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William Morris Hunt Dies Mysteriously at Isles of Shoals


A tragic accident


Hunt’s condition has been described as “nervous prostration” and “melancholia.” He experienced weakened muscles that “paralyzed his energies” and his brain was cloudy and so that he could not think clearly. For the painter and teacher, the possibility that he might be permanently disabled and had passed the peak of his career was a “source of extreme regret and disappointment” to Hunt.


Yet by the end of July, according to Celia’s letters, Hunt was much improved. The month of August, reunited with her husband and blessed with perfect weather, Celia considered 1879 the best of all summers. Hunt’s death changed all that.

Despite the suicide theory, the examining physician concluded that Hunt had more likely suffered a dizzy spell while walking. It had been raining and he was carrying an umbrella. The doctor theorized that Hunt leaned on his umbrella to steady himself, the umbrella snapped, and he fell into the pond. A piece of the umbrella was later found on the other side of the pool.


“A suspicion seems to have existed at the time that his death was a voluntary one,” the author of Hunt’s memorial catalog wrote immediately after his death. But the facts indicate otherwise. “His mental depression was the natural result of his physical disability; and his disability was a real one.” It was enough, according to his eulogist, to “diminish his power of resistance to accident.”

Hunt, in other words, was too weak to save his own life. Celia noted that the back of Hunt’s coat was dry and waving in the breeze, indicating that he had fallen forward into the pond and not thrown himself in on purpose.


Haunting the capitol

Barely 10 years after his masterpiece mural was installed in the Albany capitol, it was already deteriorating. Hunt had painted directly onto the sandstone wall, rather than on canvas, and moisture from the ceiling was destroying it slowly. Pieces of the mural wall were breaking off and falling onto the desks of legislators far below.


In 1888 the mural was covered and the ceiling slightly lowered, In 1911 a fire destroyed a portion of the Assembly Room. Then in 1939 worikmen uncovered Hunt’s murals, but they remain out of public view.

Stuart Lehman, educational director of the New York Capitol for 10 years, has seen Hunt’s “lost murals” up close. There are “only fragments left,” he says.


Does he believe Hunt killed himself? “That’s the impression I have gotten,” 

Lehman says.


And what about a rumor that Hunt was deeply depressed in 1879 because the state of New York did not pay him for the work done on the murals. “As far as I know he got paid for that,” Lehman says. And Hunt never lived long enough to learn about the moisture and the fire and the renovations that destroyed his masterpiece.

But there may be more to the story. Hunt, according to Lehman, believed that he would receive additional commissions to paint more murals at the New York capitol. That added work did not materialize in 1879 and Hunt was “very disappointed” Lehman says.

The capitol is undergoing a $48 million restoration, but Lehamn says there are no plans currently to restore the Hunt murals, because they are too deteriorated, and no plans to recreate them, because no color images of the originals exist.


Lehman tells the story of Hunt’s mysterious death at the Isles of Shoals to visitors during occasional “haunted” tours of the capitol building. “it’s a way to bring in the public and make them aware of the lost murals,” he says.


In 2002, Lehman notes, a group of paranormal researchers “took some readings” in the upper area of the Assembly Chamber where the fragmented remains of the murals are hidden. The results were difficult to interpret, he says, but the ghost-hunters thought they discovered a message that read: “William Morris is behind the door.”


“If anybody had a right to be haunting the capitol, it would be Hunt,” Lehman concludes.



Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online.



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