The Strange Case of Abolitionist John Coe and his Prodigal Son

The scene: a peaceful house on a hill overlooking the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in the tumultuous years prior to the Civil War.The characters: a family torn apart by the times, bereft over a wayward son who fled the law to live in the South under an assumed name.The story: historical intrigue launched by the discovery of an old suitcase filled with family secrets, an appeal from a slave named Richard and bundles of clues that unravel a puzzle spanning three centuries.Center Harbor is a peaceful town. Its year round population is less than 1,000 people, but during the summer there may be three times that many visitors enjoying the lake and scenery. It probably looks much as it did a century and a half ago. It is difficult to picture it torn by high passions. But perhaps, like the lake, “still waters run deep.”In 1820 Center Harbor merchant John Coe, Esq., son of the minister Rev. Curtis Coe, built his house on a long-coveted hill near his general store with the lake at his feet and the forest at his back. He named his first son after his father, Curtis, and his second son, John, after himself. Four other children followed, and he raised them all with careful attention to their moral upbringing, buying the American Sunday School Union’s “Juvenile Library.” After a minister wrote to him complaining that the rum he sold was ruining local families, he became a prohibitionist. He once fired and replaced all his shipyard workers rather than allow them to drink on the job.Perhaps it was inevitable that a man of such high standards would be tested by one of his children who could not live up to them. It’s poetic justice that it was the son who bore his name who was his greatest disappointment.And it’s ironic that my fascination with John Coe resulted from my dealings with my own father. I had first found the poignant letter in the minister’s old suitcase in our cellar when I was a young man. I thought it interesting, but not much more. I went to college and got married. In 2008 I returned to New England due to my father’s declining health. Thanks to his own determination and the GI Bill, my dad had become the first member of his family to graduate from college. It was sad to see an educator now sensing that his own mind had become more holes than memories. He haltingly struggled to get out the last full sentence I heard him say, “I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on …”After the gut-wrenching process of putting him in a nursing home, I went through his footlockers from World War II and private library shelves full of mementoes of a fading life. There I rediscovered the old suitcase of John Coe’s papers. And just as my father had struggled at the last to make sense of his surroundings, I discovered a baffling array of details begging for clarity.John Coe, Esq. was obsessive about keeping records. He seemingly kept all the letters he got from anyone. Since photocopiers hadn’t been invented yet, before he mailed anyone a letter, he first wrote out a copy for himself in painstakingly neat script. The contents of the suitcase were like several jigsaw puzzles, each missing some pieces and all jumbled together. There were receipts for false teeth and barrels of flour. Correspondence from a shipwright building a brig for Coe mingled with notes from lonely neighbors asking Coe to play matchmaker.His sons’ letters described dreams to make something of themselves and their anguish at the harsh unfairness of life. As I sorted through these letters I learned of the rise and fall of someone else’s family, of a father who struggled to provide a comfortable home based upon solid moral principles. I learned how, in those years leading up to the Civil War, the tragic life of one of those sons led to the Coe family’s own anguish and strife.And I was stunned to rediscover that long-ago-glimpsed letter to John Coe from a slave.That Coe would receive such a letter is not in itself so strange. The Coe family was reportedly active in the Underground Railroad and subscribed to two abolitionist newspapers. In recent years his home has become a fine restaurant, and during the remodeling, a well-concealed tunnel was discovered. It is thought that slaves temporarily hiding in a nearby horse barn could escape bounty hunters by going through the tunnel to the main house. The tunnel originally was covered by a trapdoor with a brass handle concealed on the floor of an alcove in the kitchen. (Now it is covered by an oval serving tray in the basement under the kitchen and is proudly displayed by restaurant staff to visitors.) But the story is not that simple.All was not well in the Coe family. John Coe’s second son, John L. Coe, may have been responsible for a local girl’s pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth. He failed at managing a hotel for his father. His brother Curtis and father were obliged to make good on his delinquent mortgage payments. Around the age of 21 he was arrested in Massachusetts on charges of conspiracy to defraud. Family friend Judge Nathan Crosby heard of the arrest and rode his horse 16 miles to the Massachusetts state prison. He questioned Coe and decided that he had been duped to be the fall guy for professional con men. The Judge personally paid the $500 dollars bail, but the youth immediately jumped bail and went into hiding. Coe’s father reimbursed Judge Crosby the money and determined to cut off ties with his reckless son.Upon hearing of this, young John Coe wailed in a letter to his father: “After all which has transpired, and all which has been said … It has been reported to me that you had determined to stop all communication