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The Drama of Exeter’s Court

While examining early maps of the town recently, a group of Exeter Girl Scouts noted that street names were once far more functional than today.  School Street had an actual school located on it, Town Farm Road led to the town farm, and, in particular, Court Street was the location of the court house.  Of course, it was carefully explained, there have been two Court Streets in Exeter.  The first one is now called Front Street, but in its earlier days, the court house had indeed stood right in the center of the street.

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Exeter was the county seat for Rockingham County from the time of the Revolution until 1997, when the county offices, court and jail were moved to Brentwood.  During its tenure, the court house in Exeter served as a lively form of entertainment.  "The sessions of court were usually attended by crowds," wrote William Perry in his book, Exeter in 1830, "and the town was well filled, as those from a distance were compelled to spend the night."  When the court was in town, social life improved.  Elizabeth Dow Leonard recalled, "Social and formal parties were made for its members, and new interest in civil proceedings was constantly excited."

Court proceedings were sparring matches between lawyers in those days.  By today's standards, there was little evidence presented.  Witnesses may have testified, but there was usually no forensic evidence.  Cases turned on the lawyer's ability to spin the testimony.  Perry commented, "There was a greater display of oratory in the arguing of cases at that time than now.  Mr. Sullivan was a natural orator, and even we boys liked to go into the gallery and listen to his musical voice and well rounded periods, although we were not old enough to appreciate his argument."

Spending the day at court for entertainment necessitated no little amount of endurance.  B. Judson Perkins made the following entry in his diary in 1860, "January 25. B. F. Butler of Lowell made his argument today on the will of Betty Farmer.  It was about 7 hours long and was very able.  There was a great crowd in attendance."  Perkins was a student at Phillips Exeter Academy and could ill afford to spend an entire day away from his studies, and yet the guilty pleasure of attending a trial drew him there.

The women of Exeter were also drawn to the drama in the courthouse.  "The court was open to ladies, and if the cases were interesting to us, we went in to judge for ourselves what sort of men sat in judgment upon us," commented Elizabeth Dow Leonard, "Ariana, the daughter of Judge Smith, before woman suffrage was thought of, pursued a course of legal studies with her father, and many lawyers used to declare her opinion as reliable as his; certainly it was more so than her brother's, who was admitted to the Bar and managed some important cases."

Leonard fondly recalled many of the visiting legal teams, most of whom boarded with local families.  "Levi Woodbury and Franklin Pierce were brilliant members of our Rockingham courts.  Pierce, who was for awhile President of the United States and was a showy and exceedingly fascinating society man, with great versatility of talent and person and remarkable conversational powers.  His morality was more than doubtful."  Leonard also remembered Daniel Webster's days in Exeter, "Webster's portly massive form, his great expanse of forehead, full, flashing black eyes, and proud and sometimes sullen dignity of manner, once seen could never be forgotten.  ...he seemed almost superhuman."

These Herculean personalities clashed in front of the all-male juries. Daniel Webster frequently found himself across the aisle from Jeremiah Mason.  Described by Exeter historian, Charles Bell, as, "unequaled in cross-examination," Leonard thought Mason's methods harsh. "There was a refinement of cruelty in his manner of treating witnesses.  I heard my father say he once saw a course, hard, but honest butcher swoon quite away under a cross-examination of Mason's on the witness stand.  He gave an honest statement against Mason's client.  Under Mason's cross-examination, he got confused, contradicted himself at all points and at last fainted.  'There,' said Mason, with his calm sardonic manner, 'You see what the evidence of your most important witness is worth!'"

With this kind of drama, it's no wonder that the court house was the center of attention.  Unfortunately, its location in the middle of the town square, roughly where the bandstand is today, and a bit too close to a few local taverns, was seen as a distraction to the lawyers.  In 1840 the courthouse was moved to a new street that was subsequently named Court Street.  Tired of changing maps, however, when the court moved back to Front Street in 1855, the names were left alone.