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The Beebe Babies Tragic Tale

From

ISLES OF SHOALS

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.

Continue BEEBE SHOALS TRAGEDY



 ISLES OF SHOALS TRAGEDY (continued)

Beebe Cemetery from the Laing Collection/ Peter e. Randall

Consumption was a major killer among the native shoalers. Celia noted, with irony, that her summer visitors on Appledore Island came to the fresh air of the Isles to escape the same disease that ravaged the population on Star Island nearby. Gosport fishing families got little fresh air in the winter. They lived mostly indoors, windows closed tightly, rags filling every crack, she wrote, in tiny houses hermetically sealed "so that the air of heaven should not penetrate" Celia continued:

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 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, wife of Lemuel Caswell (the family who ran the Atlantic House and originally sold land to Beebe), 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.

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 stone now visible again for island visitors to see. We can almost hear her voice, weak, nearly lost, against the hissing of the flickering oil lamp. It is the voice of an obedient child, the daughter of a minister sent to save fewer than 100 souls in a lost tribe of New Hampshire fishermen.

"I don't want to die," Mitty whispers, "but I'll do just as Jesus wants me to."

Soon her family, like almost every Star Island family, sold their land and moved away forever. In 1873, just a decade after Mitty Beebe's death, the Oceanic Hotel opened. That same year, the town of Gosport, NH held its last meeting, and quietly faded into history -- leaving behind Jessie, Millie and Mitty to tell the sad tale of three short lives.

SOURCES: (1) Gosport Remembered by Peter E. Randall and Maryellen Burke, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1997; (2) Among the Isles of Shoals by Celia Laighton Thaxter, 1873; (3) Letters to Celia by Cedric Laighton, edited by Fred McGill, Jr., 1972. Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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