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The Wreck of Rivermouth

Goody Cole /


Don’t mess with Goody Cole. In this seminal Seacoast ballad, John Greenleaf Whittier mixed two local legends into a spooky tale about witchcraft and death off the Isles of Shoals. Our coverage online includes the "backstory", a 1657 shipwreck report and the poets own notes on the story.


Read: Whittier in NH

The Story Behind the Poem

Celia Thaxter inspired this tale
of a 17th century shipwreck

JG Whittier"The Wreck of Rivermouth" expands on the true story of a Hampton shipwreck from 1657, when a group of eight were killed in a sudden storm. Whittier credits Celia Thaxter, poet from the Isles of Shoals, with giving him the idea for the story. The addition of poor Goody Cole, Hampton's only convicted "witch," shows Whittier's skill at weaving old legends together to heighten the drama of the story. His poem "The Changling" also features Goody, a woman so feared by townspeople that, after her death, they reported drove a stake into her heart. The reference to "Rivermouth" is often taken for "Portsmouth", a tradition started by local poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

Whittier also includes the character of Rev. Stephen Batchelder to whom he imagined he was related. This genealogical link, according to local historians, was apparently inaccurate. Related to a Hampton Minister or not, Whittier did write as many as a dozen poems focused in the region around Seacoast NH.

Whittier's narrator "writes" the poem from Appledore Island, where Celia's circle of famous New England writers and artists gathered at her family's hotel. Looking back to the Hampton shore just eight miles away, he imagines the deadly storm, two centuries earlier. It appeared suddenly and swallowed a small boat.

We know that Whittier, whose fame increased steadily in his later years, made many trips to the Isles of Shoals. A confirmed bachelor from nearby Amesbury, Whittier corresponded often with Mrs. Celia Laighton Thaxter. Modern fiction writer Julia Older has even speculated that their relationship was more than platonic, but that is extremely unlikely. Celia's grandaughter Rosamond Thaxter, in her book "Sandpiper" devoted an entire chapter to the relationship between the two poets from 1867-1892. When they collaborated at Appledore House, Celia was in her early 30s and Whittier just coming into his fame at age 60. Whittier may have known Celia when she was in her teens at her family hotel at Smuttynose too.

Regarding "Wreck of Rivermouth" Whittier, using his formal Quaker style, wrote to Celia on August 8, 1868: "By the way, thee ought to like that poem, for it would scarcely have been written but for thee. The thought of thee and thy sea stories and pictures prompted it, and when writing I was wondering whether thee would like it."

READ: The Original 1657 Story & Author's background Notes

The poem first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1864, and later was included in the small book "The Tent on the Beach" which is also about the Hampton, New Hampshire area.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. Article idea submitted by Janice L. Todd. Originally published on this web site in 1999.Illustration. Top Illustration An artist's wild concept of Hampton's Goody Cole from "The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier" Revised Edition, 1879, Riverside Press.

CONTINUE to read the entire ballad
WRECK OF RIVERMOUTH by John Greenlead Whittier

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