New Hampshire

Fame, Fortune, Fire and Brimstone: The Legend of Jonathan Moulton

In 1763, Jonathan Moulton of Hampton, N.H., took his prize oxen north to Portsmouth, N.H. He decorated the impressive 1,400-pound animal with a flag across his horns. It was a gift for colonial Governor Benning Wentworth.

No, Moulton insisted, he could take no payment for the animal. It was a tribute. But he would, if the governor insisted, accept a grant of land. In addition to what is now Center Harbor and Moultonbough (named in Moulton’s honor), perhaps the governor would like to give him additional property. The governor assented and gave him the property now known as New Hampton.

Yet 20 years later, Moulton – a master at ingratiating himself with those in power – would have changed loyalties and led a brigade of soldiers in the Revolutionary War. First he guarded Hampton and later supported the Continental Army at the Battle of Saratoga.

Jonathan Moulton

Portrait of Robert Rogers

Portrait of Robert Rogers

Moulton maintained his presence as a Hampton political leader from early youth to his death in 1787. Few men managed to straddle the politics of the age as well as Moulton. And few men were as reviled.

Born in 1726, Moulton came into life with little. He was indentured into labor to a cabinet maker as a child. But he soon showed a passion for business. And by adulthood, historians considered him the wealthiest man in Hampton.

Even his critics agreed he worked hard to get his start in life. New Hampshire Senator William Plumer noted in his diaries:

“By his unwearied attention in buying and selling small articles, he soon became an extensive dealer in English and West India goods. The property that he obtained from a valuable ship wrecked on Hampton Beach, gave him increased credit and business.”

The 1764 shipwreck was a considerable bone of contention. Moulton managed to seize most of the goods from the ship Saint George, which wrecked in Hampton, and used the sheriff to keep other would-be scavengers at bay.

Owner of mansions and slaves, Moulton had procured his business success at an early age. His political success stemmed from his military service in the French and Indian War, where he fought with the likes of legendary New Hampshire general Robert Rogers. He fought ruthlessly against the Indians and rose to the rank of colonel and later general. According to one story, he chased the last member of an Indian party he had routed on the frozen shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Seeing the retreating Indian headed out onto the ice, Moulton loosed his dog on the man to finish him off.

Seeing Opportunities

During the wars he discovered the opportunities for land development in central New Hampshire. He sought and received extensive grants of land in the New Hampshire interior in thanks for his service to England in the wars.

In business, Moulton was a ruthless as he was in war.

Plumer wrote of him: “The instances of his fraud and deceit, injustice and oppression are numerous; he has reduced many families from affluence to beggary. For 20 years he has been a constant suitor in the courts of law, where he has often attempted to corrupt judges, bribe jurors, suborn witnesses, and seduce the counsel employed by his opponents. I have evidence of his conveying a right of land to a judge who was to decide the title to that and all the other lands that he claimed in that township. The fact was discovered, and the judge never decided the case. I know an instance of his making liberal promises to an influential juryman.”

Despite his questionable business practices, Moulton served as Hampton’s town moderator and representative to the legislature for many years. When President George Washington made his way to New Hampshire on his celebratory tour to thank his supporters, he stopped at Moulton’s home to pay his respects. But Moulton had already died.

Barnburner

Jonathan Moulton steamrolled most people he met in court. Not so with Jonathan Swett, his neighbor and fellow veteran from the French and Indian War. When Swett and Moulton tangled in court, Moulton won. But in following years Moulton’s barn would be burned down four times. Though he suspected his neighbor started the fires, Moulton could never make a case stick.

By the end of his life, Moulton complained that he could no longer get justice in the courts. Unable to sell his 80,000 acres of lane, he overextended himself and his debtors were driving him into poverty.  His political allies wouldn’t help. And as Plumer pointed out, it may simply have been that he had cheated so many people he could no longer get a jury to side with him.

Plumer recalled that at the time of his death, Moulton was reviled:

“It was in the later marsh season. September 18, 1787, and the haymakers were working on the extensive salt marshes between Hampton village and the Merrimack River. My grandfather, who remembered it well, assured me that the news of Moulton’s death ran across the meadows as fast as a bird can fly, repeated from one gang of rakers to another. — “The old devil’s dead!” Perhaps his memory has suffered unjustly, but such was the fact.”

Legends of Jonathan Moulton

Moulton died and was buried in an unmarked grave. But his legend was just getting started. In the years that followed three legends arose about him.

  1. The first legend held that Moulton got his wealth by selling is soul to the devil. In the story, Moulton made a deal that the devil would fill a boot with gold for him each month that he lived. Moulton procured the largest boot in the state of New Hampshire for the purpose, and when that proved inadequate he cut the sole out of the boot and placed it on the floor over the top of a hole he bored into the room below, thereby tricking the devil into filling the room with gold.
  2. Suspicious gossipers said that after his burial, someone opened his coffin and found no body. The devil took it and replaced it with gold coins.
  3. The third and final legend held that Moulton was so cheap he stripped his first wife of her wedding ring upon her death from smallpox. He later gave it to his second bride. But one night the ghost of his first wife returned to his home to reclaim her ring from the new wife.

This last legend was immortalized by the writer John Greenleaf Whittier in The New Wife and The Old. For more about Jonathan Moulton, visit Hampton’s Lane Memorial Library’s page dedicated to his story. This story was updated in 2021.

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