Story of a bad boy – Portsmouth revisited

Market Square by Joe Parks

Market Square by Joe Parks

I’ve rhapsodized a bit in a past post about how much I enjoyed a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and hoped to return. I got my wish and recently spent several days there teaching a workshop. One of the great things about my job is access to historic sites and in this case, the workshop was held at a grand eighteenth-century home– yes, one that President George Washington really did visit (in 1789).

Governor John Langdon House

Governor John Langdon House

The large white Governor John Langdon House sits two blocks from the center of town. Langdon, while not a name known to most Americans, was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and three-term governor of New Hampshire. Our guide called him the “founding father who didn’t make it into the history books.” In any case, he took advantage of the booming maritime economy in the 1700s and had his hands in the lucrative privateering industry during the American Revolution. The house was meant to show his status in society and is filled with amazing molding, handcarved pine meant to look like masonry, and wainscotting. Beyond the double parlor, other rooms in the house offer different stories. A rector and his wife lived in the house for forty years and rebuilt a fire-damaged section in the popular Greek revival style. At the end of the nineteenth century some Langdon descendants bought the house and added a large dining room designed by Stanford White, an exact replica of a room in another house in Portsmouth.

glossI often look for a book to read that is set in a place I’m visiting. I found the perfect book at the indie bookstore in town. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich is a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1869 and described as a humorous, poignant yarn of one lad’s adventures. Sound familiar? It was supposedly the inspiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The book is set in the fictional town of Rivermouth, really Portsmouth. The town comes to life in this endearing tale of nineteenth-century boyhood. The protagonist, Tom Bailey, lives with his grandfather Captain Nutter, his sister and an Irish servant. Tom gets into all kinds of troubles as he interacts with the neighborhood kids. It’s considered one of the first in the “bad boy” genre of literature.

The Nutter house, where Aldrich lived, sits not far from the Langdon house. It, too, is restored and open to the public, part of Strawbery Banke, an excellent 10-acre outdoor museum featuring three hundred years of history. Alas, I had left Portsmouth by the time I learned about the Nutter house. I guess I’ll just have to return again.

Check out my past post about Strawbery Banke.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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