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Thomas Laighton was Lord of the Isles


They called him the emperor of the Shoals, but his life story is still sketchy. Visitors who ferry to the Isles of Shoals today aboard the M/V Thomas Laighton may not give a thought to the enormous man with the same name who is buried there. His gigantic hotel is gone, but his huge influence still looms over these nine rocky islands. This anonymous poem appeared in his honor just before the Civil War. (Continued below)


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About Thomas B. Laighton (1804-1866)

No figure with the exception of Capt. John Smith has impacted the history of the Isles of Shoals like Thomas Laighton (also spelled Leighton). Whether the Portsmouth-born writer-entrepreneur-politician was disgruntled over a lost election or whether his poor health drove him to the fresh, clean sea air is for historians to debate. But in 1839 Laighton packed up his wife Eliza, four-year old daughter Celia, and newborn son Oscar, and left for the Isles of Shoals, never to return. A NH senator and former newspaper editor, Laighton became the isolated lighthouse keeper on bleak White Island in New Hampshire, a daunting task for a man with a leg crippled since childhood.

He purchased Hog, Smuttynose, Malaga, and Cedar islands in Maine then took over the old Haley Cottage (still standing) and the Mid-Ocean Hotel on Smuttynose. After experimenting with an island grocery store (locals said he was really selling liquor to the fishermen of Gosport on Star Island) and raising sheep, Laighton built his first hotel on Hog Island, appropriately renamed Appledore in 1847.

Thomas had the energy of two men, one early visitor pointed out, and expanded the hotel rapidly as important Boston families and artists fell under the spell of the rocky islands 10 miles offshore. We have not a single photograph of Thomas Laighton who, like his wife, weighed much over 200 pounds. Comedian Henry Clay Barnabee described him this way:

"He was ponderously obese, as befitted a landlord; and, planted immovably in an armchair in his office, entered the surnames of his guests on a slate, after asking -- What denomination? -- which, it transpired, was a question of sex, and not of creed."

Laighton, by all accounts, was highly intelligent and highly opinionated. His Shoals library of 700 books tended toward science, but he charmed literary greats the Hawthorne, Whittier, and Richard Henry Dana with tales of the sea. Laighton was also an ardent believer in Spiritualism.

Laighton died in 1866, too soon to see his home-schooled daughter Celia Thaxter become the "Poet Queen" of the Shoals. But he lives on in legend as the king (sometimes "lord" or "emperor") of the Isles. This 1860 poem (below) appeared in the Portsmouth Journal. Legend also says that Thomas Laighton was buried sitting up with his immense form seated in a stone chair facing the sea. -- JDR


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Wednesday, February 21, 2018 
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