Today in Derry, Windham, and Londonderry there are somewhere around two dozen lawyers. Some of these are in general practice; others specialize in bankruptcy or corporate law. If you were in our town in the years around the Revolutionary War, you choice of attorneys would number exactly one the Honorable John Prentice-and his legal specialty was doing whatever his client asked him to do.
John Prentice was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1747. His father was a barrel maker and had to struggle to support his large family. To make ends meet, his mother Susanna had to work outside the home. She labored as a “sweeper” at Harvard College to pay for her son’s tuition at the school. His class at Harvard consisted of the sons of New England’s wealthiest families including the future baronet William Pepperell. It must have been difficult for the teenage boy to move in such a high social environment while his mother was in public view as the school’s janitor.
For the rest of his life, he would always acknowledge that any success he achieved was the result of his mother’s sacrifices. He is remembered as saying, “She was one of the best mothers, and I loved her tenderly. No women ever possessed a sweeter disposition or discharge the duties of her station with prudence or greater fidelity.” When he received word of her passing, he stayed in bed for many days in deepest depression over his loss.
After college he studied law under the royal governor’s Attorney General Samuel Livermore, who lived in the section of Londonderry that would in 1827 become Derry. For a while, he practiced law in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where in May 1774 he signed a public letter of support for the royal governor. For such actions, he always remained under suspicion by the supports of the patriot cause. He would later twice recant his brief espousal of the Tory governor. Five months later in October 1774, he publicly ate crow by posting a letter that announced: “Whereas I the subscriber, signed and address to the late Governor Hutchinson, I wish the devil had had the address before I had seen it.”
In June 1775, Prentice moved to Derry, where he again had to give a public retraction of the pro-Tory letter. According to tradition, his presence in Derry was not met with a great deal of support. Many townsfolk didn’t want their community’s reputation to be sullied by the presence of a lawyer. He was warned not to start a practice here. This was at the beginning of the Revolutionary War and it was likely that many saw the legal profession as in direct opposition to the natural rights of man.
Standing up to his critics, Prentice proposed that his right to stay be decided by a trial by combat. The local Scots thought this reasonable. They put up as the champion “a might bruiser.” The young lawyer took a real pummeling but gave back nearly as good as he got. Because Prentice took the beating in a manly manner, he earned local acceptance, Derry now had its first full-time lawyer.
John Prentice married well. His first wife was Ruth Lemon, the daughter of a wealthy Marblehead physician. Suddenly he was no longer the poor charwoman’s son. He used part of her dowry to purchased 234 acres of land on Lane Road from his teacher Samuel Livermore. There in East Derry, he built a huge mansion with a ballroom and a third floor cupola that was the size of a small house. The house would eventually contain some ten thousand square feet of floor space, making it the largest house ever built in Derry. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1926.
He represented the town in the state legislature for thirteen years, starting in 1785. He was Speaker of the House in 1794, 1795, 1798-1805. This makes him the longest serving Speaker in our state’s history. In 1805, the Democratic Party won the majority in the House and Prentice elected to return to private life rather than become minority leader. He also served as the New Hampshire’s Attorneys General from 1787 to 1793. In 1798 he was appointed to the Superior Court but declined the honor.
Death came to John Prentice on may 18, 1808 at age sixty-one. He now rests in a marble box-vault at Forest Hill Cemetery. His grave is pretty much ignored by passersby. Time, acid rain, and lichen have done their best to make the inscription virtually illegible and its granite base need repointing. Perhaps on the anniversary of his passing a wreath could be placed on his grave to honor the town’s first lawyer and his fight to earn respect here in Derry, over 232 years ago.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard wasborn, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard has also been a columnist for the Derry News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Nutfield News, and the Manchester Union Leader.
Leave Richard a comment on the story. Copies of his book are still available at the Derry Public Library.