Tallest Tombstone in New Hampshire is 100 Years Old
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


The late Rev. John Tucke had been moldering just below the surface in the damp thin soil of Star Island for 27 years when Rev. Dudley Tyng stumbled over his grave. A minister from Newburyport, Massachusetts, Tyng had come to the Isles of Shoals in 1800 to observe first-hand the wretched condition of the fishermen and their families living there.  (Click title to read more) 

The once-thriving community had collapsed in 1773 when their beloved minister died. Most of the Shoalers moved to the mainland during the American Revolution, but a few dozen impoverished citizens of Gosport had survived and were living in squalid conditions clinging to a lifestyle begun in the 1620s.

Tyng placed an inscribed sandstone slab on top of Tucke's grave, but by the Civil War it was scarcely legible. By then the island population had rebounded, but in 1873 the tourism industry replaced the fishing industry at the Isles for good. The fishing families of Star Island sold their land to a hotel developer from Boston. Three years later the developer sold his Oceanic Hotel and the island to the Laighton brothers Oscar and Cedric who had been running their own hotel on nearby Appledore for decades. But by 1913 Cedric was dead, Oscar Laighton was bankrupt, and the island mortgage was owned by the Piscataqua Savings Bank of Portsmouth. Luckily, the bank president, Charles A. Hazlett, was a huge history buff. 

 Star Island or Gosport New Hampshire

Tuck honors Tucke

In January 1914, Hazlett and Timothy Sullivan, an expert on monument design from Concord, visited the island. On a frigid afternoon the two men marked off a circle 60-feet in diameter surrounding the grave of Rev. Tucke. Hazlett deeded the small circle of land to the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. The society had recently moved into a monumental new building. Built of fine granite and marble in the Greek style, this "Temple of History" was the gift of banker and philanthropist Edward Tuck.  

Born in Exeter, Edward Tuck (1842-1938) was the son of the famous Amos Tuck, a founder of the Republican Party and the man, some say, who got Abraham Lincoln elected to the presidency. An extremely wealthy banker and railroad investor, Edward had previously founded the nation's first business graduate school at Dartmouth College in his father's name. His gift of $500,000 was a huge sum in 1899. Tuck would later donate an estimated $6 million to Dartmouth and was also a benefactor to his alma mater at Phillips Exeter Academy and other institutions.  

By this time Edward Tuck was an expatriate living with his wife in France on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées where their art and antique collection was valued at $6 million. When asked to build a better memorial to his ancestor John Tucke, the wealthy benefactor told the NH Historical Society to spare no expense. By mid-March 1914 the society had already contracted Pigeon Hill Granite Company of Rockport, MA to build an enormous obelisk in the "Egyptian style" and similar in proportion to the memorial at Bunker Hill in Boston.  Sullivan quickly presented a model of the Tucke Memorial for approval. Granite chunks gathered from the island would form the foundation that would rest directly on bedrock. The base and plinth were to be made of massive New England granite blocks, waterproofed with the finest Portland cement. The blocks would be stacked one-on-another, joined with two dowels secured by molten lead. Rev. Tucke's remains were to be placed in a vault at the bottom of the obelisk and permanently encased in cement. The completed memorial would stand 46.5 feet, making it the tallest tombstone in the Granite State. 


Tucke final block installed

So who was John Tucke?

Christian ministers arrived at the Isles of Shoals soon after the first European fishermen in the early 1600s. Dozens of these missionaries tended to the souls of the fishing families over the centuries. Most stopped only briefly to officiate church services, baptisms, and weddings, and to warn the Shoalers of the wages of sin. Most preachers quickly sailed back to the safety and comfort of the mainland.

One early minister scolded the hard-drinking fishermen for straying from the righteous path of their forefathers who had come to America in search of religious freedom. “Not so,” a member of the congregation spoke up. “Our forefathers came here to fish and to trade.”

When Gosport (on Star Island) officially became a town in 1715, the residents were required by law to maintain an active church. The “gathered church” of Gosport then contained only five men and 18 women members.

In order to maintain their status as a New Hampshire town, Gosport residents “called” a young Hampton man named John Tucke (1702-1773) to serve their island church.  A graduate of Harvard and recently ordained, Tucke worked harder, stayed longer, and was more beloved than any minister in Shoals history. In the era of the Great Awakening of the Christian religion, Tucke preached a softer kinder message to his isolated parishioners, a great relief from the fire-and-brimstone ministers who preceded him. He acted, not only as the town pastor, but as school teacher, doctor, lawyer, and friend for 41 years.

No minister fared better in return. He received 50 pounds annually, paid to support the building and maintenance of his house. Although the Tucke house was reportedly moved to York, Maine during the Revolution, early photographs show what appear to be a wine cellar in the old foundation of the original parsonage, another perk for the island minister. Tucke also received 110 pounds annual salary. He was given a garden plot, a luxury on an island with almost no soil. Free firewood was delivered to his door, an enormous benefit on an island with no trees.

