gen Moulton -- or Colonel as he was until later life; how he got the "General" title doesn't seem to be of record -- Gen Moulton was a very wealthy man. He was so rich that inevitably the story was told that he had sold his soul to the Devil for gold; and when his house burned down everybody knew that the Devil had done it because Moulton had tried to trick him.

But the General built himself an even finer house (that which stands here now)[212 Lafayette Road] -- and his first wife having died in 1775, he married again just a year later.

The wedding was a very gay affair, it seems. Mr. Harland Little, who with his two sisters now lives in the Moulton house, handed me a letter dated Hampton Falls, Sept. 15, 1776. It was written by Nathaniel Weare (son of Gov. Weare of the Weare house, which is still there at Hampton Falls [13 Exeter Road], and is addressed to his brother Lt. Richard, who was with the American forces at Ticonderoga. Richard was afterwards killed, and the letter came back among his possessions.

"I have not much News if any to write you," began Nathaniel, in the way of letter-writers before and after him. "except that the Privateers continue to bring prizes from the West Indies bound to England. Col Moulton was married last week to Miss Sally Emery; had the honours of being at their Wedding which frolick lasted three days. . ."

Even while the gentry frolicked, the townsfolk talked -- whispering that it was mighty suspicious about the first wife's death . . . and now here he was marrying this handsome young woman. (The fact seems to be that he was 50 and she about 35.)

"And do you know what they say?" said the gossips. "They say the old skinflint -- him with all his money -- took the wedding ring off his first wife's finger before she was laid in her grave, and used it again for this new wife. And his gifts to her! What are they but his first wife's jewels!"

"No good will come of it, mark you," they said.

* * * * * * * * * *

What happened after that was left to the telling of a poet.

"I give the story," wrote John Greenleaf Whittier, "as I heard it as a child from a venerable family visitant." -- which means that he heard it probably within 30 years of Gen Moulton's death in 1789, and when the second Mrs. Moulton was only recently in her grave. She had married a North Hampton clergyman, and she died, I believe, in 1817, when Whittier was just 10 years old.

That Whittier came to know the tale of the second Mrs. Moulton's shocking experience in her wedding night is not surprisiing. His good Quaker mother and his Aunt Mercy devoured with relish every story of supernatural happenings, and managed to hear plenty of them. At one time they even tried a little sorcery on a clergyman they disliked.

Thus many a weird tale came young Whittier's way, and out of the treasury of his youth he brought forth in 1843 the Moulton wedding-story in his poem "The New Wife and the Old."

Dark the halls, and cold the feast,
Gone the bridesmaids, gone the priest,
All is over, all is done,
Twain of yesterday are one.
Blooming girl and manhood gray,
Autumn in the arms of May!

So his poem begins, and it goes on to tell how in that wedding night, when all was quiet

. . . save the breeze
Moaning through the graveyard trees,

the fair young bride awoke, to find the ghostly form of the dead first wife beside her bed.

God have mercy! Icy cold
Spectral hands her own enfold,
Drawing silently from them
Love's fair gifts of gold and gem.
"Waken! save me!" still as death
At her side he slumbereth.

Ring and bracelet all are gone,
And that ice-cold hand withdrawn;
But she heard a murmur low,
Full of sweetness, full of woe,
Half a sigh and half a moan,
"Fear not! give the dead her own."

And so it was that the ghost of the first wife came back and stripped here old jewels from the new wife's arms.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now it would be enlightening as to how legends are born if we knew (as perhaps somebody does?) whether the tale of this meeting of the two wives had its origin in some actual experience of the second Mrs. Moulton -- a dream perhaps -- or whether it was a purely fanciful thing born of the indisputable fact that later tenants of this Moulton mansion claimed to have seen ghostly visitors in it. As one of those later visitors was the first wife, a lively imagination well could have speculated on what might have happened had she been around when the new wife had come to take her place.

Col Whipple came to live here in the early 1790's, and remained about 10 years.

"His wife was one of the Gardiners of the Gardiner, Me., family," Mr. Little told me. "They were very wealthy. And the story is that they had to get out of the house of the ghosts."

To the Whipple servants the ghosts were very real. Whipple's granddaughter heard all about them from her mother.

"My grandfather Whipple being absent," she wrote, "the servants . . . insisted that Gen Moulton and his wife disturbed the house so much at night, he thumping his cane, and her dress 'a-rustling down the stairs,' that nothing could allay their terror."

Some saw only the General; but Mrs. Williams, the Whipple housekeeper, claimed that she often saw both -- even describing how the General was in a "snuff-colored suit and enormous wig, holding a gold-headed cane."

Eventually the terrified servants threatened to leave the place. And it was then that a certain Parson Melton or Milton, or perhaps Rev. John Boddily, was called in to exorcise or "lay" the spirits. If the story of Moulton's trafficking with the devil then was current, there would have been reason to think the whole business of diabolical origin.

(Mr. Little says that one version of the story is that the Bishop of Rhode Island was induced to conduct the ceremony.)

"Many persons in the vicinity came for the exorcising . . . ," wrote the granddaughter. "My mother said the scene was very impressive to her as a child, and she could never forget the white and black servants and neighbors standing in solemn awe, and the abjuring of the minister.

"The servants, I believe, never complained of being disturbed or of seeing the ghosts, after this ceremony."

And Mr. Little, too, assures me that they are gone.

(End of Part II)
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