The Common Man restaurant allegedly home to a number of ghosts

There is no shortage of haunted restaurants in New England – The Country Tavern for instance, over in Nashua, is host to the spirit of Elizabeth Ford – but how many are connected to a man who actually signed the Declaration of Independence?

The Common Man Tavern has this unique distinction, having been built by Founding Father Matthew Thornton in 1797 as a wedding gift for his son, James. This fellow ran the place as a tavern for a number of years. Sadly for him, things didn’t really work out that well, and the young man ended up committing suicide in the early 19th century.

Right from the beginning, this part of town had a rocky start, according to Anita Creager, president of the Merrimack Historical Society.

Matthew Thorton

“Matthew Thornton my have lived there for a time, but that’s not certain,” she said. “He had a home of his own, closer to the river. As it was, Matthew Thornton owned that whole part of town.”

What is known is that this portion of town was purchased by one Jonathon Cummings, a farmer in Litchfield, purchased an 81-acre of Lot No. 12 in the 1656 Massachusetts grant of Brenton Farm from the estate of Sandy Calley. In December 1763, he sold the property to Col. Edward Goldstone Lutwyche, who established a ferry crossing across the Merrimack River in 1767.

When hostilities broke out between the Colonists and the Crown in April 1775, Lutwyche unfortunately found himself on the wrong side. When the Colonists engaged the Redcoats at Concord Bridge, he refused to call out his regiment, and, on the evening of April 20, he sneaked out of the house, leaving his mother, Sarah, behind, and scooted behind British lines in Boston. He never returned.

As far as the Colonists were concerned, this was tantamount to treason. Consequently, the Committee of Safety for the towns of Merrimack and Litchfield seized the property, on the grounds that it belonged to her son.

Well, Sarah was having none of this. On Oct. 24, 1775, she appealed to Congress, then in session in Exeter, and prevailed; on Nov. 2, they ordered the property, along with all intermediate profits, to be restored to the old lady.

When Sarah died on Sept. 7, 1778, at the age of 77, the state committee of safety directed a number of local gentlemen, Colonel Nochols, Mr. Underwood and Major Chase, to take a full inventory of the property. In 1780, the whole lot was brought up by Matthew Thornton.

Troubled times

Thornton himself had a troubled life. He was born in 1714 in Ireland, to James Thornton and Elizabeth Malone. When the boy was but 3 years old, the family moved to Brunswick, Maine. On July 11, 1722, the community was attacked by Indians, and the family fled the burning home, settling in Worcester, Mass. Years later, Thornton practiced medicine in Londonderry. In 1745, he was appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire Militia, and in 1760, married Hannah Jack, with whom he had five children. At the outbreak of war, he was a member of the Committee of Safety, and drafted the first constitution in the United States, effectively dissolving ties to the Royal government.

According to Creager, there is a certain amount of evidence that the Thorntons did actually care for Sarah in her declining years.

“If you look in the family plot, you’ll see that Sarah’s grave is right there next to the Thorntons’,” she said. “There’s no real evidence that she was cared for by them, but the fact that the grave is right there implies so.”

So, it’s relatively obvious that Thornton was a major player in New Hampshire politics at this time. When he built the tavern as a wedding present for his son, James, the family was one of the richest and most influential clans in the area. One can only speculate on what drove the young man to take his own life a few short years later.

As time went on, the house was inherited by further generations – but not all of them Thorntons.

“The house stayed in the family until the 1970s,” Creager said. “But the family intermarried with the Greeleys. As it turned out, some of the generations of the Thornton family didn’t have any male descendents, so the Greeley family became the primary owners.”

Building changes hands

In 1977, the house was brought by one Charles Mulch, who renovated it and turned it back into a tavern. According to Creager, he restored much of the original décor, and renamed the place “The Signer’s House.”

In the early 1980s, the property changed hands yet again, and became the Hannah Jack Tavern, named after Matthew Thornton’s wife. Then about a decade ago, it was acquired by the restaurant chain, The Common Man, which runs it to this day.

