The Great Ipswich Fright by John Greenleaf Whittier
Story type: Essay
THE GREAT IPSWICH FRIGHT.
“The Frere into the dark gazed forth;
The sounds went onward towards the north
The murmur of tongues, the tramp and tread
Of a mighty army to battle led.”
BALLAD OF THE CID.
Life’s tragedy and comedy are never far apart. The ludicrous and the sublime, the grotesque and the pathetic, jostle each other on the stage; the jester, with his cap and bells, struts alongside of the hero; the lord mayor’s pageant loses itself in the mob around Punch and Judy; the pomp and circumstance of war become mirth-provoking in a militia muster; and the majesty of the law is ridiculous in the mock dignity of a justice’s court. The laughing philosopher of old looked on one side of life and his weeping contemporary on the other; but he who has an eye to both must often experience that contrariety of feeling which Sterne compares to “the contest in the moist eyelids of an April morning, whether to laugh or cry.”
The circumstance we are about to relate, may serve as an illustration of the way in which the woof of comedy interweaves with the warp of tragedy. It occurred in the early stages of the American Revolution, and is part and parcel of its history in the northeastern section of Massachusetts.
About midway between Salem and the ancient town of Newburyport, the traveller on the Eastern Railroad sees on the right, between him and the sea, a tall church-spire, rising above a semicircle of brown roofs and venerable elms; to which a long scalloping range of hills, sweeping off to the seaside, forms a green background. This is Ipswich, the ancient Agawam; one of those steady, conservative villages, of which a few are still left in New England, wherein a contemporary of Cotton Mather and Governor Endicott, were he permitted to revisit the scenes of his painful probation, would scarcely feel himself a stranger. Law and Gospel, embodied in an orthodox steeple and a court-house, occupy the steep, rocky eminence in its midst; below runs the small river under its picturesque stone bridge; and beyond is the famous female seminary, where Andover theological students are wont to take unto themselves wives of the daughters of the Puritans. An air of comfort and quiet broods over the whole town. Yellow moss clings to the seaward sides of the roofs; one’s eyes are not endangered by the intense glare of painted shingles and clapboards. The smoke of hospitable kitchens curls up through the overshadowing elms from huge-throated chimneys, whose hearth-stones have been worn by the feet of many generations. The tavern was once renowned throughout New England, and it is still a creditable hostelry. During court time it is crowded with jocose lawyers, anxious clients, sleepy jurors, and miscellaneous hangers on; disinterested gentlemen, who have no particular business of their own in court, but who regularly attend its sessions, weighing evidence, deciding upon the merits of a lawyer’s plea or a judge’s charge, getting up extempore trials upon the piazza or in the bar-room of cases still involved in the glorious uncertainty of the law in the court-house, proffering gratuitous legal advice to irascible plaintiffs and desponding defendants, and in various other ways seeing that the Commonwealth receives no detriment. In the autumn old sportsmen make the tavern their headquarters while scouring the marshes for sea-birds; and slim young gentlemen from the city return thither with empty game-bags, as guiltless in respect to the snipes and wagtails as Winkle was in the matter of the rooks, after his shooting excursion at Dingle Dell. Twice, nay, three times, a year, since third parties have been in fashion, the delegates of the political churches assemble in Ipswich to pass patriotic resolutions, and designate the candidates whom the good people of Essex County, with implicit faith in the wisdom of the selection, are expected to vote for. For the rest there are pleasant walks and drives around the picturesque village. The people are noted for their hospitality; in summer the sea-wind blows cool over its healthy hills, and, take it for all in all, there is not a better preserved or pleasanter specimen of a Puritan town remaining in the ancient Commonwealth.
The 21st of April, 1775, witnessed an awful commotion in the little village of Ipswich. Old men, and boys, (the middle-aged had marched to Lexington some days before) and all the women in the place who were not bedridden or sick, came rushing as with one accord to the green in front of the meeting-house. A rumor, which no one attempted to trace or authenticate, spread from lip to lip that the British regulars had landed on the coast and were marching upon the town. A scene of indescribable terror and confusion followed. Defence was out of the question, as the young and able-bodied men of the entire region round about had marched to Cambridge and Lexington. The news of the battle at the latter place, exaggerated in all its details, had been just received; terrible stories of the atrocities committed by the dreaded “regulars” had been related; and it was believed that nothing short of a general extermination of the patriots–men, women, and children–was contemplated by the British commander.–Almost simultaneously the people of Beverly, a village a few miles distant, were smitten with the same terror. How the rumor was communicated no one could tell. It was there believed that the enemy had fallen upon Ipswich, and massacred the inhabitants without regard to age or sex.
