by Thomas D’Agostino and Arlene Nicholson
From Pirate Ghosts and Phantom Ships and A Travel Guide To Haunted New England
This is the first part of a series of legends and accounts of the Isles of Shoals located off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. The Isles can be reached by ferry and there are events that take place year round.
Having ventured to the Isles of Shoals, Arlene and I became overwhelmed by two factors. The first was that people actually settled on these rocky outcroppings, and the second was that we were there. The isles have been the subject of many tales and true accounts by such legends as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Celia Thaxter, who is buried on White Island.
There are nine islands; some belong to Maine, and some to New Hampshire. The islands in New Hampshire waters are Star, Lunging, White, and Seavey while Maine claims Malaga, Duck, Smuttynose and Appledore. Lunging Island is a privately owned island.
The isles are about ten miles from Portsmouth Harbor. When John Smith discovered the isles in 1614, he named them Smythe’s Islands but as time wore on, each island was awarded its own moniker. As the islands were settled, the names were changed. Many a pirate found refuge from authorities in the small islands. Inhabitants of the islands welcomed the pirate bands and were paid well for protecting the brigands from the law. Some of these robbers of the high seas even settled down on the small islands.
The focus of this article, Appledore Island, also known as Hog Island, was originally used for farming. A church was built on the island in 1640. Most of those who settled here relocated to Star Island around 1700 to avoid paying taxes. They literally pulled apart the homes and rowed them over to Star Island. The artists’ salon was a booming business on the island in the later part of the 1800’s. The salon burned in 1914 and that pretty much ended the leading artists, musicians and writers on the Isles. Today, the island is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory and has been run by Cornell University and the University of NH since the 1970s. Today there are very few residents living on the Isles of Shoals, most of them are the ghosts that have embedded themselves into the haunted history that has made such illustrious tales worth reading over and over again.
One such resident is the ghost of Phillip Babb. Phillip Babb lived on Appledore Island where he was constable, butcher, and innkeeper. Appledore Island is the largest of the Isles of Shoals. It spans 95 acres measuring 1 mile from east to west and .6 mile from north to south. He was said to be a retired pirate who chose the largest of the shoals for his home. Appledore is one half mile wide and long. In the early 17th century, Maine imposed a tax on the island and the autonomous islanders rebelled by dismantling their homes and rowing them to Star Island. After that the island became its own sovereign body. The Babb family cemetery is still on the island.
Babb was born in England around 1634. He married and had children with his wife, Mary. Some claim he was Don Pedro of “Ocean Born Mary” fame but neither he, nor his son’s mortality dates coincide with that legend. If he was a privateer, it was well before Mary Fulton was born. None-the-less, he left a legacy of freebooting and phantom sightings that the Isles of Shoals shall forever be witness to.
Babb’s manners were rudely fashioned and kindled much disgust in his fellow islanders. After his alleged trials and tribulations at sea, Babb settled down to a safer career on the Isles of Shoals. More than likely to avoid the noose, many of his friends and fellow privateers could not escape. He was known to wear a heavy butcher’s frock with a great knife sheathed on a thick belt. He lived on the south side of the island in a cottage near the cove that now bears his name. Legends states he once dug a great hole on the island for reasons unknown. Many believe it was to bury his fortune gained from notoriety as a pirate. Whatever the case, the hole was filled in and no one ever saw what came out of it, save for the one neighbor who helped him in his toils.
Phillip Babb died on March 3, 1671 and was buried on Appledore in the family lot but he did not remain at rest. His ghost still roams the cove guarding his treasure from trespassers and hunters. One night an islander was emerging from his workshop when he spied a wild form running towards him. At first he thought it to be an unsavory jest by one of his close friends. As the figure drew within arms reach, the man peered into the face of a corpse with hideous sunken eyes. The angry wraith then heaved the giant knife from his belt and brandished it in the frightened man’s face. The terrified Shoaler fled to the safety of his home, barely touching the ground along the way.
Another dweller of the island saw a figure meandering about in the moonlight at Babb’s Cove. He did not recognize the form as any of the inhabitants from the island. He called out to the outline as to what they were doing. As the shade began to near him, the man thought it odd that he heard no footsteps on the gravel path. He then recognized the incarnate as the form of Phillip Babb. The hideous black eye sockets and glowing butcher’s frock reflected in the gibbous moon.
There are many more accounts of the pirate turned butcher phantom roaming the island in the dead of night. Such reports describe the ghost as a large man with sunken eyes and a glowing butcher's apron. The angry spirit always wields a large knife that glistens in the ominous light of the moon. As for the treasure, the great storm of 1851 filled the hole completely. A Coast Guard house now sits where the treasure is supposedly still buried. Was it ever found, or was the house put there to safeguard the cache and let the tired, evil ghost of Phillip Babb rest? No one is saying anything about it and Babb’s spirit is certainly not resting peacefully.
Next month: The Phantom Dory.