The Groton Miser
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 8:05pm Heraldgroton
Caleb Butler was born 13 September 1776 in Pelham, New Hampshire. He graduated first in his class from Dartmouth College in 1800. He died at Groton, 7 October, 1854. He lived his whole adult life in Groton and used his prodigious talents to fulfill his vision of what it meant to be an American by living a life of service dedicated to making Groton a better town, a stronger community. He was a polymath: an accomplished lawyer, administrator, and teacher. He served as postmaster, Selectman and town clerk among many other posts benefitting the town.
He is now, perhaps, best known for writing a “History of the Town of Groton, including Pepperell and Shirley.” As with so many old town histories, many own the book, but few actually read it. The book is worth reading, not only for the historical perspective and facts but even more for the subtle moral perspective of how to live and strengthen the community by example. Below is one of his historical vignettes from the book.
by Caleb Butler
David Green, a son of Jonathan Green, born March 10, 1741, was in the exact sense of the word, without reserve or qualification, a miser. His father was a blacksmith, and lived in the north part of the town, near where John W. Kemp now lives, on a farm once owned by John Lakin, his maternal great-grandfather.
Of his youth and early part of his manhood I am unable to speak with certainty, but have understood that he was averse to labor and extremely parsimonious. He was never married, and seemed to take little or no pleasure in friendship, society, or any of those things which constitute the principal comforts and enjoyments of a great portion of mankind.
His father and brothers were all dead before or soon after he became of lawful age. His father had given him a deed of his lands, and he purchased of his mother and sisters their shares in a deceased brother's estate; so that he became sole proprietor of all his father once owned, supposed to be a very considerable estate,
His methods of accumulating property were, leasing his lands at extravagant rents, and loaning money at usurious interest. What he acquired he preserved by parsimony in his expenditures. His unbounded avarice denied him the plainest wholesome diet, and the coarsest decent clothing. His passion for saving every trifling article which fell in his way, imbibed and cherished probably in youth and confirmed in manhood, reached an extreme in old age.
In the leases he made of his paternal mansion-house, he always reserved a room and chamber to himself. These, in the course of his life, he filled with a motley collection of various articles of little or no intrinsic value, till they might vie with the cabinet of the most curious antiquarian, or museum of the most whimsical virtuoso. In his excursions about the town, he seldom failed to fill his pockets with scraps of old iron, pieces of leather and cloth, which he chanced to find at the doors of houses and shops.
With these materials he would patch his shoes and clothes, till his shoes were as impenetrable as the shield of Achilles, and his garments so patched and particolored, that it was difficult to know what was their original warp or woof.
His household furniture corresponded with his corporeal appearance. A piece of wood rudely hollowed out with a knife, answered for a spoon; the leg bone of a lamb or pig, with an old knife blade stuck into it, and another with a fork-tine, were his implements for carving. The trunk of a hollow tree, with a pine board fitted into one end, was his churn; and the blossom-buds of burdock formed his pillow. He had in his granary, near the close of his life, corn and beans from twelve to twenty years old; and flax grown and dressed about the time of the revolutionary war. His food, when at home, was of the coarsest and sometimes of the most loathsome kind; and at any of his debtors' or tenants' houses, which he was accustomed to frequent in order to save the expense of board, he refused to eat at table with others, but satisfied his vitiated appetite in solitude, with the crumbs and fragments which properly belonged to the domestic animals.
"-- Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, Sacra fames auri ?"
[Ed note: From Virgil, Aeneid 3,57. Later quoted by Seneca as quod non mortalia pectora coges, auri sacra fames “What don’t you force mortal hearts |to do|, accursed hunger for gold!”]
He was not unfrequently involved in law suits, and in some cases lost large sums by having taken usury. When, either from necessity or choice, he attended the court, where he had hundreds or thousands of dollars in dispute, he would carry his food, consisting of cold pudding and potatoes, in his pocket, on which he would subsist for several days.
Towards the close of his miserable life, he made a deed of his two principal farms, which by bad management had become of small value, except for the large quantity of wood and timber upon them, conveying them to two small boys in Vermont, sons of a relative too remote to be heir at law, and made and executed a will, devising and bequeathing all the rest of his estate to the father of these lads.
At a time when he was sick, and thought not likely to recover, his mansion house, being without a tenant, was burnt in the night time, having in all probability been first plundered of its most valuable contents, and his cabinet of curiosities was, by this accident, lost to the world.
During his last sickness, three or four villains procured an instrument, purporting to be his last will, to be signed with his name, sealed, and duly witnessed by themselves. After his death, this forged instrument was offered for probate in the county of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, where it was proved, allowed and might have been completely and finally carried into execution, but for a disagreement among those who were to share the property, which led to a discovery of the fraud. Whereupon, an appeal was made to the superior court, the decree of probate reversed, and the genuine will was afterwards established in the probate court in Massachusetts.*
This remarkable man died at a miserable hut of one of his old tenants in Mason, New Hampshire, November 10,1822, aged 81 years.
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