Crime and Scandal

The Mysterious Death of Henry Sherburne in 1680

Henry Sherburne House, Portsmouth, N.H. (Photo by Magicpiano)

What records exist show that Henry Sherburne was a prosperous, early settler of Portsmouth, N.H. From a well-established family in England, he received a good education before coming to New England in 1632 as a pioneer.

His education served him well. He quickly became a large landowner, town clerk and selectman in the 1640s to 1660s. In 1644 he was appointed judge at Portsmouth and later associate justice by Massachusetts. He was great grandfather to Tobias Lear, George Washington’s secretary. His name is on one of Portsmouth’s most luxurious houses from the period.

Henry Sherburne House, Portsmouth, N.H. (Photo by Magicpiano)

Henry Sherburne House, Portsmouth, N.H. (Photo by Magicpiano)

Yet Sherburne’s life had a more boisterous side. He was active in laying out land into lots in Portsmouth, and more than once this brought him into court to settle differences of opinion involving land ownership. He also appears in court records giving testimony regarding a case of slander.

In 1667, Sherburne’s first wife, Rebecca Gibbons, died. Three years later in 1670 he remarried, to widow Sarah Abbott. The Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire notes that the couple kept a home that was “not always serene.”

In 1665, agitators in New Hampshire were attempting to rid themselves of oversight from Massachusetts. Sherburne was summoned to Massachusetts to answer for himself, facing accusations of sedition.

And in 1671, Sherburne appears in a case involving a fight. Thomas Avery, a witness, said Sherburne and John Keniston had engaged in a brawl early in the winter of 1670. Keniston had been in trouble with the courts and had settled on property in Greenland.

Avery reported seeing the start of the argument and witnessed Sherburne challenging Keniston to step outside. Sherburne’s wife then fetched him, and he found Sherburne outside: “I went out and Sherburne’s face was black as if he had been grievously beaten and I took him up.  But I saw not any blows between them." Keniston would later be killed by Indians in 1677 and his house burned.

Sherburne, meanwhile, survived the fight, but he had another enemy looming. Edward Bickford and his wife Mary had bought property in the Sagamore Creek area of Portsmouth. They ran a licensed tavern and farm.

The Bickfords relations with Sherburne entered their final phase in 1680. Sherburne sued Bickford for damage done to his property by Bickford’s livestock – cattle, horses and pigs. A jury cleared Bickford. Sherburne made a second complaint against Bickford. This time he charged that Bickford’s children were stealing pears.

Within months, Sherburne was dead. The authorities declared that Sherburne’s death was suspicious. The Bickfords were called to the court at Dover to answer questions about Sherburne’s death, but records show the court could reach no conclusion. The Bickfords were “set at liberty” until such time as the court had more evidence.

Sherburnes’s death was left unexplained, "by some strange accident being taken.”

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