If the passing tourist could get a good look at the General 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, they 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.
When The Devil Himself … and Unhappy Ghosts … Roamed Hampton Village