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This witty carpenter was
Portsmouth's "Court Jester"

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Doctor Moses--Single tens--Small glass--Congress at Albany--"Dr. Moses's bottle"-- Conjuration--His widow.

PEACE to the ashes of our good old friend, the late Thomas Moses, who for so many years was ever ready with his kind attentions at the Bath house, and who led the life and died the death of a Christian, in 1856. We honor his memory, but we only speak of him now as a connecting link for introducing his father, Samuel Moses, the famous barber of the last century, of whom has been told many a lively story. But we cannot at present say much of him either, as our ramble carries us back yet one generation further, to his father, Joseph Moses, familiarly called Doctor.

Dr. Joseph Moses was a native of England, an eccentric humorist, who was by trade a house-carpenter, and about one hundred and twenty years ago lived in a house on the corner of Fleet and Congress streets, built on the spot now occupied by Jackson & Co.'s express office. The house was of one story, with two rooms only; one of them was occupied by the father, mother and nine children; in the other the cow was kept, in the yard her hay stacked. Dr. Moses, although in snug quarters, found room to spare; for when one son had learned the trade of a shoemaker, he had a shop parted off in his father's mansion. The house for many years was without a shingle or a clapboard. About the year 1750, when the North meeting-house was shingled, the old shingles were carried to his house, and formed the first outer covering of the Doctor's residence.

The title of Doctor was acquired from this circumstance. He was employed on a job at a place where he frequently found his spirit bottle emptied without his agency. He put a powerful preparation in the bottle, and left it. Soon after the spirit again disappeared from the bottle, and poor Sambo, the black, thought his spirit too was about leaving him. Sambo recovered and was cured of spirit stealing--and his master gave Moses the title of Doctor, which he ever after retained.

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The Court Jester & the Ten-Penny Joke

In those days the General Assembly held their session in a room at what is now the corner of State and Pleasant streets, on the same spot occupied in 1860 as our city government rooms. The Doctor had less respect for the Assembly than he had for the enjoyment of a clever joke. A man from the country one day in pursuit of a place to buy some nails, asked Dr. Moses where he could find some single tens. "Go down there," said the Doctor, pointing to the door of ten in council, "and you will find them." The man entered the room, and abruptly said, "Let me have a pound of your single tens." The honorable dignitaries felt deeply insulted, and were about to have the man committed for contempt, when the countryman finding that an imposition had been played upon him, expressed sorrow for the unintential intrusion: moreover pleading that he was directed to call there by a man, a description of whom left no doubt that it was the Doctor.

The matter was now understood; the man was dismissed with an admonition, and a messenger dispatched to summon Doctor Moses before the august body. The Doctor at length appears--the charge is made, the Doctor pleads guilty--and for his contempt of the Assembly is commanded to get down on his knees and ask pardon. The Doctor submits resignedly to the execution of the sentence. In a prominent part of the room he bends on his knees and humbly asks pardon for any offence he may have committed; then rising upright before them he commences rapidly rubbing the dust from his knees, exclaiming in no smothered accents, "A dirty house--a dirty house!"

At one time he called on Secretary Atkinson on some business. The Secretary, agreeably to the custom of the times, tendered the Doctor a glass of wine, in one of those miniature glasses which may now be seen in collections of ancient glass ware. The Doctor emptied the glass, smacked his lips, praised its flavor, and asked the Hon. Secretary how old it was? "Of the vintage of about sixty years ago," was the reply. "Well," said the Doctor, "I never in my life saw so small a thing of such an age."

Dr. Moses became so great a favorite of Hon. Theodore Atkinson, who was a dear lover of humor, that when he was appointed a delegate to the Congress which met at Albany in 1754, he took Doctor Moses with him, nominally as waiter, but really to enjoy his wit. In the evening, when nothing was doing in Congress, the Doctor was sometimes called to the parlor after the punch bowl had been prepared. He would then tell some droll story, and enjoy the treat with the rest. On one of these occasions he became rather too familiar, telling his honorable associate, "You ain't fit to carry garbage to a bear." "Man, you are too bold," said Mr. A. "I cannot receive such a remark from you; you must either recall your words or quit my service." "Well, I will take them back," said the inveterate joker, "You are fit." Nothing more could be said to such a subject.

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The Doctor Moses Bottle

"Doctor Moses's bottle" is a term applied to demijohns, in use by some of our older citizens to this day. It originated in this manner: The Doctor was employed by one of our liberal citizens to do a job of work. He was on hand very early in the morning, as it was the custom in former times to do two or three hours' work before breakfast. The early attendance pleased his employer, and as a mark of his approbation, he told the Doctor to bring a bottle and he would fill it with some old Jamaica. The Doctor's next appearance found him accompanied with a bottle, which, instead of being of the common junk size, was of five gallons capacity. The unexpected receptacle, being within the bargain, was filled by the astonished employer agreeably to promise, and from that day in Portsmouth the demijohn received the name of "Dr. Moses's Bottle."

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A Tale of Fortune Telling

The Doctor made some pretensions to necromancy, fortune-telling, or what perhaps in modern days would be called spiritualism. A man from Kittery applied to him one day to know who had stolen a valuable rope. He told him to call in a few hours, and he would make a conjuration. In the mean time the Doctor made inquiry to ascertain who was the worst fellow in Kittery, and one Michael Mahoney was pointed out as a bad fellow. He then wrote with onion juice on a piece of paper, which was invisible until exposed to heat:

"I do not laugh, neither do I joke--
"But Michael Mahoney stole your rope."

The man came for the result of his divination, and he handed him the piece of white paper as the result, which was hid from him, but would be disclosed when he exposed the paper to the heat. The man paid his fee, and when the terrified Michael Mahoney was informed that the spirits had exposed him by writing with an invisible hand, he acknowledged the theft and gave up the plunder.

Doctor Moses, when shingling the Freeman house, which now stands on the corner of Hanover and High streets, fell, and was ever afterwards lame.

There was a school kept in the house on Congress street during the Revolutionary war, by "Marm Moses," probably the widow of the Doctor. Soon after the peace of 1783, Nathaniel Dean, from Exeter, came to Portsmouth, and built the present house, now owned by Jackson & Akerman, which he occupied for about forty years, doing business in his latter days in the brick building now occupied by Thomas Treadwell.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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