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Celia's Mystery Cloak

As I Please by J. Dennis Robinson

 Unknown Celia Portrait Discovered

What's the story behind this mysterious caped crusader?

pelletier1Celia Thaxter never smiles. In more than a dozen portraits spanning her 59 years, the lips of the "Island Poet" are turned fashionably and perpetually down. This week we have a dramatic "new" photograph of New England’s famous female poet. In a rare full-length studio portrait, the 20-something Thaxter stands alone. She is wearing a massive dark cloak and her face peers from within a heavy furled hood, her lips pressed in a tight horizontal line, her thoughts as distant and unreadable as the Mona Lisa.

"I found it in a little antique show in Mechanics Falls, Maine," says Nancy Pelletier of Lewiston. "The seller said it came out of a Cape Cod, Massachusetts home."

Pelletier, a hospital X-ray technician, bought the album of 89 Victorian "cart de visite" photographs for a price so low she prefers not to reveal it. She collects photos of Civil War soldiers and was attracted to the album only for two of the images taken by J.W. Black of Boston. She intended to keep those and sell the rest of the album in an eBay auction. One of the soldiers turned out to be Oliver Wendell Holmnes, Jr., son of the famous Boston writer who himself became a Supreme Court Justice. The album contained a number of minor literary figures and had been owned by John T. Morse, Jr. of Boston. Morse too had been a writer.

The photo of the woman in the cloak was inscribed on the back "To Mr. Morse with regards, C. L. Thaxter" and dated February 6th, 1861. Pelletier did some research online and identified the figure as Portsmouth-born Celia Laighton Thaxter. Pelletirer had never heard of Thaxter or the Isles of shoals. Another photo showed a young dandy in a pork pie hat and was labeled Oscar Laighton , Celia’s brother. Both, Pelletier discovered through her research, had grown up in White Island lighthouse at the Isles of Shoals. They helped their parents Thomas and Eliza Laighton run the family’s huge summer guest hotel on Appledore Island. Oscar, who died just a few months short of 100 years old, was known for his long white flowing beard. In the surprising new photograph, that famous beard is just beginning to sprout.

The date on the photograph is timely. Just a month later, in March 1861 – as the Civil War loomed -- Celia Thaxter’s first published poem appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Editor James Russell Lowell liked the melancholy verses about a woman pining for her home on the ocean. At the time Celia Thaxter was living with her husband Levi in a borrowed home in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Married at 16 to a man 11 years older, her former teacher, Celia felt herself pulled down by endless housework, an unemployed husband and three rambunctious boys. Lowell bought the poem for ten dollars and titled it "Land-locked". Celia’s literary career had begun, but her marriage would founder. While his wife drew famous Boston poets, painters, musicians and actors to her Appledore Island salon on the Shoals, Levi faded increasingly from the picture, although the couple never divorced.

Daguerreotype expert Dennis Waters of Exeter suggests that the recently discovered image might have been photographed prior to 1861. On first glance, Celia’s heavy woolen dress and cloak make sense, he says, if the portrait was taken in winter. No photographer is listed on the back of Celia’s photo, but the one of her brother bears the mark of John Wallace Black. But a quick glance at the props in the background offer another clue. John Wallace Black, he notes, was a partner to John Adams Whipple. Black became famous in 1860 as the first American to shoot aerial photos from a hot air balloon. His partner Whipple is best known for taking the first image of the moon in 1852 through a 15-inch telescope. But the team broke up in 1859 and Black moved his studio to Washington Street in Boston, the address on the back of Oscar Laighton’s photo.

pelletier2"This image [of Celia] was taken in the studio of John Whipple," Waters suggests. "The chair, the drapes and the table in this photograph look like they are from Whipple’s studio."

Scholars have carefully documented the props, which were used again and again in photo sittings. A recently published study of Black and Whipple, Waters says, helps daguerreotype collectors identify the work from this era. It is quite possible, he says, that Celia and Oscar took the photos before the Boston photographers split in 1859. When she learned that her poem was to be published in a prestigious magazine, she could have ordered more copies of her most recent photo to distribute to friends like J.T. Morse.

