“Have you guys visited our house before?” our lovely guide inquired. My friend Jef and I were at the Burgwin-Wright House on the corner of Third and Market streets for a quick trip back in time to colonial Wilmington. Jef distractedly nodded “yes” while intently studying a clock. I noted the last time I visited was in elementary school. All I remember was a lady in colonial costume, a dungeon, a tunnel, and General Cornwallis. It all congealed into the soup of “long ago and far away.”
My recent experience of hauntings by dead presidents (read Live Local, Oct. 4- 26 editions) has me rethinking a lot of what I thought I knew about our country—how politics and history actually function. Is the past ever really the past? How much does it touch and influence the now? With questions brewing in my mind, it was time to make good on one of my resolutions: Visit the Burgwin-Wright House and spend time getting in touch with Wilmington’s roots in the American Revolution. I recruited Jef because he is my history-nut friend, as demonstrated admirably when we took a tangent to discuss General Howe and Admiral Howe (brothers), and the loss of Saratoga.
“It was like, ‘You’re my kid brother—I got this. Let me show you how it’s done,’” Jef summed up the situation as basically the same story of brothers since the beginning of time.
Our guide smiled at us both, probably wondering how she had gotten us. Then she burst one of my favorite bubbles: She informed us General Cornwallis probably had not occupied the Burgwin-Wright House after all.
“Yes, even though we have a rock outside saying so…” she pointed out a window toward the carved monument.
What? Wait a minute …
She confirmed Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, where he spent approximately two weeks and probably planned for the battle of Yorktown. But, most likely, he did not stay at one of the grandest houses in the area.
Burgwin-Wright has an interesting history. Initially, the jail was built on site, using ballast stones from ships that sailed into the port. Some of the old holding cells are on display still.
“You can see why the Bill of Rights was important,” our guide gestured to a trap door in the floor, which led to a holding cell. Indeed, looking into the dark, windowless, unvented cavern with no sanitation and envisioning spending possibly months in there with several other people came sharply into view—habeus corpus; Fourth Amendment (protection for illegal search and seizure); the Sixth Amendment (right to a speedy trial, right to counsel, right to face accusers); the Eight Amendment (no excessive bail and no cruel and unusual punishment).
“Think about it,” Jef narrated. “You’re down there for months, waiting for the judge to come, then you get brought in front of him in a line with other people and it’s like: ‘hang him,’ ‘lash him,’ ‘fine him,’ ‘and him.’” He pointed at a line of imaginary prisoners. Outside, the holding pens for debtors waiting to work off their debts seemed a little more humane: At least there was sunlight and ventilation—until our guide noted that 15 or 20 people would be held there and slept there.
“Where?” I blurted out. “You can’t lie down with 15 other people in there?” I mean, it isn’t even as wide and high as a single-bay garage! She smiled and noted that when you are tired, you can find a place to sleep—even if it is on top of someone else.
After a mysterious fire took out the jail, John Burgwin bought the property and built a beautiful house on top of the stone foundation from the jail. “Convenient for a wealthy guy looking for a town home?” Jef speculated and waggled his eyebrows.
Town home? Yes, Burgwin had extensive plantation holdings, including most of what is now Castle Hayne. But he needed a place to stay when he came to town to do business and conduct his work as a public servant, which included working as Gov. Dobbs’ private secretary. “That’s still a two-day trip,” Jef commented about the distance to travel to the plantation. “He needed a place to sleep and work.”
“Look at that.” I pointed to his portrait. “He’s got his arm firmly on the NC accounts.” I pointed to the lettering on the spine of the book in the portrait. Our guide commented that, when it came to business, Burgwin was known for being ruthless. “Yeah, the portrait communicates that.” I nodded and pointed to his face.
“Well, second sons, you know—‘Hustlers gotta hustle,’” Jef said.
From the look she gave us, I started to think our guide was probably used to elementary school children and retirees. But she soldiered onward and discussed “working both ends against the middle” plan that Burgwin and several prominent people took toward the Revolution. Why not provide both sides with supplies? Money is money—who knows who is going to win the war? Mentally, I flashed to IBM and the development of punch cards in WWII. I tallied up another mark in the column of “nothing new under the sun.”
She even included my beloved William Hooper in the group of people hedging their bets at the beginning of the Revolution. I was so flummoxed I got derailed on his life story for a moment (confusing his progeny), but she had a point: Everyone has to eat and feed their family, and it can take a while to ascertain which direction the winds of history will blow.
But sometimes history is closer than we realize. With one week to the election, I keep thinking about the famous headline inaccurately declaring Thomas Dewey the winner in his presidential bid against Truman. That scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility, complacency about the election is, to my mind, incredibly dangerous. Walking through a house built and decorated in the 1700s, Jef startled both our guide and me with commentary about the centertables that hold candelabras.
“We have my grandmother’s—it wasn’t as decorative as this—but you see how it is higher than the other furniture? That’s for the light. You bring it over close to the table or where ever you are working and you put a—well, in our case, a kerosene lamp (we didn’t use candles) on it. The cardinal sin was to horseplay by the centertable. Because, if you knocked that over, you could burn the whole house down.”
But when we are in the detached kitchen, Jef really flipped the script on us both. “Ah, I feel at home here. I recognize this smell.” Jef grinned and waved his hand dismissively behind us. “The big house was nice, but, this … this I love.”
As our guide explained the working of a colonial kitchen, Jef amused himself with the butter press. “We still have my grandmother’s,” he said with a nostalgic smile. In a time when gender roles are truly hitting challenges that would have been unimaginable before, of all the items in the display to bring long-ago into the present, it is the washboard. Even our guide commented she hasn’t done laundry that way—and doesn’t ever want to.
“I have.” Jef startled us both. “When we were in Desert Storm, we couldn’t get our fatigues clean.”
He remembered they were given buckets to rinse out their uniforms, but with all the sand and dust, it was a joke. One of the guys wrote home, and his grandma sent her old washboard over.
“For a candy bar or a magazine, he would rent it to you to use with a bar of soap. Oh, it was knuckle-scratching work.”