and friendship with me … Perhaps I deserve it all – but it is hard to apply the torturing lash to the already bleeding quivering mangled back of a victim …” Father and son clearly did not share the same concepts of personal accountability.John L. Coe set out “to make his fortune under a new name and in a new country,” Judge Crosby wrote years later. The new name was “Rufus W. Ogden.” The new country was California, the fabled land of new beginnings and instant wealth. There “Ogden” proceeded to run up thousands of dollars in debts. He then moved to Mississippi and, still known as Rufus Ogden, began working as a clerk in the office of the Natchez attorney, Josephus Hewitt.At the time yellow fever was rampant throughout the South. Some believed it a curse on the South for slavery. While 90 percent of the slaves brought from Africa were immune to the disease, up to half of infected whites died from it. Josephus Hewitt himself had just been widowed after his wife died of yellow fever in the great epidemic of 1853.Despite his prodigal condition, John still communicated with his family. In 1855, he wrote to his father of the latest yellow fever epidemic, noting that “more than one half of the young men have got it bad, and it will continue until many are carried off.” The letter was prophetic. That September, yellow fever indeed “carried off” young John L. Coe. His employer Josephus Hewitt wrote in a letter delivered to John’s sister, “An utter stranger, it however has become my painful duty to address you this letter – Last night about 8 o’clock Rufus W. Ogden departed this life.” The chagrin of the abolitionist Coe family in New Hampshire can only be imagined when the letter continued that their son and brother “… was the owner of six slaves at his death, and on these I am told he still owes something.”The Coes resolved to free the slaves, but first had to prove their relationship to “Rufus Ogden.” In attempting to handle his former clerk’s estate, Josephus Hewitt seemed to know that Ann Coe was his clerk’s sister, and therefore had some legal rights over the slaves. Nonetheless, the family was frustrated that Ann’s authority did not seem to include the right to free them. For assurance, Coe asked James Bell, the United States Senator from New Hampshire, to discreetly investigate Hewitt. Bell wrote back from Washington, D.C., that his colleague the Senator from Mississippi vouched wholeheartedly for Hewitt.The Coes were contending with various U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving slavery in which the only lawful way to free a person enslaved in Mississippi was to buy him and personally transport him to a free state. These were dangerous times. For years, small parties of pro-slavery and anti-slavery militants had been crisscrossing state borders to murder one another. U.S. federal agents hunted runaway slaves in free states. Northern villagers hid fugitives on their way to Canada without knowing which of their neighbors might inform bounty hunters. New England ports were known as sanctuaries for escaping slaves. The mayor of New Bedford once rung a bell to warn hiding slaves that federal agents were coming to arrest them.On April 28, 1856 a letter from a slave named Richard was sent from Natchez to Ann Coe: “Madam, It was your Brother Mr. Ogden’s wishes that I should be set free in his death,” he wrote. He went on to say that, when Ann’s brother was sick and unable to attend to business, “I then waited and attended to him and I attended to him the same as if he had been my brother. I wrote to you before but have received no answer. My self and wife have since been sold. Now my Mistress if you could do anything for me I would pay you for my time. It is still in your power to free me and my wife from slavery as there has been no money paid for me – and by so doing you would not lose anything as I can work and pay you by installments for my freedom. Please answer, Your obedient servant, Richard.”With this, the Coes became even more determined, but disease continued to stymie their attempts to free the slaves. In 1859 Hewitt apologized for delays in handling the estate of the young Coe’s due to “… the serious illness of my oldest daughter … when I say that she has to supply the place of a mother in a large family of children you will the better appreciate its effects on my business matters …”In a desperate bid to personally free Richard and his wife, John Coe, Esq., at the age of 64, decided he had to go to Mississippi. He followed instructions from Josephus Hewitt regarding Mississippi state law to satisfactorily establish his daughter as the next of kin and rightful heir of the slaveholder known as Rufus Ogden. His real name was John L. Coe as sworn in affidavits from his mother, his sister, the town clerk and Judge Crosby. Comparison of handwriting specimens and daguerreotypes (the earliest photographs, invented less than 20 years before) were also used to prove that R.W. Ogden of Natchez and her brother John L. Coe of New Hampshire were one and the same.At this time tensions between slave and non-slave states were worsening. As Coe prepared his trip south, John Brown seized the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. He planned to distribute the arsenal’s 100,000 rifles to an army of freed slaves. After nine people were killed in the two-day siege, Brown and his surviving militants surrendered to Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. William Lloyd Garrison, a Boston abolitionist previously known as a pacifist, called for more slave insurrections. The South Carolina Legislature called for the “fortification of all necessary points on the northern frontiers of the slaveholding States.” Remarking upon