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Historic Houses

The Hopkinson Mansion
Where Francis Hopkinson wrote his famous ditty "The Battle of the Kegs"

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

OVERLOOKING the quiet Delaware, where the river bends on its course to Philadelphia, is the old city of Bordentown. Like most of the cities, towns, and hamlets of Southern Jersey, it seems to be resting under some strange magic spell which renders it impervious to progress and content to live on with only its memories of the past. Walking along Main Street and gazing at stately mansions partly hidden by quaint and ofttimes neglected gardens, the first house sure to attract the stranger's attention and hold his interest is a large yellow-brick building, the home of the Hopkinson family. It was erected in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and there the illustrious Francis Hopkinson, known in Pennsylvania and the Jerseys as "the versatile Mr. Hopkinson," spent many years of his life.

Francis Hopkinson was the first student enrolled at the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, from which he was graduated with honor before he took up the profession of law. Some time in the year 1768 he visited England, spending his time at Hartlebury Castle, the seat of his grand-uncle, and in London with Benjamin West and other artistic friends. While abroad he studied the arts of music and painting, and attained to a high degree of proficiency in both. Writing from Philadelphia, in 1776, John Adams expresses a hope that he shall see a portrait of "Miss Keys, a famous New Jersey beauty," which was "made by Mr. Hopkinson's own hand." A specimen of his work at a later period was mistaken for a painting by Copely, and when compared with a portrait by that great artist, was thought to equal it in tone and coloring. After a poetical courtship in 1768, young Hopkinson married Ann Borden, a daughter of the wealthiest man of the town, and the three resided together in the dwelling now always spoken of as the Hopkinson Mansion. The musical son-in-law is said to have charmed the other two members of the household with his performances on the spinet, and while he played for them the villagers, old and young, would congregate about the Mansion's windows to hear Hopkinson "tuning."

In the first years after his marriage Hopkinson devoted much of his time to his poetic muse; and we can imagine him seated at one of the broad back windows of his home on early mornings listening to the sound of the huntsman's horn and the cries of the chase as he pens one of his silvery hunting-songs. At that time, almost half a century before the Bonapartes had linked their names so ineffably with Bordentown, it was known as quite a fashionable summering place for the old English society of Philadelphia. Among the families who frequented it were the McKeens, Shippens, Morrises, Chalk- leys, Chews, and Norrises, and no doubt many others in the summer took their goods and chattels to the "crooked billet wharf" in the Quaker City for Borden's "water-flyer." After the year 1774 Francis Hopkinson occupied his Bordentown mansion permanently, not journeying to Philadelphia, as had been his wont, for the winter season. Of the many satirical essays and poems he wrote there the production which gave him the greatest degree of fame was his " harmonious ditty" describing the "Battle of the Kegs." The infernal machines for this affair, planned to destroy the British shipping at Philadelphia, were made at the Borden cooper-shop and towed down the Delaware by a plucky villager over night. The ships they were designed to destroy had been removed from their exposed positions in the ,river ; but the killing of four men by the explosion of one of the kegs terrorized the British invaders, who imagined an American force had come on them unawares. From the ludicrous consternation they occasioned, Hopkinson secured the theme of his amusing poem. On the first appearance of the poem in print it caught the popular taste, and its jingle and easily-remembered metre made it one of the greatest poetical successes of the day.

Polly Riche was one of the belles of the famous British Meschianza given in Philadelphia. At the time the British came to Bordentown her Tory proclivities had estranged her from nearly all her friends in the town, and she revenged herself by pointing out the homes of her enemies to the commander.
A year after the fiasco of the kegs, some British troops then in the vicinity of Bordentown decided to revenge themselves on the Bordens for their pronounced animosity to their king. Tradition says they were led to Joseph Borden's son's house by Polly Riche,* a beautiful Tory maiden who had been admired by Benedict Arnold before he married Miss Shippen. They immediately set fire to the building and its surrounding barns, waiting until they were sure its destruction would be complete. While Colonel Borden's mother-in-law sat in the middle of the street watching the cruel work, a British officer stepped up, and with apparent sympathy said, " Madam, I have a mother and can feel for you." "I thank you, sir," she replied; "but this is the happiest day of my life. I know now you have given up all hope of reconquering my country, or you would not thus wantonly devastate it."

The Hopkinson Mansion was also fired at the same time, but it escaped destruction owing to the curious fact that the officer in charge was a man of superior culture. He is said to have become so engrossed in the mechanical and mathematical instruments it contained and its immense library that he commanded the fire to be extinguished, forgetting the rebel in his recognition of the erudite.
Captain James Ewald, one of the best known Hessian officers engaged in the war. While his men were extinguishing the fire-brands which had been applied to the roof of the Hopkinson Mansion he was writing the following lines in a volume he picked up in the library "This man is one of the greatest rebels ; nevertheless, if we dare to conclude from the library and mechanical and mathematical instruments, he must be a very learned man."

After Francis Hopkinson's death, in 1791, his home came into the possession of his son Joseph, famous for having written "Hail Columbia." According to the story still repeated, Bordentown was its birthplace; but there is sufficient proof extant to show that it was written at Joseph Hopkinson's Philadelphia residence at the instigation of Mr. Fox, an actor friend, who was a favorite on the boards of the Chestnut Street Theatre.

Joseph Hopkinson could not have greatly resembled his father, of whom John Adams wrote that " his head was no larger than a good-sized apple," for he was renowned for his personal beauty. He and his wife were great favorites in the Quaker City social world, and no doubt many of their friends visited them in Bordentown. Thomas Moore, the sweet Irish poet, was a frequent visitor at their house in Philadelphia, and often during his residence in the little cottage on Judge . Richard Peters's estate facing the Schuylkill's "flowery banks" journeyed to nearby Bordentown in their company to enjoy its lovely views, so justly renowned in the early nineteenth century. When leaving the former city he paid tribute to the charms of Mrs. Hopkinson -- who used to sing his own songs to him at her harpsichord -- in the following pleasing verses:

Nor did she her enamoring magic deny,
That magic his heart had relinquished so long;
Like eyes he had loved was her eloquent eye,
Like them did it soften and weep at his song.

Oh! blest be the tear and in memory oft
May its sparkle be shed o'er his wandering dream.
Oh! blest be that soft eye, and may passion as soft,
As free from a pang, ever mellow its beam!

Many were the musical-parties given by Joseph Hopkinson and his wife at the old Bordentown homestead. One of the greatest frequenters of them was Joseph Bonaparte. He was very fond of "ze clevair Hopkinsons," as he called them, and in his will remembered his friend Joseph with a bust of Napoleon. An amusing anecdote is told of his having wept in the presence of a large company over Mrs. Hopkinson's plaintive rendition of "The Last Rose of Summer" when that old-time favorite was first introduced to Bordentown. It is with these musical-parties that the Hopkinson Mansion is particularly associated in the annals of Bordentown's social history. In its old parlors the Hopkinsons, father and son, have played and sung, Colonel Kirkbride has tuned his violin and jokingly implored his friend Tom Paine to give the ladies a tune, and the Misses Guest from over the river and Mrs. Hopkinson have aired their melodious voices.

The villagers of to-day have declared the house haunted; and if it is frequented by ghosts, they must be delightful ones. Sad to relate, though, no spook-hunting visitor has yet acknowledged he heard the faint tinkle of a spinet or the wail of a violin as he wandered about it in the moonlight searching for the spirits of the long ago.

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