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Portsmouth 1814 Brick Act was Unpopular Law Print Email
Written by J. Dennis Robinson   

Brock title artHISTORY MATTERS  

With all the ballyhoo lately about big buildings, we hear the phrase "Brick Act" bandied about more and more. That's exciting for historians. People are actually talking about a 200-year old law as if it mattered. But do we know what we're talking about? 

How Massachusetts Almost Ate New Hampshire Print Email
Written by J. Dennis Robinson   

Mass Bay Puritan BrandHISTORY MATTERS  

Before I die I would like to write a really good history of Portsmouth. I'd also like to win the lottery, climb Everest, and cure cancer. All of the above are equally daunting. But as we approach our 400th city anniversary in 2023, someone has to tackle this killer task, and it has to begin now. All of our existing city histories (classic books by Adams, Brewster, Gurney, and Brighton) are currently out of date and out of print. (Continued below) 

1847 Letter Print Email
Written by J. Dennis Robinson   






Celia Thaxter's first known writing discovered by Ebay buyer


celiayoungPoet Celia Laighton Thaxter is remembered most for writing about her childhood on the rocky Isles of Shoals 10 miles out to sea from Portsmouth Harbor. Now, for the first time, we have the original story in the author's own handwriting. David Jaret of Pennsylvania recently purchased a letter on written by Celia Laighton when she was 12-years old. The letter was written from Hog Island (changed to Appledore) on December 16, 1847 to Celia's young friend Martha in Boston and posted on December 21. Until now, the earliest known writing by Celia dated from 1851. Jaret contacted and generously sent us the historic document to donate to a Portsmouth historical archive.

The small "stampless" letter is written on a single sheet of paper folded five times to form its own small envelope. Celia writes about her father's new hotel that will have 100 windows. She talks about her red cow and two new kittens that roam the island. She talks about her tutor Mr. Thaxter, who will become her husband in four short years. He has a large dog, she says. Celia mentions a Miss Underhill, who Shoals enthusiasts are aware, was later swept into the sea by a rouge wave and lost.

Jaret says he purchased the letter simply out of curiousity and was impressed by the young writer's tiny perfect cursive style, her maturity and highly evolved descriptive skills. He did know at the time that the girl writing hte letter was a well-known New Hampshire writer and had not heard of the Isles of Shoals. will publish the entire letter online in the near future for Celia fans and scholars. The current plan is to then present it to the Portsmouth Historical Society for display in a February 2004 exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Stay tuned for more details.

celia1847letterEXCERPT FROM CELIA'S 1847 LETTER
(Preliminary translation. Note for publication. All rights reserved.)

Hog Island, Isles of Shoals
December 16, 1847
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. The box arrived here safe with its contents. My brothers were delighted with their books and have requested me to ask you to thank your little brother for them. I read to them your description of Putnam’s [Martha’s brothe] birthday party, and they were very much pleased with it. Mother sends loves to you, and thanks you for the collar, which she says is one of the prettiest she has ever seen, and I thank you too, dear Martha, for the beautiful box, and the letters. We are all well here. The weather has been remarkably warm, this Fall, and we have had many beautiful days, calm and still, with scarcely a cloud in the sky. Today it is rather cold, and the wind blows from the northeast very hard.

Do you remember Mr. Thaxter, one of the gentlemen that were at White Island when you was there? The one that performed the lady. He teaches my brothers and myself now. Mother thinks of going to Boston in the spring and she says if she does she will take me with her. I hope she will go for I should like it very much. It did seem rather strange to hear such a continual noise of pounding and sawing and planning when I first heard it, but now I am quite used to it and do not mind it at all.

I have pressed scarcely any sea moss this winter, but Mr. Thaxter has pressed some of the most lovely pieces that you can imagine. There are a great many pretty kinds to be found now. Do you sing, dear Martha? I have learned several new songs since you was here, and I am now learning "Flow gently sweet Afton," which I think is beautiful. I have heard much of Jenny Spinak (?), but I never saw so many of her songs. The Boston Evening Gazette says that the Steyermarkische Company, have given ten successful concerts in that city. I should really like to hear them. I should like to hear Jenny Lind very much too.

