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History: Election Tampering in the Old Town

As we enter the height of election season and the contentiousness between the candidates grows, it seems appropriate to take a look back at a contested election in our own town's past.

Back in the seventeenth century, when the town was young and inhabitants few, many of the most important town offices had names that we are familiar with today. From the earliest days of the town, in fact, we have had Selectmen, Representatives to the General Court in Boston, the Town Treasurer and the Town Clerk. Some positions that were highly sought in years gone by have, alas, gone by the wayside. No longer can one run for the office of “Hog Officer” (one who inspects and corrals pigs); the “Fence Viewer” (one who inspects the size and sturdiness of fences);  or  “Sealer of Leather” (one who inspects the quality and measurements of leather goods). But the one office that excited perhaps the greatest excitement in the old town was that of the Captain of the Town’s Regiment.

The world was different then, of course, and there were clear and present dangers that thankfully do not exist today. It seems strange to remember that there was actually a town Garrison House (which reputedly took its share of bullets from the foe). There was also a Parade ground, near the present Elm Street, where boys from the age of 10 to 16  years old were required to train, in order to be ready to protect the town against the danger of Indian attack.

The first Captain of the Town’s Regiment was Richard Walker, who lived on a farm that was also on the present Elm Street (which is possibly why the Parade Ground was sited nearby.)  Walker was one of the town’s wealthiest and most important First Settlers. He was also a brave and accomplished soldier who had achieved recognition in skirmishes with the enemy. He soon moved back to Lynn, however, leaving an opening in the rank of Captain, which would be filled by Jonathon Poole.

Poole was the heir to one of the town’s earliest commercial establishments, the sawmill, which was located on what is now Water Street, on land that would later be occupied by Cyrus Wakefield’s Rattan Factory. John Poole was the town’s first miller, and his son and heir was a wealthy and powerful man. Jonathan Poole also had achieved renown for his brave leadership of the town’s regiment while in battle. He had every reason to believe that the post of Captain would be his for life, or at least for as long as he wanted it. 

But in 1677, when Poole had held the position for several years, a rival arose from within the ranks. Jeremiah Sweyen (Swain) was also the son of a First Settler. Nine years younger than the 42-year old Poole, he was a physician and more scholarly and studious than the vigorous incumbent. Poole must have been confident of his victory against the younger, less experienced man. But when the votes were counted, it seems that Swain had won!

Notwithstanding the majority vote, the losing party was unwilling to concede the election. Upon examination of the voters, it was clear that the town’s leading citizens, the selectmen, other office holders and majority landowners, were staunchly on the side of Captain Poole. In fact, in studying the situation, the town fathers wondered if it were even possible for Swain to have won. He was not even a ‘freeman’ (or landowner). In fact, upon an examination of the voters, it seemed that many of those who had voted for Swain were not freemen themselves, and had never sworn an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth! Perhaps they were not even qualified voters!

The spirit of contention ruled throughout the town. For a time there actually seemed to be two captains – one who held the vote of the ‘establishment,’ and one who was the clear choice of the younger voters. After a great deal of nastiness and angry meetings held by both sides, the matter was referred to the General Court in Boston in a letter drafted by the Town Clerk and signed by the Selectmen, who were all firmly on the side of Captain Poole.

In the end, the matter righted itself. Jeremiah Sweyen turned out to be so skillful a soldier and leader of men that he was appointed Major and commanded the New England troops during a portion of the French and Indian Wars, serving with distinction during King Philip’s War. As for Captain Poole, he remained Captain and Quartermaster of the town troops, and died a year later. 

The gravestones of both Jonathan Poole and Jeremiah Sweyen still exist in the town’s Old Burying Ground. It should be noted that Poole’s gravestone is one of the earliest New England carved slate stones and is widely recognized as one of the pre-eminent works of the early stonecarver “the Charlestown Carver.” His gravestone can be found at the edge of the present Old Burying Ground, in the semi-circle of older stones moved from the original first Burying Ground on the present Wakefield Common. Jeremiah Sweyen’s gravestone (1710) is in its original location, on a slight eminence to one side of the First Parish Church.  Time has not been kind to his gravestone which, while beautiful, has suffered the ravages of time.  But although Jeremiah Sweyen’s gravestone has weathered with time, at least we can be sure that he lies under it. The same cannot be said for Captain Jonathan Poole, for, while the remaining gravestones from the town’s first Burying Ground were removed from the Common, there can be little doubt that the bodies of many early settlers still lie beneath it.

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