George Dearborn has never been described as an ordinary man. Accounts of him, written later in his life, describe him as an eccentric. He was born in 1815, with his twin brother, into a large family. Her father Freese Dearborn was originally from Hampton, but had deep roots in Exeter. The family’s emigrant ancestor, Godfrey Dearborn, had arrived with Reverend John Wheelwright in 1638. Freese moved his family from Hampton to Exeter around 1802, and had long been the town’s jailer. It must have caused some excitement when twins were born. Freese Dearborn celebrated the birth by naming his sons George Washington Dearborn and John Adams Dearborn.
George and John entered Phillips Exeter Academy in 1827. John became a businessman and moved to California. George joined an older brother in Methuen, Massachusetts in the apothecary business, earning for himself the title of “doctor” without a portfolio. He returned to Exeter to set up as a pharmacist. In 1841 he married Nancy Veasey of Stratham and they bought the old Folsom Tavern in the square in 1856. There was possibly a child born and lost to the couple according to Dearborn’s obituary. But no record of this child’s birth, death or final resting place can be found. It was, it seems, the couple’s private grief. Nancy lived to the age of 67 and, at the time of her death, George was not seen as unusual. Maybe he got a little too interested in “antiques” – the old stories, legends and things that delight many of us. His house was old. His lineage was old. Is it any wonder that he was fascinated by the things of the past?
He and Nancy attended the Episcopal Church in Exeter, although Nancy was originally Congregationalist. George was a staunch member of the Republican Party. There was nothing otherworldly about most New England Republican Episcopalians. However, a religious movement had gained popularity by the mid-19th century. As the people of New England shed rigid concepts of predestination, a vision of the afterlife began to emerge that was more egalitarian. Maybe salvation was open to everyone. Maybe the human soul was immortal. Perhaps it was possible to communicate with these souls.
Spiritualism has its roots in three mischievous sisters: Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox. They lived in Hydesville, New York in the 1850s in an old house that many believed to be haunted by the soul of a deceased traveling salesperson. One night, they began to hear knocking noises while they were lying in their bed. They then admitted to using apples attached to strings to create the sounds. They created a code for the hits and said they could communicate with the dead. The older sister, Leah, promoted them and quite a stir was started. Although later the Fox sisters – especially Maggie – would denounce their readings as bogus, the possibility of speaking with the dead intrigued many people.
Spiritism, as an idea, began to spread across the United States, especially after the Civil War left many families mourning their lost sons, brothers and husbands. The reassurance of a spiritualist, who was often female, provided the reassurance and closure that many people were looking for. There were occasional spiritualist readings in Exeter. Augusta Dwinell-Treadwell advertised in the Exeter Gazette, posing as “Clairvoyant, Trance and Prophetic Medium”. For the readings, she charged $ 1, “one half LESS than in Boston.” To skeptics, such encounters probably seemed like a scam. For many religious leaders, spiritualism was heretical. Yet for many deeply religious Christians, it was a complementary belief. You could be both an Episcopalian and a spiritualist.
George Dearborn was curious. He hosted spiritualist Elizabeth Ewer, formerly of Maine, to hold meetings at his home in the town square. “Miss Lizzie Ewer, inspirational speaker and testing medium,” read an undated advertisement, “will hold a meeting at Dr. Dearborn’s residence on Sunday, November 25 at 2:00 pm, cordially invited by the public. Dearborn, who had recently changed party affiliation after local Republicans refused to support his candidacy for city clerk, was straying from his earlier beliefs. It is not known whether this happened before or after his wife’s death. However, it was written of him: “He was a man in want of balance, and his enthusiasm often took him to extremes. In addition to communicating with the dead, Dearborn continued to collect his antiques – turning the Folsom Tavern into a curio store. “He has always been a sort of antiquarian,” read his biographical sketch in 1895, “and as his life has been almost as long as that of the century, a visit to his home is a source of great interest; for, in addition to having in his possession many relics of olden times, Mr. Dearborn’s memory is stored with facts which are his personal observation and which have now become matters of history. He grew his hair long and rarely updated his wardrobe. “His peculiar attire, flowing white hair and edgy manners,” stated his obituary, “made Dr. Dearborn a remarkable character on our streets. He was quite eccentric. He was sober, to the point of extreme asceticism. Such a headache for the locals. He earned a solid income from renting, but rarely spent anything. After his death in 1898, his will bequeathed most of his estate, including the Folsom Tavern, to his spiritualist medium, Lizzie Ewer. She lived in the house for the next ten years, holding meetings, maintaining the building. She sold it in 1909 and moved out of town. There were always spiritualists in Exeter until the twentieth century. A group known as the Vine Spiritual Society advertised meetings until 1929. Dearborn may have been considered eccentric by its more conventional townspeople, but perhaps he felt in the company of his antiques, his stories and his dear departed. Who has to say?
Barbara Rimkunas is the Curator of the Historical Society of Exeter. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Register online at www.exeterhistory.org.