This Portland music teacher carried snakes in his pockets

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

Frederick Nicholls Crouch was an English composer, music teacher and cellist. While writing music all his life, Crouch only managed one hit song. It was popular during the Civil War. He taught music in Portland for a while, had a particular fondness for snakes and has got to be one of the strangest cats to ever call this city home.

He was born 209 years ago this week, on July 30, 1808.

Crouch was born in Marleybone, London. He wrote the music for a song called “Kathleen Mavourneen” in 1837. Later, it became a standard in the south during the Civil War. It’s included in Michael Shaara’s historical novel “Killer Angels” and its movie adaptation “Gettysburg.” It’s said to have been popular amongst both enlisted men and officers alike. Pickett’s men were said to have sung it around their campfires the night before their ill-fated charge. The song is still sung today.

Calling himself Professor F. Nicholls Crouch, one music historian wrote of his arrival in Portland sometime in the 1840s:

“He appeared on our horizon with a big blast of trumpets blown by himself.”

Apparently, Crouch fancied himself as quite a gift to this backward little seaport. He dressed in an ostentatious, regal manner and carried himself with overbearing English airs. He was not popular.

On top of this, there was the snake thing. He had hundreds of them crawling around the studio where he gave music lessons. He was also known to carry them in his pockets and up his sleeves when he strolled around town.

At one point, in 1850, Portland’s Sacred Music Society offered him the job of choral director. But later, they rescinded their offer for some reason. Incriminations, recriminations and lawsuits ensued and dragged on for some time.

Frederick Nicholls Crouch (Photo courtesy of the Music Division, The New York Public Library)

Frederick Nicholls Crouch (Photo courtesy of the Music Division, The New York Public Library)

When the Civil War broke out, he abandoned Portland and joined the Richmond Howitzers Battalion in the Army of Northern Virginia. He served as a bugler throughout the war.

After the war, he presumably lived off the sheet music royalties from “Kathleen Mavourneen.” He wrote two operas. Both were flops.

For some reason, he ended up back in Portland near the end of his life. He died here on August 18, 1896. After coming back, he wrote in his diary that he was:

“Once at the head of my profession… now passing out with the debris on the ebb tide leading to oblivion.”

Frederick Nicholls Crouch's grave in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Find A Grave Memorial# 8190619)

Frederick Nicholls Crouch’s grave in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Find A Grave Memorial# 8190619)

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.