These scenic falls, 1.6 miles west of here on the Lamprey River, once provided waterpower and industry for the early settlers. A deed dated April 11, 1694, shows that Capt. Packer, Jonathan Woodman, James Davis, Joseph Meder, and James Thomas were granted "the hole streame of Lamprele River for erecting a saw mill or mills." Thomas Packer of Portsmouth was a merchant, physician, judge, member of the King’s Council, and father of the famous Sheriff Thomas Packer.
Located at the corner of Bennett Road and NH 108 this marker was erected in 1985.
The actual falls are located 1.6 miles down Bennett Rd at the bridge on Packer’s Falls Road as shown above.
The view downstream from the bridge.
As the marker notes, Thomas Packer was granted land to build sawmills and other structures for the purposes of processing the resources of New Hampshire for trade and shipment back to England. He was joined by multiple partners, but Packer retained about half the grant on the Lamprey River.
Packer’s Falls Bridge.
As this grant occurred in 1694, we’ve made quite a jump from the last Marker (1658). As you can imagine, a lot happened between these two markers which I’ll document in my next post. The point to take away here is that the settlers were pushing inland and claiming more land as the early expansion of New England accelerated.
We can learn a bit more from this snippet from Landmarks of Ancient Dover (1892) Page 190:
Packer’s Falls. These falls are in that part of Lamprey river which flows through the southern part of Durham. The name is now confined to the falls just below the bridge on the road to Newmarket—the first falls below Wiswall’s ; but it originally comprised the whole series of falls or rapids along this portion of the river. These falls were in early times generally called "the second falls" a name that included the falls where General Sullivan afterwards established his mills. (See Sullivan’s Falls and Second Falls.)
The name of Packer’s falls was derived, not from Thomas Packer, the sheriff who hung Ruth Blay, but from his father, Col. Thomas Packer, also of Portsmouth, who was at once physician, judge, lieutenant-colonel, and member of the governor’s council.
The town of Dover, Ap. 11, 1694, "granted to Capt. Packer, Jonathan Woodman, James Davis, Joseph Meder, and James Thomas, the whole stream of Lamprele River for the erecting of a sawmill or mills, that is to say, the one half to Capt. Thomas Packer, the other half to the other four men befour mentioned."
Packer’s Falls are so called as early as 1718.
There is a hidden clue in this marker however, with the innocent ending:
“and father of the famous Sheriff Thomas Packer”
And from the narrative above:
“Thomas Packer, the sheriff who hung Ruth Blay”
Oh yeah … my Historic Marker Radar was beeping like crazy!
The first executions ever in Portsmouth were carried out by Sherriff Packer in 1739, and involved two women accused of murdering an Infant. Nearly 30 years later Ms. Blay, a 25 year old schoolteacher was similarly accused of murdering her newborn child. It was later found to be stillborn.
Her friends made numerous attempts to stay the execution, and a reprieve was on the way, but too late to save her. As the story goes, the Sherriff moved up the execution time by one hour, so he wouldn’t miss his dinner. The reprieve arrived 20 minutes after her hanging. She was buried in an unmarked grave at South St. Cemetery in Portsmouth, that some say she and her stillborn child haunt to this very day.
Only 3 women were ever executed in Portsmouth, all 3 by Sherriff Packer. His execution of Ruth Blay was immortalized in a poem by Albert Laighton “The Ballad of Ruth Blay.” Perhaps the Historic Marker should read “the infamous Sherriff Thomas Packer.”
In the worn and dusty annals
Of our old and quiet town,
With its streets of leafy beauty,
And its houses quaint and brown,–
With its dear associations,
Hallowed by the touch of Time,–
You may read this thrilling legend,
This sad tale of wrong and crime.
In the drear month of December,
Ninety years ago today,
Hundreds of the village people
Saw the hanging of Ruth Blay;–
Saw her, clothed in silk and satin,
Borne beneath the gallows-tree,
Dressed as in her wedding garments,
Soon the bride of Death to be;–
Saw her tears of shame and anguish,
Heard her shrieks of wild despair
Echo through the neighboring woodlands,
Thrill the clear and frosty air;–
Till their hearts were moved to pity
At her fear and agony:
"Doomed to die," they said, "unjustly,
Weak, but innocent is she."
When at last, in tones of warning,
From its high and airy tower,
Slowly, with its tongue of iron,
Tolled the bell the fatal hour.
Like the sound of distant billows,
When the storm is wild and loud,
Breaking on the rocky headlands,
Ran a murmur through the crowd.
And a voice among them shouted,
"Pause before the deed is done;
We have asked reprieve and pardon
For the poor, misguided one."
But these words of Sheriff Packer
Rang above the swelling noise:
"Must I wait and lose my dinner?
Draw away the cart, my boys!"
Fold thy hands in prayer, O woman!
Take thy last look of the sea;
Take thy last look of the landscape;
God be merciful to thee!
Stifled groans, a gasp, a shudder,
And the guilty deed was done;
On a scene of cruel murder
Coldly looked the Winter sun.
Then the people, pale with horror,
Looked with sudden awe behind,
As a field of grain in Autumn
Turns before a passing wind;
For distinctly in the distance,
In the long and frozen street,
They could hear the ringing echoes
Of a horse’s sounding feet.
Nearer came the sound and louder,
Till a steed with panting breath,
From its sides the white foam dripping,
Halted at the scene of death;
And a messenger alighted,
Crying to the crowd, "Make way!
This I bear to Sheriff Packer;
‘Tis a pardon for Ruth Blay!"
But they answered not nor heeded,
For the last fond hope had fled;
In their deep and speechless sorrow,
Pointing only to the dead.
And that night, with burning bosoms,
Muttering curses fierce and loud,
At the house of Sheriff Packer
Gathered the indignant crowd,–
Shouting, as upon a gallows
A grim effigy they bore,
"Be the name of Thomas Packer
A reproach forevermore!"