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The Beebe Babies Tragic Tale



Life was harsh at the Isles of Shoals, but the Beebe girls were fine until their sister Mitty went to school on the mainland. Then all hell broke loose. The girls are buried on Star Island, but their family has long long ago moved on.




TOUR of the Beebe Cemetery on Star

Beebe Memorial on Star Island / SeacoastNH.comThree little Gosport sisters died within weeks of each other on Star Island in 1863. Their tiny headstones used to lie deep within a jungle of cedars, lilac and poison ivy at the far end of Star Island. The iron gate that once surrounded the Beebe family cemetery is rusted and 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. What remains is a deep-set gravesite that seems carved into the rocky shelf.

I've often lost my way when searching for the graves of Jessie, Millie and Mitty Beebe, aged two, four and seven. Now Star Island Corp. volunteers have cleared the cemetery. The heavy stone wall that once supported the railing and metal arch now look like an tumbledown 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.

Mitty, 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 Rev. George Beebe, missionary to the island town of Gosport. 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. He was, according to a visitor from that era, a sort of king on Star, "as infallible as the pope of Rome." Besides his chores as spiritual leader, doctor and dentist to the small island population, Rev. Beebe was also their lawyer, school teacher, justice of the peace, one-man school committee, NH legislator, collector of port revenues, inspector of customs, a US Commissioner, elected Selectman for the town of Gosport, NH, apothecary, a carpenter and -- because he was in charge of the only gun on the island -- commandant of the military and navy as well. 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 old poem and expressed the same question this way:

"How doth the little busy Beebe
Improve each shining hour."

In the midst of all this activity Mitty grew old enough for schooling on the mainland, so she was ferried in to Kittery, Maine. There she attended classes for the first time in a school not run by her parents. There she quickly contracted scarlet fever which spread to her younger siblings. All died within a month of each other early in the summer of 1863 during the Civil War.

That portion of the tale comes from "Uncle" Oscar Laighton, Celia Thaxter's other brother, who spent almost a century on the Isles of Shoals. Oscar told the story to Mrs. W. I. Laurence, who told it to Boston reporter Jessie Donahue who donated her papers to the little museum on the island. The late Shoals historian Bob Tuttle found the story in the archive there and read his notes to me over the phone years ago. Another version says the girls died of diphtheria. 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. Actually two other preachers followed, but history has a way of rounding off the edges of truth.

Celia Thaxter's account 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. In her book "Among the Isles of Shoals" 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 replies. The hot coffee helps the baby keep his head up. That same child, by Celia’s account, did not survive to adulthood.


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