NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 27, 2014

Enoch Toppan was never without a rhyme

As I See It
Melissa Berry

---- — The Toppan name is part of Newburyport’s history. Several members of this prominent clan served as clergy, doctors, ship masters and selectmen, but one fellow from the famous lineage, Enoch Coleman Toppan, or “Rhymer,” as he was fondly known, achieved notoriety in a different way. He was the town troubadour, known for “caroling like a lark.” All ages adored Enoch for his spirited wit and colorful rhymes, which often found their way into the local press.

Born and bred in the port (June 18, 1765), Enoch was the son of Enoch and Sarah (Coleman) Toppan. He married Mary Clark Nicholas and they had five children and a beautiful home on High Street. Enoch was dedicated to his community and described as a “true lover of nature, music, and his fellow man, always cheerful and genial, and without an enemy” (Newburyport Herald). Many funny accounts were recorded by locals.

Enoch made many kind gestures and always with rhyme. This is a surprise gift order placed to a dealer in crockery: “Mr. Wood will you be so good, as to let Mr. Noyes take his choice of anything he wishes in the way of dishes and charge the same to me, E. C. T.”

At the market house one day, James Carey and Richard Adams made a bet that Rhymer would answer their request in an impromptu rhyme. Carey yelled to Enoch and the crowd across the square: “Mr. Toppan, so they say, buys his meat and never’ll pay.” Enoch’s perky reply: “Jimmy Carey, if that be true, I’ll always have my meat of you.” Mr. Carey lost the venture and had to “stand treat.”

A traveler came into town to attend a Rising Sun Encampment Masonic meeting and asked the town weigher, Moody Davis, who was standing in the square, for directions. Davis thought it would be a hoot to have the visitor ask Rhymer instead, who coincidently was just within sight: “Ask that man, and if he doesn’t answer you in rhyme, I will give you a glass of gin.” So the man turned to Enoch and said, “Can you tell me, kind sir, how far it is to the Rising Sun Tavern?” Enoch smiled and replied, “If the distance was but little shorter, I should say ‘twas a mile and a quarter.” Then turning to Davis, he added, “Moody, when next you promise gin, speak low or you’ll get taken in.”

The local children often sought him out to hear him bellow out his verse, and one day while flying a kite some boys spotted him and yelled, “Mr. Toppan, give us a rhyme!” Enoch pleasingly obliged as they cheered on: “Boys, your kite, when it comes night, will be out of sight.”

Enoch was by trade a pump and block maker in his shop on Carter’s wharf, supplying homes and ship owners. If business grew dull, he knew how to strike a chord with patrons and soon they would sing to his tune — he simply packed up his old decrepit wagon and made melody door to door, often with violin, and no one could resist.

Enoch’s other part-time specialty vocation was in servicing residents with dental infirmities — for a quarter he would pull your tooth and send you off with a good jingle. For Sunday worship, Enoch curbed his vocal chimes and made magic at the organ instead. He was also a parish treasurer of First Presbyterian, or “The Old South” Church. He was quite proficient, by all accounts.

Upon his death on Aug. 22, 1845, the Newburyport Herald served up an animated and fond narrative of Enoch. His grandson, Enoch Clark Coleman, testified that his reputation for poesy was equally measured by his generosity and Mr. E. C. Toppan definitely struck a cord with all who knew him!

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Visit Melissa Berry at ancestoryarchives.blogspot.com.