His salary was later raised to a quintal of “marketable” fish per man delivered each year by about 100 fishermen. The sale of these fish, it has been calculated, made Tucke among the highest paid clerics in New England. He was, from his ordination, “a fisher of men.” Despite the need to admonish church members for their sins of drunkenness, fornication, and rowdy behavior, the four decades under Rev. Tucke were among the most orderly and pious in Gosport history. He dispensed his benevolence like a medieval baron supported by his loyal villagers.

Tucke and his wife Mary Dole, also of Hampton, had 11 children, but only three lived to adulthood. Amazing as it seems today, they kept four enslaved Africans in their household, a common practice for a minister of his stature in New England at the time. His death in 1773 coincided with the rise of the American Revolution and the temporary collapse of the Gosport village population that followed.

 Workers building Tucke Memorial in 1914 / Portsmouth Athenaeum

Flawless construction

          The skull and large bones of the body of Rev. Tucke were still intact when four workers delicately removed the stone slab from his grave in May 1914. But when they tried to move the minister's remains into a new casket, the skeleton crumbled into bits. As Tucke was sealed into his final resting place, stone blocks weighing from nine to 11 tons began arriving by ship. Eight work horses, lifted by crane onto the island, were unable to pull the heavy carriage holding each block. Extra horsepower from ropes, pulleys, and an engine were required to move the blocks to an elevated spot on the island. The obelisk is visible on a clear day from the New Hampshire shore.  

          It took three weeks to deliver and assemble the obelisk and another week to grade and prepare the area around the monument, still owned and maintained by the NH Historical Society. Six hundred words, echoing the epitaph by Dudley Tyng, were inscribed an inch-deep into the polished face of the monument. Each of the large block fit perfectly and were installed "without the least accident."


 Tucke Memorial is NH's tallest Tombstone on Star Island / Robinson photo

The Dedication  

          It was a beautiful breezy Wednesday on July 29, 1914 when a hundred invited guests left the dock in Boston aboard the steamer Nassau at 10 am. They joined another 138 local guests at Star Island an hour later for the dedication ceremony. The impressive memorial loomed over the flat rocky island. The lush vegetation, wildflowers, and poison ivy that now surround the monument were not there in 1914 and the memorial sat on barren rock. 

          There were speeches galore, but the guest of honor, Edward Tuck, remained at his mansion in Paris. The presidents of Harvard and Dartmouth, the governor of New Hampshire, and even the president of the historical society were also unable to attend and sent their regrets.

          Following the Tucke dedication, the group moved a few dozen yards up a rocky slope to the site of the Captain John Smith monument. It was, after all, the 300th anniversary of Smith's visit to the Isles of Shoals in 1614. A wooden obelisk erected in his honor soon after the Civil War had long since washed into the sea. Members of the Society of Colonial Wars had attached a new brass plaque to the crumbling base and  delivered an overlong speech about the life of Captain Smith. One observer noted that Smith, a soldier in the battles of the Crusades, symbolized war. Rev. Tucke, on the other hand, represented the epitome of what could be accomplished in the name of peace.

          A luncheon was served in the Oceanic dining room at 2 pm where a few "lineal" descendants of John Tucke were introduced. More grand speeches followed before the group boarded steamers to return to the mainland at 4pm. Later that same year, the ancient Appledore Hotel on a neighboring island burned. While religious conferences had been held at the Shoals since 1897, it was two years later in 1916 that the Star Island Corporation of Boston purchased the Star Island its hotel. Now operating from downtown Portsmouth, the nonprofit group continues to offer summer conferences on a wide range of topics, plus personal retreats. Visitors are welcome to tour the historic island in season.  

          Some speakers at the dedication wondered aloud why Rev. Tucke chose to spend his life among the poor villagers on an isolated fishing village at sea. It was his life of service and self-sacrifice, others pointed out, that make his monument worth visiting.  

Reverend Alfred Gooding of the Unitarian Church in Portsmouth said that Tucke had wisely chosen a simple life over the worries and turmoil on the mainland. He had his family, his large library, his home, plenty of leisure time, and was beloved by all. What more could a man desire?

 “To be minister at the Shoals,” Gooding said with a wisp of envy, “had all the advantages of being afloat with none of the disadvantages.” 

SOURCES: Search online for (1) “Tuck’s Gift,”Historical New Hampshire, Volume 65, No. 2, Fall 2011 and (2) Dedication of a memorial to Reverend John Tucke, 1702-1773, Star Island, Isles of Shoals, (1914).

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS from which a portion of this article is adapted..