The Isles of Shoals

Coast of New Hampshire and Maine

Tortured souls whisper across the sea, their voices echoing from shore to shore on a tiny string of islands in northeastern America. Through a past of violence and pain, ghosts of many types can be found. The women butchered by an axe-wielding madman, the woman left by her pirate husband, and even a man of questionable occupation stalk the nine shores. Some visitors might run screaming in fear into the sea, were it safe. But here, phantom ships swim, and boats are ransacked by things unseen in the night. Sunlight reveals a curiously striking and less-than-inviting landscape unchanged by the passage of more than a century, but darkness brings a shiver that comes, not from the wind, but from the very bones, as those whose lives were cut short cry out to never be forgotten.

At less than three miles wide, the tiny collection of islands that make up the Isles of Shoals may seem too small to host the living, much less the dead. Still, the past intrudes on the present at times, as the deeds of those who came before bleed through to the modern day. They’ve played host to poets, pirates, Vikings and traders, each leaving their own distinctive marks on the land. While some gained fame, others gained infamy. And though some legends can be written off as sailor lore, others are far too real to deny, and all come together to make a place both ominous and fascinating.

The Isles of Shoals may very well have been the origin of every cliché of pirates hiding in niches off the mainland on deserted islands or setting up a port of their own. The nine islands, eight during high tide, received its first recorded visitors in the early 17th century, with the first “official” settling on the isle of Lunging at around 1615. The islands were not hospitable, being covered in scrub brush and poison ivy, but one thing held the interest of the shoalers: Fish. Records indicate that, during its peak population, fishermen could pull out cod that weighed in between 100 and 150 pounds.

During their heyday, the residents of the small fishing communities had a reputation for being drunken, godless ruffians, a reputation furthered, no doubt, by the presence of pirates. Among the more famous who took up at least brief residence during those times were Captain Kidd and Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Their reputation for lawlessness often came with humorous results, as, during one episode, the Massachusetts province attempted to levy taxes of Appledore Island, prompting some forty families to dismantle their houses, row them across the harbor, and set them up across the New Hampshire boarder on Star Island.

The chain of islands also saw their share of tragedy. 1842 saw the wreck of the ship Isadore, and the deaths of all who were aboard. Countless deaths were attributed to the famous pirates, many resulting in legends that persist to this day. By 1852, when Nathaniel Hawthorne visited and wrote about the tiny island chain, ghost stories were already circulating. But it was in 1873 that two Swedish women were killed by an axe-wielding madman. Another woman escaped, identifying a Prussian fisherman named Louis Wagner as the killer.

There seems to be a large population of restless souls on the island chain, with each story more tragic and bizarre than the next. And while each one is ingrained in the history and folklore of the islands, disagreements still arise occasionally as to the wherefores and how’s.

Phillip Babb, who is most commonly reported as an early settler and constable, is also reputed to be a former shipmate of Captain Kidd. According to Hawthorne, Kidd murdered his crewman in order to protect the treasure that is supposedly buried somewhere on the island. Now referred to as “Old Babb,” he walks the shores near the cove that bears his name. He is often seen wearing and old frock-style coat, and is described as having a dreadful countenance.

Not to be outdone, Blackbeard left one of his many wives, the fifteenth in fact, on one of the islands when British forces were homing in on him in 1720. She stayed on the isle without food or water, watching over his treasure, all the while pacing the shore and muttering “He will return.” No treasure has been found, but that doesn’t stop people from looking, nor does it stop the lady from walking. Most often she is seen on Smuttynose Island, though she has also been spotted on White Island as well. It is on Smuttynose that she seems to spend most of her time, pacing between the shore and the hotel on the island.

A curious phenomenon occurred in the 1900’s, following the murder of a woman on board a Guinea ship. For twenty years, the crews of Guinea boats, and only Guinea boats, were reportedly attacked during foggy or storm-tossed nights. Strangely, there was never any record of any of the shoalers doing the attacking. Subsequently, many women and men stuck close to the islands, refusing to venture out far into the sea.

Since the day it wrecked in 1842, there have also been sporadic reports of the ship Isadore patrolling the bays. Usually only sighted for a few moments at a time, the ship has been sought and featured on several television programs, all watching for its eerie sails that billow without wind.

White Island, and its lighthouse, claims to be the home of not one, but three apparitions. The first, believed to be the ghost of Blackbeard’s wife, appears as a lady in white. Phantom footsteps and cries accompany her presence, startling visitors and locals alike. Another, in Moody’s Cave, screams and cries as she attempts to hide with her child from hostile Indians. While this story seems far fetched, the woman has been identified as Betty Moody, after whom the cave is named. Of course, there have also been reports of the same woman haunting the Star Island Cave. The third comes in the form of a woman’s muffled cries, and heralds big storms on the island. No explanation has been given for her presence, though some theorize that the wind off the harbor could easily be mistaken for a woman’s cries.

It is curious to note that, despite the horrific nature and surrounding hoopla around the axe murders of 1873, there have been no reported sightings of ghosts related to the event. The house in which the murders took place is gone now, with ghoulish souvenir hunters carrying away even blood-spattered pieces of wall and floorboard. However, the broken axe, believed to be the same that killed the two Swedish women, sits in a glass case in the Portsmouth Atheneum. Arguments still break out over whether Wagner was innocent or guilty, so it seems a ghost of a sort still lingers after all.

Present Day:
The islands are still desolate places, covered in poison ivy, scrub brush and birds. There are also relics left behind of days past, with graves dug on the island and other reminders of what was. The ghosts are still heard from, with tourists flocking to the sites every year. Star Island hosts the Shoals Marine Laboratory, operated by Cornell University. Apart from a few fishing families, the islands are largely uninhabited. One notable exception is the Smuttynose Brewery, makers of Smuttynose Pale Ale. The islands and the lighthouse live on through the poetry of Celia Thaxter.

Best Times:
There is only one way for commercial visitors to reach the islands, and that is by boat, usually by the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, who provides dinner cruises, sight-seeing tours, and a ferry to Star Island. Most visitors, it seems, like to visit in the month of March. And, although the mainland is clearly visible from the islands, most visitors say that the moment they set foot on the shores, they feel a strange sense of isolation.

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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