A Murderous History of Portsmouth
The more we forget,
It joins what is a growing number of fearsome places across the city of the Open Door. There's the side entrance at the Franklin Block on Congress Street, now a web development office, where the bouncer of a basement nightclub was stabbed to death years back. There's the spot along State Street at that bar near the bridge and up on Chapel Street last year -- more stabbings. There's the apartment nearby where Laura Kempton was killed. I almost rented it once, but I swear something emanated from the carpet and the wainscoting. It was a sad place and even the walls were ashamed that her killer goes unpunished.
All week friends and family of Dean Smith, the police and the whole town have been trying to sort out the pieces of the early morning battle in the newly fallen snow. We kid ourselves, it seems, when we say Portsmouth used to be a rough seaport. It still is. Despite our high safety rating in Money magazine, there's danger even in America's most desirable cities. According to the most recent issue of the fortnightly NH Gazette, Portsmouth has the highest number of unsolved murders per capita than any other city in the state. This week's tragedy brings the total to eight.
I knew Valerie Blair who lived in Portsmouth in the 80s, but was killed by an unknown gunman while walking her dog at Odiorne point in nearby Rye. And then there are the solved cases. But that was out of town and does not make the list. A woman was raped and stabbed by the railroad tracks off McDonough Street not too many years ago. A despondent man shot himself against a tombstone in the North Cemetery just recently. People jump off the highway bridge each year, it seems. The fast flowing Piscataqua takes its annual toll in washed up souls.
Any city as old as ours must have its horrors. We seem in a disheartening way, to take this all for granted, as if killing were as inevitable as dying. It's a conditioning of our violent culture in which children are baptized in the blood of horror tales and weaned on the nightly news, the wild West, war stories, Mafia legends, serial killings, school massacres, Satanic rituals, urban violence, murder mysteries and true crime police video. It's not hip to care. It's not cool to cry.
I'm no scholar of local crime, but a quick study of the annals shows fewer killings in our primitive past, it seems to me, than we've come to accept in this civilized modern era. There are Indian battles in the late 1600s as the dwindling native population made one futile attempt to regain its land from whites. Fourteen men, women and children died on the Plains of Portsmouth down at the end of Islington Street. Ursula Cutt, wife of colonial New Hampshire's first "president" was later scalped and robbed right in her own yard inside the perimeter we would now call downtown. Those were horrific crimes to be sure, but no one calls them senseless or unsolved. We know why the Indians were angry. Even after the Portsmouth Indian Treaty of 1713, a Native American walking innocently near South Mill pond was chased up Pleasant Street by a Portsmouth resident and nearly killed by a hatchet hurled by the white man.
We hear so much of the violence of visiting sailors in the "olden days." That's really where our city's reputation for danger derives. Ports are hardscrabble places. The facts seem so distant, like weather reports from a distant land. These were, after all, the deeds of anonymous men from foreign nations doing violence to one another while visiting our harbor. In 1911, after four seamen were found murdered in as many weeks within the infamous combat zone, the Water Street brothels and bars were temporarily closed, then shut down for good soon after.
One name survives. In 1778, not far from the Plains, a visiting French soldier named John Dushan was attacked and killed, it is assumed, by another of his group. Fifty years later, children passing through Frenchman's Lane, frequently imagined blood on a large flat rock where the soldier's throat was severed. A hundred years after, this fearsome spot still inspired a well known local poem. Today it's all but forgotten. Dushan is buried in the North Cemetery. His killer was never found, one more for the unsolved crime list.
Then there are Portsmouth's domestic horrors, too numerous to catalog here. Notable is the day Nelson Downing killed Sarah Anne Spinney on her doorstep in 1858. Plenty of people saw him heading through town drunk with that shotgun intending to shoot Sarah's husband Daniel. Daniel was winged in the arm and Sarah was hit in the head as her children stood by. They named a road after her.
No one ever caught whoever strangled Louisa Gaardner and set her on fire in the living room of her house on Blossom Street in what is now the fashionable South End. Frederick NJ Hein killed Charlie Taylor out of jealousy, they say, and rage, then shot each of his three daughters at their home on Islington Street in 1890. I could go on, but won't.
The common denominator, if there is one, appears to be alcohol mixed with testosterone. I've done my share of bartending, and that is the most lethal combination I know. Native Americans were known to embolden themselves with white man's liquor before a raid. There was much drinking before the incident at Frenchman's Lane, and among the sailors in the whorehouses of Water Street, and in the bars and alleys of modern day Portsmouth before most of our recent murders. History doesn't always repeat itself, but it is certainly inclined to try.
I once saw a man on Pleasant Street who had been stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver. The assailant smashed the other in the head with a hammer. My mind exploded at the sight of so much blood. It was outside my apartment by an alley at the rear exit of a bar in broad daylight. The police, thank God, arrived within seconds. The blood lingered on the sidewalk for hours until someone had the presence of mind to wash it into the gutter with a hose.
For days the shadow of the blood lingered and I couldn't walk by the spot without my veins catching fire. I was afraid, not as much for my life, as for my sanity. If it happens again, I asked myself over and over, would I be brave? Would I help? Would I run?
Five years before, while visiting a friend in New York City, I had seen a man attacked in the street. I was looking out the window when it happened and my instinct was to run to the door, to go outside, to get help.
"Don't be crazy," my friend said. "The neighborhood hires guards for that." The man out the window lay slumped over a car. We called the police and an ambulance came. The next day, I asked a uniformed guard patrolling the street outside if he knew what had happened to the victim.
"No sir," he said. "There have been six stabbings on this block this week. None of the guards are stupid enough to walk these streets at night."
Later I saw a naked man with crazed eyes running down the middle of the road through heavy traffic. People barely noticed. "Don't give change to the panhandlers," my friend warned. "It only encourages them. Oh, and don't make eye contact with anyone on the subway."
That's how I don't want to feel in Portsmouth. That's why I don't live in New York City. I don't want to become helpless or learn to look away.
So the response to the death of Dean Smith, besides feeling the sadness, is to remember. This is not a random crime or an accident of fate. It is not within acceptable stats. It is a despicable, intolerable, unresolved murder of a member of our town. Now people are saying it started with a snowball fight. Those who know what happened must speak up. Those who are responsible, must be found.
Our job, yours and mine, is to look as deeply and as long at this crime as we can. We need to remember his name, all the names of all the past victims and to count them out loud. We need to brave all the fearsome places -- give these places legendary names, tell their stories to our children. It is important to walk, alone or with friends, and stand in the unsettled darkness by the dumpster in the alley that leads to Ladd Street as our ancestors stood by the flat rock in Frenchman's Lane. The blood that will not wash away flows from the collective memory of our shared violent history. It tells us we are still in danger. The longer we see that blood, the safer we all become.
Copyright © 2001 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Photographs on this page courtesy of (top) J. Dennis Robinson (middle) David Perry and (bottom) Steve Salniker. All rights reserved.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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