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Three Beebe Girls Buried at Isles of Shoals

Children at Gosport IslandThey are the most forlorn graves in New Hampshire. Their three tiny headstones are hidden deep in an alcove tucked among rocks and vegetation and facing the open sea at the Isles of Shoals. Waves crash endlessly against the rocks below. The fog horn at nearby White Island moans. But few visitors to historic Star Island ever slide down the large stone, guarded by angry gulls, and venture through a break in the bushes to discover the ancient Beebe Cemetery. (Continued below)

 

The three little Gosport sisters died within weeks of each other on Star Island in 1863. Their grave markers used to lie deep within a jungle of cedars, lilac, and poison ivy at the uninhabited  end of Star Island. The iron gate that surrounded the family cemetery is gone. Gone too are their mother and father and four siblings who abandoned the Isles of Shoals for mainland New Hampshire a few years after the tragedy, leaving the girls behind.

It’s easy to lose your way when searching for the graves of Jessie, Millie and Mitty Beebe, aged two, four and seven. Star Island Corp. volunteers have cleared the cemetery. The heavy stone wall that once supported the railing and metal arch now look like a tumbledown house foundation. In the center, covered in moss is a single little obelisk with at least two of the touching inscriptions still visible in the shallow relief amid green and brownish moss.

The busy Mr. Beebe

Beebe cemetery memorial at Star Island / SeacoastNH.comMitty, so the story goes, had spent her life on the harsh island populated by impoverished fishing families. Mitty's parents were special, however. Her father was the Harvard-trained Rev. George Beebe, missionary to the island town of Gosport, New Hampshire. Beebe’s assignment was to save souls at the Isles of Shoals. He was sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Natives and Others, a Massachusetts missionary group. Beebe was, according to a visitor from that era, a sort of king on Star, "as infallible as the pope of Rome." He settled down and purchased an acre of land from the Caswell family.

Besides his chores as spiritual leader, doctor, and dentist to the small island fishing population, Rev. Beebe was also their lawyer, school teacher and justice of the peace. He served as the one-man school committee, NH town legislator, collector of port revenues, inspector of customs, US Commissioner, elected Selectman for the town of Gosport, island apothecary, and carpenter. Because he was in charge of the only gun on the island, Beebe was de facto commandant of the Shoals military and navy as well and kept an eye out for smugglers.

The Rev. Mason, who Beebe replaced in 1857, complained that the locals also expected the island minister to raise flags, mow lawns, build coffins, sweep buildings, make fires, and repair clocks. How Rev. Beebe also fathered a brood of children and served as surgeon in the ongoing War of the Rebellion has been a source of discussion by local historians for over a century. Cedric Laighton, the brother of island poet Celia Thaxter, once adapted a popular poem to describe the minister like this: "How doth the little busy Beebe Improve each shining hour."

Death at an early age

It was the height of the Civil War when young Mitty grew old enough to attend school on the mainland. She was ferried in to Kittery, Maine to join her classmates, no longer isolated among the fishing families of Star. Mitty attended classes for the first time in a school not run by her father or mother. There she contracted scarlet fever. The disease spread quickly to her younger siblings back on Star Island. All three girls died within a month of each other early in the Another version says the girls died of diphtheria. summer of 1863.

That portion of the tale comes from "Uncle" Oscar Laighton, Celia Thaxter's other brother, who spent most of his 99 years living on the Isles of Shoals. Oscar told his version of the story to Mrs. W. I. Laurence, who told it to Boston reporter Jessie Donahue who donated her papers to the little stone Vaughan Museum building on the island. The late Shoals historian Bob Tuttle found the story in the archive there and read his notes to this writer over the phone years ago. Oscar (who died three month short of his 100th birthday in 1939) said that Rev. George Beebe was the last of the preachers sent to minister to the hard-drinking, “heathen” fishermen of the Isles. In fact, two other preachers followed Beebe, but did not last long, before the villagers of Gosport sold their homes to a hotel developer in the early 1870s and the town disbanded.

CONTINUE BEEBE BABBIES BURIAL

 


Gosport Chapel on Star Island / SeacoastNH.com

 

Gosport remembered

Celia Thaxter's account of the last years of the "wretched little community" on Star Island makes it hard to imagine how any of the children of Gosport survived. The women, Celia wrote, grew old before their time from domestic work, while the men after fishing, lounged aimlessly on the rocks and drank heavily. In her book Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) Celia asks one Star Island mother whether she fears that a steady diet of beans, pork fat, and thick black coffee might kill her baby. No, the mother replied. The hot coffee helped the baby keep his head up. That same child, by Celia’s account, did not survive to adulthood.