what he saw as fanatical northern abolitionists provoking a bloody race war to free slaves, Jefferson Davis cried out, “We have been invaded.” War loomed closer.Meanwhile John Coe, a northern abolitionist, was nervously planning his trip. Coe felt it prudent to arm himself with a passport from the Governor of New Hampshire. The typical passport of the 19th century was one large sheet of paper. John Coe’s was eight pages, including letters attached to it by a red ribbon, and is visually the most striking document in the suitcase collection. It states: “Know ye that the bearer hereof, John Coe Esquire is about leaving on a journey to the State of Mississippi,” and requests that Mr. Coe be treated with”…all requisite assistance and civilities, due to persons of like character and standing.”The day after John Brown was hung, Coe convinced the Mayor, the Customs Collector and the Postmaster of Portsmouth, N.H., to attach letters of recommendation to his passport. Coe then set out by steamer and rail on a 3,000 mile round trip to Natchez.There the records diminish. It’s clear that he was well treated by the Hewitt family, but there’s no evidence that Coe succeeded in freeing Richard and his wife. One way or another, Coe returned to Center Harbor an exhausted man.On August 4, 1860, he apologized for being late with a payment, noting, “I have been out of health for some time, and unable to do any business,” but still sent $85 and a bank check. Staunchly reliable even in failing health, he added, “If I have not sent the right amount, I will rectify it.” On April 2, 1861, John Coe died. Ten days later, cadets from the Citadel in South Carolina began the bombardment of Fort Sumter. As the Coe saga ended, the Civil War began.Last September while visiting relatives, my wife Jacquie and I traveled to Center Harbor. At the Coe House, after an enthusiastic tour of the cellar and its no-longer-secret tunnel entrance, we enjoyed a truly superb meal. The next day the owners, Luke DuPuis and Ann Elliot, graciously took time from their busy schedule to discuss the Coe papers. Ann drove me to the old two-room school house that serves as the Center Harbor Historical Society. There we met with the curators, Nancy Kelley and her husband Roger, who wore an old fisherman’s cap.”Do you mind my asking how old you are?” I asked Roger.”Well,” he smiled, pronouncing the word as if it were two syllables, “If I live another month, I’ll be 88.” As it turned out, Roger had been friends with Fred S. Coe. Roger related the surprising detail that Fred Coe had failed a bid as an actor in New York City. He told humorous anecdotes about how he and other locals had conspired to inflate the value of a property that the nearly penniless Coe was trying to sell to an out-of-towner. On a whim, I asked Roger if anyone might know where Coe was buried. Roger hunched down and peered at me sideways. “In Coe Cemetery, of course!” he growled. “Where’s that?” I asked. With the same look, he said, “On Coe Hill, of course!” “There’s a Coe Hill?” Ann muttered. “Where is it?” With finality, Roger muttered, “On Coe Road …!” So we all drove up to the private plot in a deep forest with a distant view of the lake.John Coe, Esq. is buried between his wife Lavinia and his daughter Ellen.”I have loved thee on earth,” his inscription reads. “May I meet thee in Heaven.” “Sweetly o’er my fainting spirit, Peace from Heaven seems to flow. “Seek no longer to detain me – Loose the cable, let me go.”Their children and descendants rest near them, including Fred S. Coe. There is even a tiny, undated stone simply labeled “Baby.” But there is not even a memorial marker for the fast-living son who changed his name to escape debtor’s prison, and died as he was tenderly cared for by a slave he couldn’t afford – half a divided country away from quiet little Center Harbor, New Hampshire.Josephus Hewitt’s son William fought in the Civil War in the Mississippi Infantry. After the war he was prominent in the Ku Klux Klan.Roger Kelley died two days after his 88th birthday. His memories of the Coes would have been lost if I had been a month later in meeting him.As I write this, I prepare to celebrate the college graduation of one of my sons. We’re inviting my other son to join us. Maintaining family ties, like historical research, is a labor of love. NHContent of a letter sent to Anna Coe from a slave asking for his freedom.”Madam,
It was your Brother Mr Ogden’s wishes that I should be set free in his death, I waited and attended to him and I attended to him the same as if he had been my brother. I wrote to you before but have received no answer. My self and wife have since been sold. Now my Mistress if you could do anything for me I would pay you for my time. It is still in your power to free me and my wife from slavery as there has been no money paid for me and by so doing you would not lose anything as I can work and pay you by installments for my freedom.Please answer,Your obedient servant, Richard.”Black History in New Hampshireby Joanna RiekeHarriet Wilson Project
Honoring America’s first African-American novelist, The Harriet Wilson Project recognizes the achievements of a free black woman in the anti-slavery hub of Milford. Abandoned by her mother as a child, Harriet Wilson worked in local households until 1859 when she decided to publish her semi-autobiographical novel, “Our Nig: or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black,” to sustain herself. Wilson was the first known black woman to ever publish in the English language and was recently memorialized by a statue in Milford.Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail
New Hampshire’s own freedom trail traces the lost story of African-American culture across 24 historical sites in downtown Portsmouth. Since there was no tariff on importing labor, slaves were sent directly from Africa to the port as early as 1645. More than 645 slaves lived in town and many served prominent families in Strawbery Banke, although most acquired their master’s surnames, making their records difficult to trace. This self-guided walking tour marks each landmark with more than 30 years of research conducted by historian Valerie Cunningham and provides context to envision the Seacoast city as a hub of African-American culture once again. Important sites include: The Temple, now The Music Hall, where abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Charles Remond addressed 1,000 people; the Bell Tavern, where Nero Brewster was elected king; The Langdon House, where Cyrus de Bruce was emancipated by John Langdon; and the People’s Baptist Church, which is New Hampshire’s first and only African-American church during the early 20th century.African Burial Ground
Underneath modern Portsmouth lies an African-American cemetery designated as a resting ground in 1705. As the city expanded, it was built over and forgotten during the Victorian construction of roads. It was not until recently, in 2003, when the grave site was accidentally rediscovered by construction crews digging a manhole at Court and Chestnut Streets. Amazed to find the remains of deteriorated coffins and human skeletons beneath the streets, researchers unearthed 13 graves for DNA testing and confirmed that the bones were of enslaved black residents. The site could contain up to 200 graves and plans are still in the works to build a permanent memorial park.Seacoast African American Cultural Society
Celebrating the unique lives of African-Americans in the Seacoast region, The Seacoast African American Cultural Society provides concerts, educational programs, exhibits and readings from specialists across the country. As a non-profit, it collaborates with other organizations in the community such as UNH, McIntosh College, The Music Hall and Currier Museum of Art, along with artists, poets and musicians, to highlight diversity in the state. Recent events include the Multi-Cultural Festival, a talk with Discover Portsmouth Center author Patricia Hall and artist Richard Haynes from the mural project.Oney Judge
Oney Judge served George Washington and the First Family until 1796 when she sneaked out during dinner and escaped to Portsmouth by ship. Soon after her
arrival to New Hampshire, the daughter of John Langdon spotted her in town and reported her whereabouts to the First Family. The Washingtons sent letters to Langdon requesting her return, but as an abolitionist Langdon was torn between his duty to the state and his own morals. He sent notice to Judge, warning her of the bounty hunter and urged her to leave town for safety. After finding refuge in Greenland, she married the man who captained her ship to Portsmouth and had three kids. The hunt for Judge never ceased, and even after Washington died in 1799, there still was a law permitting her recapture. Even though she struggled to support herself as a self-employed seamstress, she refused to give up her freedom.Amos Fortune
Amos Fortune was an entrepreneurial slave who served his master in the tannery business for more than 60 years until finally he saved enough money to earn his freedom and start his own tannery in Jaffrey. After buying 25 acres of land, Fortune also set aside money to purchase the freedom of his future wife, but she unexpectedly died after the exchange of funds. His second attempt to purchase another woman resulted in the same fate, until finally he married Violet. Incredibly literate, Fortune learned the tannery trade from his master and helped found the Jaffrey Social Library. His life is memorialized by the novel, “Free Man” by Elizabeth Yates and the Amos Fortune
Forum in Jaffrey.Nathaniel P. Rogers
Born in Plymouth, Nathaniel P. Rogers was a staunch abolitionist writer who edited the Concord-based, anti-slavery newspaper, Herald of Freedom. His home in Plymouth was a stop on the Underground Railroad until he was forced to move to Concord for sheltering slaves traveling to Canada. In 1840 he represented New Hampshire in the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, but he boycotted the event after female delegates were not allowed. He also wrote numerous satirical editorials criticizing slavery under the pseudonym “The Old Man of the Mountain” and was the subject of Thoreau’s 1844 article, “Herald of Freedom,” which was published in the Dial in his memory.Primus Fowle
Primus Fowle worked as a slave to Daniel Fowle, who owned the nation’s oldest printing press, the New Hampshire Gazette in Portsmouth. After laboring over the paper for 50 years, Primus’ back remained permanently curved at 45 degrees, yet he still managed to live well into his 90s. His life was honored with the 20-line poem, “Epitaph for a Slave,” which was published in the paper.Prince Whipple
Purchased by General William Whipple of Portsmouth, Prince Whipple served in the American Revolutionary Army among 100 other African-American slaves in New Hampshire. When his bargain to fight in exchange for freedom was not honored, he protested to Whipple, “You are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for.” Seven years later, he was finally released. Scholars debate as to whether Prince Whipple was the black man depicted at George Washington’s knee in the famous painting, “Washington Crossing of the Delaware.” Prince Whipple was also one of 20 slaves to sign the 1779 petition against slavery in Portsmouth and remains a symbol for the bravery of African-American soldiers.

Categories: People