November 23, 2015

The Devil and Jonathan Moulton

I was going to write something about Thanksgiving this week, but I found myself inspired to write about something the exact opposite: the Devil. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, sharing and love. The Devil is about greed, hatred, and trickery. 

The Devil is one of the major figures in early New England folklore. It shouldn't really be a surprise, given that this area was colonized by God-fearing Puritans, and the corollary of being God-fearing is being Devil-fearing. He was supposedly always lurking around, waiting to tempt people into evil. The Puritans thought he was the master of the Salem witches, and probably the secret leader of the local Indian tribes as well.

After the witch trials ended the Devil receded a little from the public mindset, but he was still there in the shadows, biding his time. He was surprisingly easy to summon. All one had to do was say the Lord's Prayer backwards and he would appear, ready to make a bargain.

That bargain. There are lots of stories about the Devil's bargains. Probably the most famous is "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, with Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" a runner up. Both are set in New England, and both involve the central conundrum of Devil folk stories: if you make a deal with the Evil One, can you get out of it?

Benet's and Irving's stories are both fiction, but they answer that question in different ways. Benet's Daniel Webster is able to wrest his client's soul from the Devil's grasp. In Irving's tale, miserly Tom Walker is dragged off to hell despite his best efforts.

In New England oral folklore, the answer is also split. Some humorous tales tell of crafty New Englanders cheating the Devil, or even hint that the Devil is just a hallucination caused by heavy drinking. Others end more grimly, with proud sinners getting their bloody due.

All of which leads us to the topic of this week's post: General Jonathan Moulton (b.1726 - d. 1787). Moulton was a key figure in the early history of New Hampshire. He led troops at the battle of Louisburg in the French and Indian War, helped defeat the British at Saratoga during the American Revolution, and became a friend of George Washington. In between all the heroism he managed to marry two women, father fifteen children, and start a silversmithing company that survives today as Towle Silver.

And, according to legend, he sold his soul to the Devil.

The story goes something like this. Although Moulton was successful and quite wealthy, he always craved more gold. It was all he thought about, and it haunted his dreams day and night. Sensing this, the Devil came one night to Moulton's house, appearing as a man clad in black velvet.

After some haggling, Moulton and the Devil agreed to the following bargain. One the first day of each month, Moulton would hang his boots by the fireplace as if to dry them. The Devil would then materialize on the roof and pour gold coins down the chimney into the boots. After a set number of years, the Devil would come to take Moulton's soul.

Eager to get the most gold that he could, Moulton purchased an enormous pair of thigh-high boots and hung them by the fireplace. For several years things went well. Each month the Devil poured gold coins into Moulton's over-sized boots. Moulton's wealth grew and grew.

But the more gold he got, the more he wanted. One day as the Devil poured coins down the chimney he noticed that the boots were taking more coins than usual. He poured and poured but still the boots didn't seem to be filling up. Jumping down to the ground, the Devil looked in the window to see that Moulton had cut the soles off his boots. The entire room was filled with gold coins.

Furious at being tricked, the Devil snapped his fingers and cast a ball of fire at Moulton's house, which went up like a pile of dry tinder. Moulton and his family escaped but their home was completely destroyed. When the embers finally cooled Moulton dug through the ruins for the gold. Melted gold was still gold, after all. But he didn't find a single speck. The Devil had taken it all back to Hell with him.

I suspect people told this tale was about Moulton because they were jealous of his wealth. He was a successful silversmith, a successful farmer, and well-connected politically. Claiming his wealth was the result of a Devilish bargain was a clever way to cast aspersions on someone's reputation. It worked, because I think Moulton is better known today for this legend than for anything else he did.

It looks like Moulton was really not popular with his neighbors in Hampton, New Hampshire. For example, during a dispute with another farmer Moulton's barn mysteriously burned down four times. That's right, four times, and no one was ever caught. In 1759, Moulton's house also burned down, which is an interesting parallel with the house fire in the story. (All his family and servants escaped, and Moulton built an even larger mansion.)

People may have had good reason to dislike him. A 1909 article by F.B. Sanborn in The Granite Monthly notes that Moulton was something of a loan shark in Hampton and lent money at high rates to his neighbors. This same article claims that even during his life people in Hampton thought he was in league with the Devil, and at the moment of his death "Lydia Blaisdell, a hag whom I remember in her disgraced old age" saw the Evil One fly off with Moulton's body. The people of Hampton supposedly rejoiced when they learned of his death.

The Devil probably didn't carry Moulton off to Hell, but it's not entirely clear what did happen to his body. Wikipedia states it was stolen by someone after his death. Did bitter neighbors get their final revenge? Maybe, or maybe it was buried in an unmarked grave on his property, as the Hampton library claims.

To wrap this up, I'd like to point out that the Devil basically acts like Santa Claus in this story. Moulton hangs his boots by the fireplace, and the Devil fills them with goodies via the chimney. The legend probably dates back to before Santa Claus was introduced to the United States, but I suspect the folk motif of hanging boots to be filled by magical creatures is very old.

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