Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Haymarket Square

Haymarket Square is the triangle formed by the intersection of Court and Middle Streets.

This area was pastureland on the outskirts of Portsmouth during the early days. The town built scales for weighing hay here in 1755, and it became a thriving farmers marketplace for almost a century, until the 1840s. For this reason, the corner became known as Haymarket Square.

On September 12, 1765, angry citizens gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the new British Stamp Act that was to tax merchant goods. Their outrage was aimed at the newly-appointed stamp agent, George Meserve, who had recently arrived in Boston from London to begin levying the tax in New Hampshire. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Meserve had been forewarned about the colonial opposition to the Stamp Act and resigned his commission. Nonetheless, on that day his likeness, along with effigies of the Devil and Lord Bute the head of the British Ministry were hanged in Haymarket Square. That evening, Portsmouth citizens cut them down, paraded them through the streets, and then publicly burned them.

Over time, this event became blended in oral histories with the execution of Ruth Blay in 1768. A false account of the events was considered a fact for decades: that the effigy of her executioner, Sheriff Thomas Packer, was the one hanged, paraded through the streets of Portsmouth, and burned. For more information, please read my article, "Tragic Tale of Ruth Blay: The Last Woman Hanged in New Hampshire".

Townspeople began building large homes in Haymarket Square at the turn of the 19th Century. John Peirce was first when he built his impressive Peirce Mansion on Court Street in 1799. At that time, the square was still considered to be the extreme outskirts of town.

The Oracle House moved here from Market Square, behind the North Church, in 1800 and remained until relocated to Marcy Street during the 1930s. It stood on the northeast corner of Haymarket Square.

Parrott and Peirce Houses
Ebenezer Thompson built the home next door to the Peirce Mansion (west), in 1801. Across the street, Richard Shapley built his home, now known as the Peirce House, in 1803, the Langley Boardman House dates from around 1806, and the Parrott House between them was built towards the end of the Civil War.

Can you picture the equestrian statue of General Fitz John Porter in the middle of Haymarket Square?

When the town sought a location for the statue, in 1902, they considered two choices: Haven Park and Haymarket Square. A committee organized by the City Council unanimously chose Haven Park as the location. A Portsmouth legend claims that they passed on Haymarket Square because the horse would have had its tail-end irreverently pointed towards the church on Court Street.

The Peirce Mansion (left) was moved back from the road during the 1950s. As you can see in the 1902 photograph from the Library of Congress, it originally stood as close to Court Street as the Ebenezer Thompson home next door.

For many years, the intersection at Haymarket Square served as a traffic circle. The photograph below from the Portsmouth Annual Report of 1970 shows it being dismantled that year.

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