Consumption was a major killer among the native Shoalers. Celia noted with irony that many summer visitors with similar ailments traveled great distances to convalesce on nearby Appledore Island in the same rejuvenating sea air. Gosport fishing families got little fresh air in the winter. They lived almost entirely indoors, their windows tightly shut with rags filling every crack. Their tiny homes were sealed tight, Celia wrote, "so that the air of heaven should not penetrate." Celia wrote:

I have seen a little room containing a whole family, fishing boots and all, bed, furniture, cooking-stove in full blast, and an oil lamp with a wick so high that the deadly smoke rose steadily, filling the air with what Browning might call 'filthiest gloom,' and mingling with the incense of ancient tobacco pipes smoked by both sexes...and if by any chance the door opened for an instant, out rushed a fume in comparison with which the gusts from the lake of Tartarus might be imagined sweet.

In the midst of all this apparent misery and sadness, we can count on brother Cedric Laighton to uncover a humorous vein. Rev. Beebe, like the ministers before him, incited both love and derision among the Shoalers. In one instance, the locals complained to Rev. Beebe's superiors that he had stolen the Gosport church melodeon and refused to offer Sabbath Day services. An investigating committee visited Star Island and cleared the reverend of all charges.

In another lively incident, Nett Caswell, a fisherman’s wife, got into a scuffle with Mrs. Beebe. (Nett and Lemuel Caswell ran the Atlantic House and had sold a plot of land to Rev. Beebe.) According to Cedric, Nett believed that Mrs. Beebe had stolen a couple of “webs” of cloth. When similar webs of cloth showed up three years later at the Beebe home, a group of Shoalers confronted the minister and his family. Writing to his sister Celia, Cedric embroidered the dramatic story as follows:

Nett rushed upon Mrs. Beebe and commenced to slap her in the face; the town clerk, unwilling to leave without an honorable spar, rushed at Beebe and slapped him in the face; and Aunt Sally, seeing everyone so pleasantly employed, determined to have her share and so commenced to slap Beebe's baby. After the slapping was over, the trio walked slowly and majestically away from the Parsonage, amid the tears and groans of the House of Beebe.

Beebe Cemetery on Star Island / J. Dennis Robinson photo

Farewell my darlings

Rev. Beebe built the family cemetery for his three lost daughters apparently intending to stay on Star. With another minister from Portsmouth, around this time he also helped design and built the monument to explorer John Smith, dilapidated but still standing today not far from the graves of his girls. But the harshness of the Shoals won out. Four years later, according to most reports, Rev. Beebe and his remaining family moved on to Littleton, NH. Their land, like most land on Star Island, was eventually sold to John Poore, who built a great hotel there to compete with the Laightons on Appledore. With the departure of the fishing families, the town of Gosport ceased to exist. After the hotel burned in 1875 and was rebuilt, Poore himself moved on, selling out to the Laighton brothers, Oscar and Cedric. They ran it until the church conference era when the Star Island Corporation purchased Star and Appledore. A century later the same group still runs the summer conferences on Star. The Oceanic and Star Island itself are hauntingly similar to the way they appeared over a century ago.

More haunting still are the two visible inscriptions on the marker that stands amid the ruins of the old Beebe Cemetery. Below Millie's name the worn memorial reads: "Dying she kneeled down and prayed: Please Jesus, take me up to the Lighted Place. And HE did."

Mitty passed away 11 days after her second sister died of the disease contracted on the mainland in Kittery. Her farewell is etched into the fading stone barely to visible to island visitors who seek out the graves. We can almost hear her voice, weak, nearly lost, against the hissing of the flickering oil lamp. It is the voice of an obedient Christian child, the daughter of a minister sent to save fewer than a hundred souls in a lost tribe of New Hampshire fishermen in a town soon to expire.

"I don't want to die," Mitty whispered with her final breath, "but I'll do just as Jesus wants me to."

The Beebe family was among the last to leave Star Island as it became a tourist Mecca. But eventually Mitty’s family, like every Star Islander, sold their land and moved away forever. The Oceanic Hotel survives, but the town of Gosport, NH is gone. Many of its citizens are buried in open view. The Caswell Cemetery, ringed by a low stone wall, stands prominently beside the hotel on the sloping front lawn. The great granite obelisk to pre-Revolutionary Era missionary Rev. JohnTucke is the tallest tombstone in New Hampshire and visible from the mainland. But the sheltered memorial to the sad short lives of Jessie, Millie, and Mitty is rarely seen except by passing gulls, fishing boats, and the most dedicated island searchers.

 

SOURCES: (1) Gosport Remembered (1997) edited by Peter E. Randall and Maryellen Burke, Portsmouth Marine Society; (2) Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) by Celia Laighton Thaxter; (3) Letters to Celia by Cedric Laighton (1972) edited by Fred McGill, Jr

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article appears exclusively online. His corgi dog is named Rev. Beebe. His latest book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Candee. His dog’s name is Rev. Beebe.

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