It was about the middle of the afternoon of this day that the people of Newbury, ten miles farther north, assembled in an informal meeting, at the town-house to hear accounts from the Lexington fight, and to consider what action was necessary in consequence of that event. Parson Carey was about opening the meeting with prayer when hurried hoof-beats sounded up the street, and a messenger, loose-haired and panting for breath, rushed up the staircase. “Turn out, turn out, for God’s sake,” he cried, “or you will be all killed! The regulars are marching onus; they are at Ipswich now, cutting and slashing all before them!” Universal consternation was the immediate result of this fearful announcement; Parson Carey’s prayer died on his lips; the congregation dispersed over the town, carrying to every house the tidings that the regulars had come. Men on horseback went galloping up and down the streets, shouting the alarm. Women and children echoed it from every corner. The panic became irresistible, uncontrollable. Cries were heard that the dreaded invaders had reached Oldtown Bridge, a little distance from the village, and that they were killing all whom they encountered. Flight was resolved upon. All the horses and vehicles in the town were put in requisition; men, women, and children hurried as for life towards the north. Some threw their silver and pewter ware and other valuables into wells. Large numbers crossed the Merrimac, and spent the night in the deserted houses of Salisbury, whose inhabitants, stricken by the strange terror, had fled into New Hampshire, to take up their lodgings in dwellings also abandoned by their owners. A few individuals refused to fly with the multitude; some, unable to move by reason of sickness, were left behind by their relatives. One old gentleman, whose excessive corpulence rendered retreat on his part impossible, made a virtue of necessity; and, seating himself in his doorway with his loaded king’s arm, upbraided his more nimble neighbors, advising them to do as he did, and “stop and shoot the devils.” Many ludicrous instances of the intensity of the terror might be related. One man got his family into a boat to go to Ram Island for safety. He imagined he was pursued by the enemy through the dusk of the evening, and was annoyed by the crying of an infant in the after part of the boat. “Do throw that squalling brat overboard,” he called to his wife, “or we shall be all discovered and killed!” A poor woman ran four or five miles up the river, and stopped to take breath and nurse her child, when she found to her great horror that she had brought off the cat instead of the baby!
All through that memorable night the terror swept onward towards the north with a speed which seems almost miraculous, producing everywhere the same results. At midnight a horseman, clad only in shirt and breeches, dashed by our grandfather’s door, in Haverhill, twenty miles up the river. “Turn out! Get a musket! Turn out!” he shouted; “the regulars are landing on Plum Island!” “I’m glad of it,” responded the old gentleman from his chamber window; “I wish they were all there, and obliged to stay there.” When it is understood that Plum Island is little more than a naked sand-ridge, the benevolence of this wish can be readily appreciated.
All the boats on the river were constantly employed for several hours in conveying across the terrified fugitives. Through “the dead waste and middle of the night” they fled over the border into New Hampshire. Some feared to take the frequented roads, and wandered over wooded hills and through swamps where the snows of the late winter had scarcely melted. They heard the tramp and outcry of those behind them, and fancied that the sounds were made by pursuing enemies. Fast as they fled, the terror, by some unaccountable means, outstripped them. They found houses deserted and streets strewn with household stuffs, abandoned in the hurry of escape. Towards morning, however, the tide partially turned. Grown men began to feel ashamed of their fears. The old Anglo-Saxon hardihood paused and looked the terror in its face. Single or in small parties, armed with such weapons as they found at hand,–among which long poles, sharpened and charred at the end, were conspicuous,–they began to retrace their steps. In the mean time such of the good people of Ipswich as were unable or unwilling to leave their homes became convinced that the terrible rumor which had nearly depopulated their settlement was unfounded.
Among those who had there awaited the onslaught of the regulars was a young man from Exeter, New Hampshire. Becoming satisfied that the whole matter was a delusion, he mounted his horse and followed after the retreating multitude, undeceiving all whom he overtook. Late at night he reached Newburyport, greatly to the relief of its sleepless inhabitants, and hurried across the river, proclaiming as he rode the welcome tidings. The sun rose upon haggard and jaded fugitives, worn with excitement and fatigue, slowly returning homeward, their satisfaction at the absence of danger somewhat moderated by an unpleasant consciousness of the ludicrous scenes of their premature night flitting.
Any inference which might be drawn from the foregoing narrative derogatory to the character of the people of New England at that day, on the score of courage, would be essentially erroneous. It is true, they were not the men to court danger or rashly throw away their lives for the mere glory of the sacrifice. They had always a prudent and wholesome regard to their own comfort and safety; they justly looked upon sound heads and limbs as better than broken ones; life was to them too serious and important, and their hard-gained property too valuable, to be lightly hazarded. They never attempted to cheat themselves by under-estimating the difficulty to be encountered, or shutting their eyes to its probable consequences. Cautious, wary, schooled in the subtle strategy of Indian warfare, where self-preservation is by no means a secondary object, they had little in common with the reckless enthusiasm of their French allies, or the stolid indifference of the fighting machines of the British regular army. When danger could no longer be avoided, they met it with firmness and iron endurance, but with a very vivid appreciation of its magnitude. Indeed, it must be admitted by all who are familiar with the history of our fathers that the element of fear held an important place among their characteristics. It exaggerated all the dangers of their earthly pilgrimage, and peopled the future with shapes of evil. Their fear of Satan invested him with some of the attributes of Omnipotence, and almost reached the point of reverence. The slightest shock of an earthquake filled all hearts with terror. Stout men trembled by their hearths with dread of some paralytic old woman supposed to be a witch. And when they believed themselves called upon to grapple with these terrors and endure the afflictions of their allotment, they brought to the trial a capability of suffering undiminished by the chloroform of modern philosophy. They were heroic in endurance. Panics like the one we have described might bow and sway them like reeds in the wind; but they stood up like the oaks of their own forests beneath the thunder and the hail of actual calamity.
It was certainly lucky for the good people of Essex County that no wicked wag of a Tory undertook to immortalize in rhyme their ridiculous hegira, as Judge Hopkinson did the famous Battle of the Kegs in Philadelphia. Like the more recent Madawaska war in Maine, the great Chepatchet demonstration in Rhode Island, and the “Sauk fuss” of Wisconsin, it remains to this day “unsyllabled, unsung;” and the fast-fading memory of age alone preserves the unwritten history of the great Ipswich fright.