Friday, March 26, 2010

A Memorable Murder

Celia Thaxter (1835–1894)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

In a letter to her son dated March 27, 1873, the poet Celia Thaxter exclaims, “O John, my dear, we have had the fiend’s own month of March! Such a disastrous four weeks was never known in our experience at the Shoals.” She then describes at length a violent storm off the coast of New Hampshire, where a “brig struck on the outer rocks of White Island, a breaker carried away a portion of her stern and drowned five men then and there. Then the breakers pitched her upon Londoners [now Lunging Island], drove her fairly over and over, smashed her all up, broke her in two halves, drowned three more men, and there left her. The mate alone escaped of a crew of nine.”

What she doesn’t mention in this particular letter—nor does she need to—is the gruesome double murder of two women three weeks earlier, a crime that captured the attention of the entire nation and dominated newspaper headlines. She knew the victims and their families and was among the first to arrive at the side of the lone surviving witness. Two years later, Thaxter published in the Atlantic Monthly her account, one of the milestones in American true-crime writing. The story served as the basis for The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel that was subsequently turned into a 2000 motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Sean Penn, Elizabeth Hurley, and Sarah Polley.

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At the Isles of Shoals, on the 5th of March in the year 1873, occurred one of the most monstrous tragedies ever enacted on this planet. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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