You ask what I have been reading lately. Ivanhoe is on book, and I am now reading Anne of Gierstien, both of which I think are delightful books. I have two of Andersen’s stories, one of which is very beautiful. It is called "The Swans." The other is called "Top and Ball."

The old man we saw fishing that lovely evening is still alive, but it is rather too cold for him to go out every night now. I hope Miss Johnson will come down next summer for I should like very much to see her. I am very glad her health has improved. When she comes again to us, I hope her sweet face will have more color in it. She was very pale that day I saw her. It is rather too late for Mr. Weiss to come down here this Fall I think. I wish he would come. The last time we heard from him, which was a short time since, he was quite sick.

The large house is all boarded, and already beginning to present quite an imposing apearance. There is to be one hundred windows in it. Mr. Thaxter has a beautiful Newfoundland Dog, whom he calls Luria. He has a broad chest, and large paws, and is very handsome. We have three kittens all very pretty, that run about the Island, and sleep under the rocks, for they will not come into the house. They will let my brothers and myself play with them, but they will let no one else touch them. They live principally on the wild birds and crabs that they find in large quantities here. One of the kittens is particularly handsome. She is as black as black can be and has eyes almost ovoid. She is very intelligent and will stand and hold her paws to catch anything we give her. The old mother cat is not at all handsome. She is black, and reddish brown. There is a black and white one, and a yellow one. I have a pretty little cow, whom I call Juno. She is all red, except a white spot near each hoof. Has Putnam any pets?

I have never yet hung up my stocking Christmas eve for St. Nic to fill, but Christmas eve I intend to, and so do my brothers. I hardly know what expect for a New Year’s present.

We have a very amiable lady here who is employed in sewing the bedding of the new house. Her name is Miss Underhill. She is a most excellent lady. I wish you could see her Martha, I know you would like her.

Judy is not living with us now. She left as soon after you left White Island. Please remember me respectfully to your parents, and affectionately to your little brother. For yourself, dear Martha, I love you very much, and I should be very happy to receive an answer to this soon.

Yours affectionately,

All content copyright (c) 2003 All rights reserved.

For related information see:
Celia's Circle
Isles of Shoals
Smuttynose Murders




Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03802
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An 1847 Message from Hog Island Print Email
Written by J. Dennis Robinson   



An 1847 Message from Hog Island

1847aRare 1847 letter from Hog Island reveals a talented 12-year old

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.

I have the letter in my hand, a gift of David Jaret of Pennsylvania. He bought it recently 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. The letter, he said, was signed simply "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 special.

1847bThe 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 – and 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 a newspaper editor, politician and businessman. The letter begins:

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.

1847cAlready 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.

Another passage about Celia’s new kittens is especially well crafted.

We have three kittens all very pretty, that run about the Island, and sleep under the rocks, for they will not come into the house. They will let my brothers and myself play with them, but they will let no one else touch them. They live principally on the wild birds and crabs that they find in large quantities here. One of the kittens is particularly handsome. She is as black as black can be and has eyes almost ovoid. She is very intelligent and will stand and hold her paws to catch anything we give her.

Three times Celia mentions her Boston tutor Mr. Levi Thaxter . He has been helping her press sea moss. He has a Newfoundland dog named Luria. She tells Martha:

Do you remember Mr. Thaxter, one of the gentlemen that were at White Island when you was there? The one that performed the lady. He teaches my brothers and myself now.

Until this letter appeared, the oldest surviving correspondence of the "Island Poet" dated from March 1851 more than three years later. By then, the 15-year old Celia wrote to her friend Jennie Usher about her impending marriage to Levi Thaxter, a man 11 years her senior.

"Perhaps you do not know who Mr. Thaxter is," Celia wrote. "He is the gentleman whose wife I shall probably be this fall.

