The case of Levi Starbuck

Eunice (Coffin) Rogers (1846-1930), grand-daughter of Captain Levi Starbuck.

On a visit home several months ago, my older son introduced me to some works by H. P. Lovecraft that have been dramatized as pseudo-radio broadcasts. My son thought I would particularly enjoy The Case of Charles Dexter Ward … which is a bit of a warning to all of us family historians who might be tempted to take things a bit too far!

In this spooky short story, young Charles Dexter Ward comes from a prominent Providence, Rhode Island family, and gets pretty obsessed with an ancestor named Joseph Curwen, who fled from Salem Village during the 1692 witch trials and became a successful merchant, shipping magnate, slave trader … and sorcerer. The story is pure fiction (at least we should all hope that it is!), but it features several actual eighteenth-century Rhode Island luminaries, including Abraham Whipple, John and Moses Brown, and Esek Hopkins.

I laughed out loud when Charles Dexter Ward showed up on the doorstep of his infamous ancestor’s house, then barged his way in to see the portrait of Joseph Curwen painted directly on the wall over a fireplace. While I’m pretty sure that I would never do anything quite that bold, something slightly similar occurred last fall.

Rather than showing up unannounced, however, I’d written months ahead to the current owners of a house first occupied by one of my ancestors, asking whether there was any chance I might be able to tour it during my visit to Nantucket. Within a week I received a lovely phone call inviting me to visit … along with news that one of the current owners had bought a portrait of my ancestor at auction, which he was excited to show off. That was a totally unexpected bonus!

Captain Levi Starbuck (1769-1849), circa 1800. Artist unknown

Captain Levi Starbuck’s house turned out to be just as lovely as pictures and words had earlier indicated,[1] but the portrait hanging in the formal parlor was absolutely the highlight of my tour. It also confirmed a hunch I’d had for several years, generated by pictures in an album passed down in the family of Levi’s namesake grandson, Levi Starbuck Athearn.

Four portraits of Levi Athearn’s cousins were contained in the album, some of whom had prominent eyes quite unlike those of their father, Henry Coffin. I wondered whether they’d inherited their mother’s eyes, and if so, whether they’d come from her father. It was hard to tell for certain, though, when all I had to go by was a black-and-white photo I’d found online of a portrait painted in the captain’s old age.[2]

Mary Swift (Coffin) Carlisle (1851-1935), granddaughter of Captain Levi Starbuck.

As soon as I saw the oil painting of Levi Starbuck done in the prime of his life, I could definitely see the resemblance to his Coffin granddaughters! It was almost as exciting as the DNA matches I’ve gotten to descendants of their brother, Levi Starbuck Coffin. Thank you, Mark and Joyce, for the gift of touring my ancestor’s house, and for affording me the closest opportunity possible of looking that ancestor (born 250 years ago this month) in the eye.


[1] One resource is the Nantucket Preservation Trust.

[2] Readers can probably imagine my excitement to find Levi’s mature portrait – along with portraits of his son-in-law Henry Coffin and two of Henry’s children – reproduced in full color in the most recent issue of Historic Nantucket, the membership magazine of the Nantucket Historical Association.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

7 thoughts on “The case of Levi Starbuck

  1. Thanks for your posts! I LOVE “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward …” audios! They were fun! Congrats on your great ancestral memories and portrait find!

  2. Such a wonderful story! Thank you so much for sharing, Pamela! I could stare at the likeness of “great grandpa” for hours

  3. The Charles Dexter Ward drama was interesting. There was indeed a Joseph Corwin (Curwen) born in Salem. However, he was the grandson of the infamous Sherriff, born in 1724. His father, Bartholomew, apparently the only child of George and Lydia (Gedney) Corwin, moved his family to New Jersey. Joseph, my ancestor, came to Upper Canada in 1787, after the American Revolution. So, perhaps there was a germ of truth in the broadcast although with a severely truncated timeframe!

  4. Lovecraft was himself descended from the Rhode Island Whipple family, and given his antiquarian interests, one imagines he probably knew it. One of his great-great grandparents, Esther Whipple (1767-1842), was herself a great-great granddaughter of the Great Migration immigrant John Whipple (1617-1685).

  5. Hello Pamela,

    I was searching for some information about James Athearn during the Revolution and encountered your name and blog. I expect that you are well aware of Cynthia Riggs who runs a bed and breakfast in the Cleaveland House in West Tisbury, on Martha’s Vineyard. The Cleaveland House is the home built by James Athearn whose offspring married a Cleaveland who was an ancestor of Dionis Coffin Riggs, Cynthia’s mother and a poet and writer. I am not a descendant of James Athearn, born 1725, but of one of his brothers, We are the branch that stayed home on MV
    James Athearn (1948)

    1. Oh yes! I stayed at Cynthia’s house ten years ago, right after her marriage, and I met two of your grandchildren at church on Father’s Day 2013. Sorry for the delay in responding.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.