Marblehead is a writer’s muse


In the 19th century, the town of Marblehead with its natural beauty and history inspired a number of poets. Among them, Helen Leah Reed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Helen Leah Reed

Mrs. Reed is best known for her children’s books and poetry.

Her poem “The Screaming Woman in Marblehead” was inspired by a ghost story set in Marblehead.

In the 17th century, a ship passing Marblehead was captured by pirates. The pirates killed everyone on board except one person, a woman wearing jewelry around her neck and on her fingers. She refused to hand over her jewelry to the pirates, and so they took her ashore at Lovis Cove, where they cut off her fingers to reach the rings, then killed her. She screamed for help, but her screams fell on deaf ears. To this day, some say you can still hear its cries from Lovis Cove!

“The Screaming Woman in Marblehead”

It was a Spanish galleon that sailed the seas, –

Two centuries have passed since –

Loaded with silver and gems to please

Bold cheerful and gallant ladies.

But evil pirates took over the ship

As at home, she was bound;

Ah, she made her last long journey

For they soon failed her.

From Oakum Bay to Marblehead

They brought a beautiful lady, –

Her husband, alas, and his crew are dead,

And her, they will not spare her.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mr. Longfellow made several trips to Marblehead. He stayed in rooming houses and hotels, including Devereux Farm. He mentions in his personal papers that he went to Devereux Farm to see his cousin’s wife (Emmeline Austin Wadsworth) who was staying there.

“A delightful drive with Fanny through Malden and Lynn to Marblehead to visit Emmeline Wadsworth at Devereux Farm by the sea.” – September 29, 1846.

It was during his stay at Devereux Farm that he was inspired to write this poem;

“The Driftwood Fire”

“Not far from there, we saw the port

The strange old-fashioned silent city

The lighthouse, the dismantled fort

The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was inspired by the love story of Marblehead resident Agnes Surriage and Boston Harbor tax collector Charles Franklin.

In 1742 Charles Franklin came to Marblehead and stayed at the Fountain Tavern. There he met Agnes Surriage, the daughter of a fisherman from Marblehead. It was love at first sight for Charles Franklin and he made several visits to Marblehead to see her.

Due to class differences, he didn’t ask for her hand in marriage at first (he didn’t think his parents would approve of it). Instead, he built a house in Hopkinton where they both lived single.

In 1754 he returned to England to contest a will, taking Agnes with him. Because she lacked royal blood and was born in the American colonies to a fisherman, Franklin’s family ostracized her.

In 1755, while visiting Lisbon, Portugal, with Agnes, an earthquake struck and buried Charles Franklin under a pile of debris. Agnès removed the debris with her bare hands and saved his life. Due to her act of bravery, Charles Franklin’s family changed their minds about Agnes and allowed the two to marry.

Oliver Wendel Holmes’ poem, “Agnes,” takes this Cinderella-like story and immortalizes it in prose: “It’s like the pictorial trance of a port. Its idle rhymes recite that old New England-born romance of Agnes and the knight.

In 1891, Oliver Wendell Holmes also published a poem about New England witches returning from hell to visit their former playgrounds, including the town of Marblehead. The poem is titled “The broom train” or “The return of the witches”:

“And many scenes where the story tells

A shadow of past terror dwells

From ‘Normans Woe’ with his horror story

From the Screaming Woman of Marblehead

The chilling story that makes men swoon

Don’t ask me to say it, – my speech would fail.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was inspired by Marblehead

John Greenleaf Whittier-

Whittier was born in Haverhill in 1807. He attended Haverhill Academy where he met fellow student Evelyn Bray of Marblehead. Evelyn and John quickly fell in love, and he made several visits to town. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bray’s parents did not want their daughter to marry Whittier. They feared that he could not support her with the income of a poet.

Ms Bray broke off the engagement and later married the Reverend William Downey. Mr. Whittier never married, telling people that Mrs. Bray was his true love.

This poem was inspired by his visits to Marblehead:

“The dream of the sea”

“I see the broken wall of the gray fort

The boat is that rock below

And, at sea, the passing sails

We saw long ago, the rose-red glow of the morning.

In the poem “Parson Avery’s Swan Song”, Whittier recounts the drowning of Parson Avery and his family when their boat sank in a storm while heading for Marblehead in 1635.

“There were groans on the continent, Marblehead rocks

In the stricken Newbury church, prayer notes were read

And for a long time, by board and hearth, the living wept for the dead.

Citizens of Marblehead may be familiar with another poem by Whittier, “Skipper Ireson’s Ride”

In 1808, when the schooner ‘Betsy’ returned to port after a fishing trip, her crew began to spread word that they had encountered the schooner ‘Active’, of Portland, battling a storm off Cape Cod. Rather than help the ship’s crew, the captain of the “Betsy”, Benjamin Ireson, had ordered the men to continue sailing. When the citizens of Marblehead heard of Skipper Ireson’s lack of compassion, they tarred and feathered him. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier forever popularized the story in his poem “Skipper Ireson’s Ride”. In his version, he has Ireson punished by the women of Marblehead.

Much to the chagrin of Ireson’s accusers, Ireson actually ordered his crew to help the stricken ship. They refused, however, fearing to risk their lives in the storm.

Powerless to enforce his order, Ireson then ordered the crew to stand up and let the “Betsy” remain in place. In the morning, they helped the “Actives”.

When Skipper Ireson came down to sleep, however, the crew disobeyed him and sailed for Marblehead.

“Skipper Ireson’s Ride”

“The weirdest ride that’s ever been sped up

Was Ireson, out of Marblehead!

Old Floyd Ireson, for his hard heart

Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart

By the women of Marblehead!

Sources:

  1. The Messenger from Marblehead, December 7, 1967

  2. The Marblehead Messenger, June 24, 1948
  3. The Messenger from Marblehead, August 13, 1909
  4. A Guide to Marblehead, Samuel Roads, 1887
  5. Then and Now – Marblehead, Sue Ellen Woodcock
  6. THE SPIRIT OF 76 LIVES HERE, Priscilla Sawyer lord, Virginia Gamage, Chilton Book Company, 1972
  7. The North Shore, Joseph Garland, Commonwealth Editions, 1998
  8. www.goodreads.com/Helenleahreads
  9. Wikipedia contributors, 2022, 29 January, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Mark Hurwitz is a Marblehead resident who enjoys writing about local history

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