The passage, according to Celia scholar Stephanie Nugent is cryptic, elliptical and haunting. We never truly know how Celia feels about what appears to have been an arranged marriage between her father and Mr. Thaxter, who was Thomas Laighton’s business partner for a short time and who loaned him $2,500 on the eve of his engagement to Celia. Married at 16, Celia Thaxter was taken away from her beloved island. Nine months later she returned to Appledore where her first child Karl was born. Karl suffered with physical and emotional problems that kept him in his mother’s care for the rest of her life. Celia quickly had two more sons, and although she and Levi never divorced, the marriage quickly faltered and the two lived distant lives.

"What did she think of her marriage to Levi?" Stephanie Nugent asks today. "This new letter helps me build my answer to the question."

Stephanie, who also portrays Celia in a popular one-woman theater production, notes that Celia appears to be responding, point by point, to questions from her mainland friend Martha. Celia, however, leads the letter with news of Mr. Thaxter and mentions him twice more.

Jane Vallier of Iowa State University, a long time devotee of Celia’s writing, says she has always seen the young girl’s engagement to the older, brooding Mr. Thaxter of Boston as "a rather dark and gothic affair." Jane asks – "Was Celia the wunderkind and he the evil educational experimenter? Did he get engaged to get his parents off his back about settling down?"

The letter does indicate that the little Portsmouth-born girl, raised in isolation in an island lighthouse, was at least fascinated by the worldly Mr. Thaxter. We can also see that, even before his influence as a tutor, Celia’s artistic and social skills were highly evolved. The 1847 letter demonstrates too how much Celia had learned from her father Thomas, an educated and well-spoken man, before Levi became her tutor. Levi may have corrected her grammar and fostered her talents, but he did not invent her.

1847d"The 1847 letter is fascinating," says Norma Mandel, author of an upcoming biography of Island Poet entitle Beyond the Garden Gate. "Celia's language is mature for a teenager at any time. I think it shows not only Levi's influence, but reflects the atmosphere in which she grew up. While her mother may have been illiterate, her father certainly was able to impart an exceptional love of language to her. Celia herself was like a sponge, absorbing whatever the visitors to the islands had to provide."

The most significant part of the discovery, Norma says, is that it confirms what we already know – that the facts are just as she presented them in her later writing. And we now know that from the beginning, she says, Levi Thaxter "was very much a welcome part of her life".

Through the amazing world of Internet auctions, Celia’s letter has come home. It will go next to the Portsmouth Historical Society. In February it will be displayed among other favorite society artifacts in a special exhibit at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. David Jaret, who purchased the item online says he donated it rather than sell the letter for profit, or keep it in his collection. When I asked if it might be possible to see a Xerox or computer scan, he sent the original to New Hampshire by Federal Express.

1847e"I had never heard of Celia Thaxter until I got your note and read about her on your web site. Then I talked to a couple of friends who are historians," David Jaret says. "They told me just to give the letter to the people who could appreciate and care for it best. It seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted it to be seen by the public."

It was the right thing to do, a special Christmas gift to the Seacoast and to history. Every piece of the puzzle helps. If only more people knew that artifacts have greater value to history when donated to the public, than when sold to private collections. Money, as the old saying goes, isn’t everything. And the past, as archeologist Louis Leakey once said, really is the key to the future.

Visit the CELIA THAXTER section
You can READ THE ENTIRE LETTER 1847 Letter.



Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved..
Article by J. Dennis Robinson. All images from Early IMages Collection. Picture of Levi Thaxter from the Thaxter Collection.



Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03801
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Unraveling the 1694 Murder of Ursula Cutt Print Email
Written by J. Dennis Robinson   

Cherub from the house of Ursual CuttHISTORY MATTERS 

Two cheeky, slightly creepy, wooden cherubs may be among the oldest artifacts at the Portsmouth Historical Society. The hand-carved toddler-sized figures have been greeting visitors to the museum for almost 100 years, but they are much older than that. And they come with a story. These figures once decorated the home of Ursula Cutt who was murdered in 1694. (Read the story below) 


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