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Haunted Portsmouth

Tobias Langdon Tombstone, Portsmouth, NH /

Strange visions at the Portsmouth Music Hall, wanton women of the night, unsolved murders, weird happenings, spooky cemeteries. It’s all here in this new volume from the History Press. Author Roxie Zwicker is the proprietor of New England Curiosities.




I was talking just the other day with a person who noted that there seems to be more books written about Portsmouth every month, than have ever been written about her sister city of Newburyport. There are books about Portsmouth ships, black history, whaling, bridges, politicians, poets, painters, street names, architecture, submarines, lighthouses, trolleys, hotels and more. "I think there’s a book about everything here except ghosts." He said. Not any more. Haunted Portsmouth has arrived.

Now there are people who believe in ghosts, and people who do not. Author Roxie Zwicker falls into the first category, this reviewer into the second. I come from the scientific side of the fence that believes humans have poor eyesight, bad memories and overactive imaginations, and that there is a rational reason for everything. But life would be very dull if everybody thought like me.

Roxie Zwicker author of Haunted Portsmouth by the History Press

In the world of the believer, every crack of a stick, every sigh of the wind is a potential message from the spirit world. And in a town like Portsmouth, that is packed with colonial buildings and ancient graveyards, there are no end to ghostly sightings. Zwicker, who gives haunted tours of Portsmouth and Portland, has collected these tales into tourist walking tours, and now into a series of books.

Ms. Zwicker’s book is not for the ardent historian. It strays easily and often from the facts, sometimes relying on inaccurate 19th century accounts or undocumented hearsay. Portsmouth isn’t, for example, the third oldest city in America. It was the colonial capital until the Revolution, but never the state capital. We all love the story of poor Ruth Blay, who was hanged in the 18th century for infanticide just moments before she was to receive a government reprieve. The court records, however, indicate no such dramatic ending. John Paul Jones, often accused of haunting the house that bears his name, may never have stayed there at all. In years of studying his visit to Portsmouth, I’ve yet to find a single reference to where he lodged, and his presence goes almost without mention in the newspapers of the time. Under the bright light of academic research, the supernatural side of Portsmouth, tends to wither and fade.

But this is not really about history. This is a book about legends and lore and the stories that people tell each other when the lights go out. If stories of murder, prostitution and ghosts attract visitors to our city, then I say – bring them on. The more visitors we get, the more money can be funneled back into preserving our historic city. My own childhood was filled with tales from Poe, Hawthorne, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, imaginary pirate and Viking lore, Von Daniken’s make-believe tales of founding aliens and every beloved hoax from Piltdown Man to the reincarnation of John Wilkes Booth. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good campfire tale.

What we’re also seeing here is the arrival of a new publishing company. The History Press, a close cousin to Arcadia Publishing, is on a mission to release as many local history-related books as possible. Historic Portsmouth and other early volumes indicate that books from this company are well designed and professionally printed with good photographic quality and night tight bindings. While such paperback books, like much of the history you find online, often lack scholastic rigor or fluent writing, they are, each and every one, an important part of the public record. History, like politics, is local, and the more people these books reach – particularly children – the more future authors, scholars and museum benefactors they can generate. And that has to be a good thing. -- JDR

By Roxie J. Zwicker
History Press 2007
96 pages, paperback, $17.99

A tour of Portsmouth's back alleys and docksides, filled with the lingering whispers and memories of generations long dead. Venture through the haunted past and present of Portsmouth, New Hampshire if you dare. Before Portsmouth was a charming seaside community, it was a rough-and-tumble seaport. Hear phantom footsteps in the Point of Pines Burial Ground and mysterious voices at the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, haunted by the ghost of its former keeper. Tour guide and hauntings expert Roxie Zwicker takes readers on a tour of the nation's third-oldest city, where buildings and street corners teem with ghostly stories and legends.

OUTSIDE LINK: History Press web site 


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