Capt. Jonathan Burnham with the Hampton company arrived in Ipswich on the morning of April 21, 1775 after an all night march, and found the town panic-struck. The town was nearly defenseless, as more than three hundred of its men had marched off with their Ipswich captains to fight the British regulars at Concord and Lexington. A rumor had spread that two British ships were in the river, full of men, and that they were going to burn the town. About two hundred men, many elderly, were mustered to protect the town, and Capt. Burnham stayed as their commander.

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about the sequence of events in his book, “Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony“:

“It has come down in history as the ‘Great Ipswich Fright, and it furnished Mr. Whittier material for a very spirited tale in his Prose Miscellanies.” The innocent occasion of it all was the discovery of some small vessels near the entrance of Ipswich River, one at least known to be a cutter, and it was believed that they were come to relieve the captives there in jail. We may be sure there was fright with good reason at the farms on Castle Hill and Castle Neck when those British vessels were seen standing in over the bar.”

The following story is from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Great Ipswich Fright.”

The Frere into the dark gazed forth
The sounds went onward towards the north
The murmur of tongues the tramp and tread
Of a mighty army to battle led

ipswich_fright_sketchThe 21st of April, 1775 witnessed an awful commotion in the little village of Ipswich. Old men, and boys, (the middle-aged had marched to Lexington some days before) and all the women in the place who were not bedridden or sick, came rushing as with one accord to the green in front of the meeting-house.

A rumor, which no one attempted to trace or authenticate, spread from lip to lip that the British regulars had landed on the coast and were marching upon the town. A scene of indescribable terror and confusion followed. Defense was out of the question, as the young and able-bodied men of the entire region round about had marched to Cambridge and Lexington.

The news of the battle at the latter place, exaggerated in all its details, had been just received; terrible stories of the atrocities committed by the dreaded “regulars” had been related; and it was believed that nothing short of a general extermination of the patriots–men, women, and children–was contemplated by the British commander. Almost simultaneously the people of Beverly, a village a few miles distant, were smitten with the same terror. How the rumor was communicated no one could tell. It was there believed that the enemy had fallen upon Ipswich, and massacred the inhabitants without regard to age or sex.

It was about the middle of the afternoon of this day that the people of Newbury, ten miles farther north, assembled in an informal meeting, at the town-house to hear accounts from the Lexington fight, and to consider what action was necessary in consequence of that event. Parson Carey was about opening the meeting with prayer when hurried hoof-beats sounded up the street, and a messenger, loose-haired and panting for breath, rushed up the staircase. “Turn out, turn out, for God’s sake,” he cried, “or you will be all killed! The regulars are marching on us; they are at Ipswich now, cutting and slashing all before them!”

whittierUniversal consternation was the immediate result of this fearful announcement; Parson Carey’s prayer died on his lips; the congregation dispersed over the town, carrying to every house the tidings that the regulars had come. Men on horseback went galloping up and down the streets, shouting the alarm. Women and children echoed it from every corner. The panic became irresistible, uncontrollable. Cries were heard that the dreaded invaders had reached Oldtown Bridge, a little distance from the village, and that they were killing all whom they encountered. Flight was resolved upon. All the horses and vehicles in the town were put in requisition; men, women, and children hurried as for life towards the north. Some threw their silver and pewter ware and other valuables into wells.

Large numbers crossed the Merrimac, and spent the night in the deserted houses of Salisbury, whose inhabitants, stricken by the strange te
rror, had fled into New Hampshire, to take up their lodgings in dwellings also abandoned by their owners. A few individuals refused to fly with the multitude; some, unable to move by reason of sickness, were left behind by their relatives.

One old gentleman, whose excessive corpulence rendered retreat on his part impossible, made a virtue of necessity; and, seating himself in his doorway with his loaded king’s arm, upbraided his more nimble neighbors, advising them to do as he did, and “stop and shoot the devils.”

Many ludicrous instances of the intensity of the terror might be related. One man got his family into a boat to go to Ram Island for safety. He imagined he was pursued by the enemy through the dusk of the evening, and was annoyed by the crying of an infant in the after part of the boat. “Do throw that squalling brat overboard,” he called to his wife, “or we shall be all discovered and killed!” A poor woman ran four or five miles up the river, and stopped to take breath and nurse her child, when she found to her great horror that she had brought off the cat instead of the baby!

Illustraton from Sam Sherman's book, Ipswich, Stories from the River's Mouth.
Illustraton from Sam Sherman’s book, Ipswich, Stories from the River’s Mouth.

All through that memorable night the terror swept onward towards the north with a speed which seems almost miraculous, producing everywhere the same results. At midnight a horseman, clad only in shirt and breeches, dashed by our grandfather’s door, in Haverhill, twenty miles up the river. “Turn out! Get a musket! Turn out!” he shouted; “the regulars are landing on Plum Island!” “I’m glad of it,” responded the old gentleman from his chamber window; “I wish they were all there, and obliged to stay there.” When it is understood that Plum Island is little more than a naked sand-ridge, the benevolence of this wish can be readily appreciated.

All the boats on the river were constantly employed for several hours in conveying across the terrified fugitives. Through “the dead waste and middle of the night” they fled over the border into New Hampshire. Some feared to take the frequented roads, and wandered over wooded hills and through swamps where the snows of the late winter had scarcely melted. They heard the tramp and outcry of those behind them, and fancied that the sounds were made by pursuing enemies. Fast as they fled, the terror, by some unaccountable means, outstripped them. They found houses deserted and streets strewn with household stuffs, abandoned in the hurry of escape.

Towards morning, however, the tide partially turned. Grown men began to feel ashamed of their fears. The old Anglo-Saxon hardihood paused and looked the terror in its face. Single or in small parties, armed with such weapons as they found at hand, among which long poles, sharpened and charred at the end, were conspicuous, they began to retrace their steps. In the meantime such of the good people of Ipswich as were unable or unwilling to leave their homes became convinced that the terrible rumor which had nearly depopulated their settlement was unfounded.

Among those who had there awaited the onslaught of the regulars was a young man from Exeter, New Hampshire. Becoming satisfied that the whole matter was a delusion, he mounted his horse and followed after the retreating multitude, undeceiving all whom he overtook. Late at night he reached Newburyport, greatly to the relief of its sleepless inhabitants, and hurried across the river, proclaiming as he rode the welcome tidings. The sun rose upon haggard and jaded fugitives, worn with excitement and fatigue, slowly returning homeward, their satisfaction at the absence of danger somewhat moderated by an unpleasant consciousness of the ludicrous scenes of their premature night flitting.

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