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The Second Death of John Greenleaf Whittier
Whittier_portrait at Amesbury Home museum / J. Deenis Robinson photo



Death in Hampton Falls

Samuel T. Pickard, related to Whittier by marriage and his literary executor, tells a wonderfully creepy tale from the poet’s last days. Whittier, the story goes, was last to dinner one night at Elmfield where a dozen guests were already seated. Thirteen visitors at one table was considered bad luck, so Whittier’s niece Elizabeth, Pickard’s wife, moved her plate to a small table In the corner of the room.

“Why, Lizzie, what has thee been doing that they put thee in the corner?” Whittier said jokingly in Quaker style as he entered the room and sat at the large table.

Then another guest arrived unexpectedly and took the thirteenth position at the table. Without explanation, the Pickard’s son Greenleaf, moved quickly to sit with his mother, but the curse was cast. Whittier suffered his stroke the next day while dressing, and never dined with the guests again.  When he walked up the stairs to his room for the last time, Pickard adds, an old clock struck once as he passed it. The clock had not sounded for years and, despite their efforts, no one at Elmfield was able to make it chime again.

Whittier’s last whispered words reportedly were “I love all the world”. On the morning before his death, attended by three physicians, Whittier gestured weakly in protest when the nurse tried to lower the window shade.  It was his final sunrise. He died on September 6, 1892 -- making this year the 120th anniversary of his death.  Before her own death two years later, Celia Thaxter called Whittier “America’s greatest lyric poet” who was “as strong as truth itself.”

Despite rumors that the poet was buried in New Hampshire, Whittier rests in the Quaker section of Union Cemetery in Amesbury. As many as 2,000 pilgrims a day came looking for his grave following the funeral. The simple rounded gravestone reads “Here Whittier Lies.” His is the tallest in a row of stones of family members. His sister and mother are buried to the right of the poet’s headstone.  Whittier’s niece Elizabeth and biographer Samuel Pickard are buried to the left.

The mansion called Elmfield, like Whittier, has left New Hampshire. Despite efforts to preserve the historic colonial-style house, it was sold in 1996. The new owners disassembled the building and moved it to Greenwich, Connecticut.


SOURCES: Whittier-Land by Samuel T. Pickard (1904) and John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography by Roland H. Woodwell (1985). A new DVD of Whittier’s life is available from the Whittier House in Amesbury and the Whittier Homestead in Haverhill. Also look for a new children’s version of “The Barefoot Boy” illustrated by Lisa Greenleaf and Celebrating Whittier, a new book edited by Pamela Johnson Fenner.

Copyright © 2012 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 His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.


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