Lady Mary Hirst Pepperrell had impeccable taste. So say many sources, but the best indicator is the home she built in 1760 on Route 103 in Kittery Point.
The Lady Pepperrell House is one of Maine’s outstanding examples of 18th century Georgian-era architecture. Its simple clean lines, graceful ionic pilasters, and large windows that flood the home with light invite house envy today. But by the mid-19th century, many said the luxurious house was cursed.
It certainly looked cursed. Writing in the 1870s, historian Samuel Adams Drake described the house as “a somber old mansion, having, in despite of some relics of a former splendor, an unmistakable air of neglect and decay. The massive entrance door hung by a single fastening, the fluted pilasters on either side were rotting away, window panes were shattered, chimney tops in ruins, the fences prostrate. It was nothing but a wreck ashore. This was the house built by Lady Pepperell, after the death of Sir William. Report said it was haunted; indeed I found it so, and by a living phantom.”
Lady Pepperrell’s house, built for her after the death of her husband Sir William, had almost become a metaphor for downfall of the Pepperrell family, except that the home’s decline began many years after the Pepperrell family’s Revolutionary War misfortune.
Besides, Loyalist William (Sparhawk) Pepperrell (who I’ve written about in another post) might have lost his property and most of what he held dear, but he lived a purposeful life in England after the war and ushered his four children successfully into adulthood. The Lady, his grandmother, lived peacefully in her house, with no curse ever in evidence, until her death in 1789.
Such was not the case for the branch of the Cutts family that purchased Lady Pepperrell’s home in 1800 from Catherine and Daniel Humphreys, who had acquired it from Elizabeth Sparhawk (who was Catherine’s grandmother and Lady Pepperrell’s daughter).
In the 18th century, the Cutts clan, whose ancestors were among the first settlers of Kittery, established itself as one of the leading families of Kittery and Portsmouth. By 1800, Joseph Cutts was a captain and merchant wealthy enough to buy the elegant home, keeping it in the family, more or less. (Cutts was a descendent, via his mother, of the original William Pepperrell family).
But on the other side of the ocean, troubles stirred by the rise of Napoleon set in a motion a chain of events that led to the chaining of Charles Cutts, the Captain’s son, in an upstairs chamber. He suffered from mental illness and reportedly was often chained to the floor to prevent injury to himself or others.
The Captain himself lost his sanity, although he lived a long life, dying at age 97 in 1861. In 1839, another son, naval officer Joseph Cutts, killed himself in what once had been Lady Pepperrell’s bedchamber. His death might have been the culminating blow for his sister, Sarah “Sally” Chauncey Cutts, caretaker to her father and brothers. She too developed mental illness.
The key event in the demise of the Cutts family was Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act, passed in 1807 in a misguided attempt to stop British and French ships from seizing American vessels and to stop the British from impressing American merchant sailors into military service. The Act banned all trade with Britain and France, both of which were the new nation’s biggest trading partners.
With the bill’s passage, Captain Cutts lost his livelihood. He could neither buy nor sell. His ships rotted in an anchorage behind Gerrish Island. By 1813, he was bankrupt and indebted to the government for unpaid duties. (Some sources say the house was seized by the government for non-payment of taxes, and later redeemed by either Sally or another relative in the extended Cutts family). Although it’s likely that a genetics played a large role in the family’s mental illness, the strain of losing his fortune probably contributed to Captain Cutts’s breakdown.
On his undated mid-19th century visit, historian Drake described Sally as “a harmless maniac,” who was “the sole inhabitant of the old house; she and it were fallen into hopeless ruin together.” Her appearance, he wrote, “was weird and witch-like, and betokened squalid poverty. An old calash almost concealed her features from observation, except when she raised her head and glanced at us in a scared, furtive sort of way.”
She invited Drake and his companion into the house. “Fragment of the original paper, representing ancient ruins, had peeled off the walls,” he wrote, “and vandal hands had wrenched away the the pictured tiles from the fire-places. The upper rooms were but a repetition of the disorder and misery below stairs.”
Sally led Drake and his companion to an upstairs “apartment,” where she “relapsed into imbecility, and seemed little conscious of our presence.” In her room, “some antiquated furniture, doubtless family heirlooms, a small stove, and a bed, constituted all her worldly goods,” wrote Drake. “As she crooned over a scanty fire of two or three wet sticks, muttering to herself, and striving to warm her weathered hands, I thought I beheld in her the impersonation of Want and Despair.”
I am a little skeptical as to whether or not Drake visited Sally Cutts in the Pepperrell House. She died in 1874, (a year before Drake’s book was published) and spent time prior to her death living with friends who had taken her in. Another writer, James H. Head, wrote of a similar visit to Sally Cutts in November of 1864, with his account published in the Boston Journal. Sarah Orne Jewett presented a barely fictionalized account of a visit with “Miss Sally Chauncey” in Deephaven: Selected Stories and Sketches (1877), so presumably she visited her as well.
Did poor Sally regularly open her door to touring writers who wanted to invade her privacy? Or did Drake build upon and embellish the accounts of Head and Jewett? And am I the latest in a series of writers fascinated by the Cutts family history, even if it is a history that they would have preferred to keep private?
The story of the Cutts family, however, is worth remembering, because their family history is a microcosm for the economic devastation that Jefferson’s Embargo wreaked in the Seacoast region. Their pain helps us to better understand how the region suffered during this period of economic collapse. Ships rotted in harbors. Many merchants declared bankruptcy. A ripple effect reverberated throughout the local economy. Portsmouth, once a thriving port, became a backwater instead of a rival to Boston or New York.
The Embargo Act inadvertently paved the way for the Seacoast region to become what it is today: historically rich, but economically underdeveloped compared to what it might have become. The Seacoast region is not Boston, with its packed roadways and paved landscapes.
The losses suffered by the Cutts family and many others during the Embargo era have become our gain, in that we live in what is now an economically vibrant but beautiful and sustainable community. The story of the Cuttses connects with our story today.
The Lady Pepperrell House is protected by a preservation easement administered by Historic New England. Other Kittery landmarks, however, such as the Pepperrell Mansion and the Bray House, are not protected. Although both homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and currently are owned by good stewards, they could be torn down tomorrow if a property owner wanted to take that path.
These architectural artifacts of history remind us that we are not historical islands, despite our high tech gadgets and way of life. We live in both a global economy and an historical ecosystem where the past reverberates into the present.
Embargoes and lost fortunes lead to economic decline, paving the way for resurrection and reclamation. Trolleys connect the city to the country, and bridges and automobiles (as I’ve written about here) swiftly change a way of life. A grange hall becomes The Dance Hall, and a building where the Masons gathered transforms to a collection of gathering places for locals and visitors discovering the pleasures of walking across bridges.
Beware of curses– but only when we forget them. In remembering Sally Cuts and her family, perhaps we’ll take more care as we construct our own story.
Resources and sources
For a great example of connecting the past to the present, read about Stories from The Grange and Kittery’s Foreside, a project organized by Drika Overton of The Dance Hall.
For more information the architectural details of the Lady Pepperrell House, see “Palladian Perfection, New England Style, Part 2: The Lady Pepperell House at Kittery Point Maine” at The Down East Dilettante.
To read more about Drake’s visit, see Chapter 10, “At Kittery Point, Maine,” in Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast, by Samuel Adams Drake (1875).
James Head’s Boston Journal account of his 1864 visit to Sally Cutts can be found in the Pepperrell House vertical file at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
For more on the oldest homes in Kittery Point, see Colonial Village, by John Eldridge Frost (1947, publisher unknown)