But does the theory jive with history? Years earlier in the winter of 1858, according to one historian, Oscar made a rare trip from the Isles of Shoals to visit his married sister in her land-locked Massachusetts home on the Charles River. Oscar would have been 17 and Celia, 23. Perhaps Levi agreed to watch sons John and Karl so that Celia could visit the big city with brother Oscar. Perhaps they decided to memorialize the visit with a quick stop at Black and Whipple where a 15-minute portrait sitting cost $5.

It was the end of winter and cold. Celia wore her heavy dress and cloak. Perhaps the studio too was drafty, but why didn’t she remove her heavy cowl and sit down in a Victorian chair like most women in portraits of the day? Why stand with her hands buried deep in her cloak, shaped more like a school bell than the belle of Star island? If the year was 1858, history tells us, Celia was pregnant with her third son Roland who would be born in August. Images of a woman "with child" were as rare in Victorian America as they were on television in the 1940s and 50s. Women "in a family way" were rarely even seen in public in puritanical America.

According to Celia biographer Rosamund Thaxter in "Sandpiper", it was the poet’s other brother Cedric who made the trip to Massachusetts in 1858, not Oscar. It was one of his first times living away from the Isles of Shoals. Could the photo be of Cedric instead? Born in 1840, Cedric would have been 17 early in 1858. But most likely, according to Waters, the images of Celia and her brother were taken at different times, perhaps years apart. But why that mysterious cloak?

pelletier3"Celia might have been cold," Waters ventures. "She might have been in a hurry. She might have been ill or perhaps her dress wasn’t good enough for the photograph and Mr. Whipple loaned her a cloak."

Whatever the backstory, ,members of Celia Thaxter’s growing fan club will be thrilled to have a new image. Last year’s traveling exhibit of Thaxter’s painting drew record crowds in Portsmouth, Boston and Concord, NH. A new biography by scholar Norma Mandel is currently at the publishers and "One Woman’s Work" edited by Sharon Stephan sold out quickly and is now being reprinted.

Pelletier originally planned to resell the photographs. She previously owned an album of Civil War soldiers taken in an American prison or war camp by JW Black. She and a partner bought that photo album for $6,000 and sold it a day later for $15,000. She says she used her share of the profits to buy an artesian well for her sons who live in upstate Maine. But this time, she has no plans to sell.

"I’m going to hold on to them for the rest of my life, but I think they should be shared for all to see," Pelletier says of Celia and her brother. "I like pictures that tell a story. Sometimes you can see the story right in the photo."

pelletier4The photo album of John T. Morse, Jr. has many more secrets to reveal. Pelletier says she stayed up long nights researching another cart de visite of a woman whose picture was not labeled. It turned out, she believes, to be an as-yet-unseen photo of Louisa May Alcott, author of such classics as Little Women. Alcott is holding a newspaper that announces the northern victory of the battle of Petersburg in 1865. Pelletier says she positively identified the author by studying the shape of her ear, a technique she has mastered in the study of forensic medicine.

"I’II have to tell you, this is positively her," the trained technician says of the rare photograph. Then Pelletier pauses, and offers a secret of her own that hints at a deeper connection to Alcott and Holmes and Morse and Thaxter.

"I have to admit that I’m a poet too," she says. "I call them my midnight sputterings. I love to write. But I think poetry is a personal thing.  No one will ever read my poems. Nobody."


By J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved..
All images (c) 2003 The Nancy Pelletier Collection. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the owner.

Don't miss the column by J. Dennis Robinson in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.


I am so happy you put this very unique story on line. What a beautiful woman. I don't care if she is not smiling - I think she has an inner beauty exuding from her. The mystery of the cloak? I personally believe that she probably made it herself and was exhibiting it as a marvel of sewing -- and perhaps affluence as it obviously is made of something plush like velvet.
-- S Roberts/New Orleans

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