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Last Letter from Hog Island

Hog Island 1847 / SeacoastNH.comAPPLEDORE ISLAND 1847

In December 1847 a 12-year old girl wrote to a friend. She wrote from Hog Island at the Isles of Shoals. Her father was building a hotel there. It would become the meeting-place of famous writers and painters and musicians for decades to come. The island would be renamed Appledore. But in 1847 Celia Laighton was focused on her reading, her cats, her cow and a teacher named Levi.

 

 

 

 

READ the entire 1847 letter by Celia

At first glance the earliest known writing by Seacoast poet Celia Laighton Thaxter is a bland little thing not much larger than a playing card. Written at the Isles of Shoals and postmarked four days before Christmas in 1847, the letter is folded five times from a single large sheet of watermarked paper. The final crease is slightly off kilter, not through carelessness, but by design. The 12-year old author tucked the smaller end neatly into the larger one and affixed the two sides with a blob of red wax. There is no envelope or stamp. The back of the letter is addressed to Celia’s child friend Miss Martha Kuhn of Boston, Massachusetts.

Appledore Hotel on former Hog Island / SeacoastNH.comI have the letter in my hand, a gift of David Jaret of Pennsylvania. He bought it in an online auction from a man in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. The seller was interested only in the early "stampless" postmark. David was curious, he says, about the content of the message written from an island so long ago. When I wrote to ask him if, just by chance, the author might be Thomas Laighton, a Portsmouth entrepreneur who built a hotel at the Isles of Shoals in 1847, David called me on the phone. Sorry, he said. The letter is simply signed "Celia", but with no last name. A message appended in a different hand, however, was initialed "TBL". I knew instantly that this letter was something very special.

The exquisite handwriting inside is miniscule and tightly drawn as if penned by a doll. The return address is Hog Island, renamed Appledore Island the following year when Celia’s father Thomas opened his Appledore House hotel there. In the letter Celia says that her father has been building a large house with a hundred windows. She complains to her friend Martha that noise of the carpenters hammering bothered her at first, but she has grown used to the sound. For the previous eight years Celia had grown up in the lighthouse on White Island nearby with two brothers Oscar and Roland.

We know Celia’s childhood story from her own memoir, "Among the Isles of Shoals" published in 1873 during her rise to national literary prominence. The book is still in print today. This new letter shows us an incredibly sophisticated child, speaking in her own voice. Although her mother Eliza was likely illiterate, Celia was home-schooled by her father Thomas, formerly an editor of the NH Gazette, a failed politician and businessman. The letter begins:

Miss Underhill's Chair, Isles of Shoals/ SeacoastNH.com"My dear Martha, I have but a moment since received your second kind letter, and I must beg you to forgive my almost unpardonable negligence in not Answering the first before. I had just finished a letter to you, when the boat that brought your last came."

Remember, this writer is 12. Already an accomplished storyteller, Celia writes to Martha of her Christmas plans, and about an old fisherman, and about a woman named Mrs. Johnson with a pale complexion. We learn that she has been reading two novels by Sir Walter Scott and two books by Hans Christian Anderson. She loves to sing, has learned "Flow Gently Sweet Afton" and wishes she could attend a concert by the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind, then touring the country.

Celia writes about her red cow Juno and an "amiable" woman named Miss Underhill who is sewing the bedsheets for the opening of the hotel next year. Shoals’ visitors all know that Miss Underhill, was later surprised by a large wave and swept to her death at sea.

CONTINUE to read about HOG ISLAND LETTER

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