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Norman's Woe

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Norman’s Woe is a large rock sitting a few hundred feet off the western shore of Gloucester harbor. It lies between Gloucester and Magnolia and is just outside the confines of the harbor, if Eastern Point is used as the defining southern extent of the protected water. It can be reached from the shore at low tide over the rocks and is an island at high tide.

Tradition has it that a man named Norman was shipwrecked and lost there, but there is no historical record to substantiate it. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized it in his famous poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus" in 1840 though he never laid eyes on the rock until many years after he wrecked the Hesperus on it. His inspiration may have come from the wreck of the ship "Favorite" from Wiscasset, Maine on Norman’s Woe during the great blizzard of 1839. All hands were lost, one of whom was a woman who was found dead still tied to the mast which had floated ashore.

Because it lies outside the protection of the easterly arm of Eastern Point, Norman’s Woe and the surrounding rocky coast take the brunt of huge waves rolling in from the open ocean to the east, particularly after a storm. The high hills behind that western shore act as a wind block while tide and waves push a craft shoreward making Norman’s Woe the site of numerous shipwrecks and much loss of life through the years.

Lane did a drawing and some number of paintings of the site. He drew the rock from the shore looking to the south. Instead of the violent seas for which that shore is known he depicted it in a glassy calm. One of his landmark late paintings The Western Shore with Norman's Woe, 1862 (inv. 18) shows a boat drifting idly in the still late afternoon light in the cove just to the north of the rock of Norman’s Woe.

Related tables: Beacons / Monuments / Spindles »  //  Blizzard of 1839 »  //  Rafe's Chasm »

photo (historical)
Norman's Woe
Herman W. Spooner
Glass negative
5 x 7 in.
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive

As noted on the reverse: "View from Rafe's Chasm, showing Reef of Norman's Woe off Magnolia. 1897."

photo (historical)
No. 10705 The Reef of Norman's Woe, scene of the "Wreck of the Hesperus"
Underwood & Underwood, Publishers
Stereograph card
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive

Stereo View: "Geography – Norman's Woe is a headland on the mainland of Massachusetts just south of Gloucester Harbor, which is directly before us here. That very small island, to the left of the cliff, is called Norman's Woe Rock. Both places are so named because of the shipwreck of some member of the Norman family,who were among the early settlers in this locality.

Geology – The irregular jointing shows very clearly along the face of this cliff, where the action of the wind and weathering have cleared away the loose particles between the joints.  The reason these rocks have withstood the destructive action of the erosion and weathering is because they are formed cheifly of felspar; in fact, this is a dike of that material.

Literature - Longfellow's poem, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," has immortalized the traditions that centre about these shores. The pounding of the waves uon this rock-bound promontory, and the dismal howling of the wind at this point, furnished him with the inspiration needed for his most favored masterpiece. 

People and Homes - Seated upon our left is a very typical New England gentlemen, a real "down east Yankee." He exhibits all the qualities that made his ancestors so staunch in their determination to defend their adopted land."

Also filed under: Historic Photographs »

1851 Map of the Towns of Gloucester and Rockport (Fresh Water Cove)
H. F. Walling
44 x 34 in.
Henry Francis Walling, Map of the Towns of Gloucester and Rockport, Essex Co. Massachusetts. Philadelphia, A. Kollner, 1851
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive

"Map of the Towns of Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts. H.F. Walling, Civil Engineer. John Hanson, Publisher. 1851. Population of Gloucester in 1850: 7,805. Population of Rockport in 1850: 3,213."

1819 Cape Ann Harbor plan
E. Blunt
Engraving of 1819 survey taken from American Coast Pilot 14th edition
9 1/2 x 8 in.
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive
D32 FF5

Also filed under: Dolliver's Neck »   //  Eastern Point »   //  Maps »   //  Ten Pound Island »

1847 Gloucester Telegraph 12.25.1847
Gloucester Telegraph

In this article, a moonlight view of the harbor of Cape Ann by Lane is described in detail by a viewer and his skill in depicting the Cape Ann coastline is praised. Lane's associates, Salmon and Birch, are mentioned, but as comparisons to Lane. "Those who visited his room, were highly pleased with the skill he manifested in portraying the beauties of our coast."

1849 Gloucester Telegraph 9.22.1849
9.22.1849 (date uncertain)

"Mr. Lane has just completed a third picture of the Western Shore of Gloucester Harbor, including the distance from 'Norman's Woe Rock' to 'Half Moon Beach.' It was painted for Mr. William E. Coffin of Boston, and will be on exhibition at the artist's rooms for only a few days; we advise all our readers who admire works of art, and would see one of the best pictures Mr. Lane has ever executed..."

 "...solitary pine, so many years a familiar object and landmark to the fisherman."

1862 Cape Ann Advertiser 2.28.1862
Newspaper clipping
Cape Ann Advertiser
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive

"F.H. Lane, Esq., has recently finished a splendid painting of Norman's Woe, and scenery in the vicinity. It is a sunset scene, and gorgeous to the extreme."

Locator map: Norman's Woe
H.F. Walling
44 x 34 in.
John Hanson, Publisher
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive
photo (historical)
Postcard of Norman's Woe
Colored lithograph
Cape Ann Museum Library & Archive
Published by C.T. American
"The Wreck of the Hesperus"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
First published in the New World in January 1840; then published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842.

A Narrative poem based on the Blizzard of 1839 off Norman's Woe of Gloucester, in which many ships sank and many lives lost, including that of a woman whose body washed up on shore, still tied to a mast. There was also a real vessel "Hesperus" which wrecked off of Boston.

The Wreck of the Hesperus


It was the schooner Hesperus,
      That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr,
      To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
      Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
      That ope in the month of May.

The skipper he stood beside the helm,
      His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
      The smoke now West, now South.

Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
      Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
      For I fear a hurricane.

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
      And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
      And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Colder and louder blew the wind,
      A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
      And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
      The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
      Then leaped her cable's length.

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughtèr,
      And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
      That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat
      Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
      And bound her to the mast.

"O father! I hear the church-bells ring,
      Oh say, what may it be?"
"'T is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!" —
      And he steered for the open sea.

"O father! I hear the sound of guns,
      Oh say, what may it be?"
"Some ship in distress, that cannot live
      In such an angry sea!"

"O father! I see a gleaming light,
      Oh say, what may it be?"
But the father answered never a word,
      A frozen corpse was he.

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
      With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
      On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
      That savèd she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave
      On the Lake of Galilee.

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
      Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
      Tow'rds the reef of Norman's Woe.

And ever the fitful gusts between
      A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf
      On the rocks and the hard sea-sand.

The breakers were right beneath her bows,
      She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
      Like icicles from her deck.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
      Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
      Like the horns of an angry bull.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
      With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
      Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
      A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
      Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
      The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
      On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
      In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
      On the reef of Norman's Woe!
Citation: "Cape Ann Locales." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum.§ion=Norman%27s+Woe&ref=catalog:143 (accessed July 24, 2024).
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