The Tragic Tale of Beebe's Babies
Leaving Star Island meant
Among the perks of history writing is the chance to spend lots of time among older people who populate the circles in which I spin. It's soothing -- as I crash through my first half century of life -- to be referred to as "that nice young man" or even "an impetuous boy." At 96, Portsmouth historian Dorothy Vaughan still monitors this column for accuracy. Last week, out on the Isles of Shoals for the umpteenth time this season, I got to interrogate "old shoaler" Fred McGill, also in his 90s, as we filed in and out of the dining hall at the Oceanic Hotel. Later historian Malcolm Ferguson and I sat on an ancient stone tomb at the base of the towering Tuck monument and swapped stories. 80-ish and retired from the book selling business, Malcolm remembers when his grandfather bought nearby Lunging Island and the only house on it for a dollar in 1924.
But that's a tale for another time. I've made a pact with myself to carry away just one story from the Shoals per visit -- and this story is about the Beebe babies. Three 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 old 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, 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, 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 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. Celia's other brother Cedric once adapted a popular old poem and expressed the same question this way:
"How doth the little busy BeebeIn 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.
That portion of the tale comes from "Uncle" Oscar Laighton, Celia Thaxter's brother, who spent most of his 100 years 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 museum on the island. Shoals historian Bob Tuttle found the story there and read his notes to me over the phone. Another version says the girls died of diphtheria. Oscar (who died three month short of his 100th birthday in 1939) said 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 who's counting?
If you read Celia Thaxter's accounts of the "wretched little community" on Star Island, it's hard to imagine how any of the children there survived. The women, she says, grew old before their time from domestic work, while the men after fishing lounged aimlessly on the rocks and drank. In "Among the Isles of Shoals" Celia asks one Star Island mother if she doesn't fear a steady diet of beans, pork fat and thick black coffee will kill her baby? No, the mother replies. The hot coffee helps the baby keep his head up. The child never survived to adulthood, Celia tells us.
Consumption was a major killer among the native shoalers. Celia notes, with irony, that her summer visitors on nearby Appledore Island came to the fresh air of the Shoals as a cure for the same disease. Shoalers, however, lived mostly indoors, windows closed tightly, rags filling every crack, she says, in tiny houses hermetically sealed "so that the air of heaven should not penetrate" Celia continues:
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. Cedric embroiders the story this way:
Rev. Beebe built the family cemetery 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 family moved on to Littleton, NH. Their land, like most land on Star Island, was sold to John Poore, who built a great hotel there to compete with the Laightons on Appledore. After the hotel burned in 1875 and was rebuilt, Poore eventually sold out to the Laighton brothers. They ran it until the church conference era and purchase by the Star Island Corporation that runs the summer conferences today. The Oceanic and Star Island are hauntingly similar to the way they appeared over 100 years 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."
Eleven days after her second sister died of the disease she had contracted on the mainland, Mitty passed away. 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 tale.
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
PRIMARY SOURCE SOURCE: "Gosport Remembered" by Peter E. Randall and Maryellen Burke, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1997.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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