Ghost stories

By this point, you’re probably wondering about the ghosts. Well, there’s a significant amount of testimony that would seem to confirm their existence.

“I’ve seen various newspaper reports over the years, pertaining to the ghosts,” Creager said. “But most of them seem to involve a female spirit.”

This would seem to be borne out by the testimony of two former managers of the Common Man. Scott McCann recalled a particularly odd event at the house.

“The last time ‘Ghost Hunters’ was in Merrimack, I got to do the investigation with them,” he recounted. “They had about 30 video cameras set up throughout the building, as well as audio equipment. We spent most of the time in the basement, because that was where they thought most of the activity was happening. I was sitting down in the basement with my dimly-lit hard hat, with about five of the ghost hunters. All of a sudden, we heard what sounded like someone running by. The noise went right past us, and I swear I could feel a slight breeze, as if somebody had just actually ran past us. I was a little reluctant to think that this was actually real at first, but then it happened again.

“At this point, I went upstairs, and asked the guy with all the audio equipment if he had managed to record the footsteps, and if he could play them back for me. He did so, and sure enough, you could hear the sound of someone running past, clear as day.

“I went back downstairs, and asked the other investigators who they thought this was, and they said it was probably Matthew Thornton’s son, James, who actually killed himself in one of the rooms upstairs.

“This is the only time I had actually heard anything in my seven years at the Merrimack location. I’ve been told other stories, about an Indian in the building, and a woman in a long black dress, who walks up the staircase to the upstairs bar. A past employee, a woman named Ginger, once said that she once encountered a little girl in the kitchen who was complaining that she was lost. The girl was so upset that Ginger called the police. When she got back to the kitchen, the girl was gone. I’m not sure what exactly she said to the police when they arrived, but I can only imagine what was going through their heads.”

It doesn’t stop there. Another former manager, Jaime Saxe, who is now the general manager of the Ashland branch of the Common Man, also recalled his own paranormal experiences in the house.

“When we first opened, I was setting up the liquor storage room by the cage,” he recounted. “I heard a woman humming from around the corner – this was the area that the Underground Railroad came through. I double-checked, and found nobody there. I could very distinctly hear a woman, humming three notes.

“Months later, I was telling this story to one of the bartenders and a cook as we were closing up. We all walked downstairs to leave, when I went back, as I had to turn off one more light. As I went into the old carriage house, I heard the same humming. I thought the staff were playing a practical joke on me, and went into the kitchen to tell them how ‘funny’ they were being. They weren’t there – they were waiting for me outside.

“We locked up the house and were talking in the parking lot about how strange this was, and continued recounting the experiences we had heard in the restaurant, when we heard a loud crash from inside the house. We had been outside for a good 10 minutes, but the pans had started to fall over. Needless to say, I did not go on that side of the basement alone again. There most certainly was some kind of energy on that side of the building.”

According to Saxe, things being moved or falling over was pretty much a common occurrence in the house.

“I remember bartending downstairs, and talking to the guests about some of these experiences. Dishes started falling over, as well as a couple of bottles. At the same time, upstairs, glasses flipped over on that bar as well. Our bartender said he saw a glass flip off the table and land on the floor without anybody being near it.

“People would sometimes come into the restaurant, who claimed to be sensitive to spirits, and said the place was haunted, and I agree.

“We had another bartender, named Mark, who had worked there back when it was the Hannah Jack Tavern. He said he saw a man in 19th century clothing and a long black coat. Mark said he had never been a believer until that time. When we were opening, I was scrubbing the fireplace, and thought I saw a man standing by the doorway.”

Saxe believes that the spirits become more active when people are discussing their activities.

“Things seemed to happen more and more when we would talk about the ghosts,” he recalled. “I don’t think they like being talked about. We had a call from someone claiming to be from the show ‘Ghost Hunters,’ and the phone would just keep disconnecting halfway through the call.”

Given the long and strange history of this house, it’s hardly surprising that restless spirits would still stalk its halls. One thing’s for sure; if you have dinner at the Common Man, you might find that your meal comes with a large side dish of the paranormal.