As the official ambassador of the upcoming "Haverhill Rocks" downtown music festival, posters of Hannah Duston holding an electric guitar - known in rock 'n' roll vernacular as an axe - are plastered all over the city. T-shirts and stickers with her image are showing up on backpacks, laptops and on the walls of local coffee shops.
The use of Hannah Duston as the festival icon and as a symbol of the city has sparked debate over whether she is an appropriate ambassador in this age of political correctness. The question of whether she is heroine or villainess is as old as the city's history, longtime residents say - but again opinions are lining up on both sides of the aisle.
"We didn't expect this much buzz when we chose Hannah as the icon for the music festival," said Shaw Rosen, chairwoman of Team Haverhill, which is organizing the music festival with the city. "Some people find her to be bloodthirsty and not politically correct. We regard her as a symbol of Haverhill courage, resourcefulness and history - qualities that we're trying to encourage by revitalizing downtown."
Duston made history March 30, 1697, when she escaped from Abenaki Indians who had kidnapped her and killed her infant daughter by bashing her head against a tree. Two weeks later, on an island in the middle of the Merrimack River near Concord, N.H., Duston escaped by killing and scalping as many as 10 of her captors.
She returned home to Haverhill in a canoe, and the government rewarded her with 50 pounds. In 1879, she became the first woman in America to be immortalized by a statue, and her story was told by such literary giants as Cotton Mather and Henry David Thoreau.
City Councilor and Haverhill native Krystine Hetel said she learned about Hannah Duston in fourth grade. She said she loves the Hannah poster but believes music festival organizers should have chosen a less controversial famous son or daughter.
"What about (R.H.) Macy, or Louie B. Mayer or even Archie," she said. "The poster is right on. It's sophisticated and a great ad. But Hannah has a lot of blood on her hands. She was a brave and capable woman. But I say, poor Hannah, let her rest in peace."
Or as 24-year-old Kristin Sergeant put it, "What, was Lizzie Borden busy?"
Sergeant, a New York actress recently visiting her mother in Haverhill, was referring to another famous New England woman acquitted in the 1892 ax murders of her wealthy father and stepmother in Fall River.
"An icon of vengeance may not be the best way to draw attention to the town. I'm sure somewhere between (Haverhill natives) R.H. Macy and Rob Zombie there's a more appropriate symbol for Haverhill than a vigilante murderess," she said.
Jeremiah Jenne, 34, learned the story of Duston as a young child from his father and sarcastically asked, "Is Haverhill competing for the sensitivity award?"
"Hannah's not well known outside Haverhill, but everyone in Haverhill knows about her," he said. "In the 1970s and 1980s when I learned about her, we didn't question the story or whether she was hero or villain. But we are more politically correct these days. It's going to be interesting to see the town come to terms with her."
Jenne, a graduate student of history at the University of California at Davis, also said it is a matter of some debate whether the Indians killed and scalped by Duston were the same ones who kidnapped her.
"The city could have chosen a better ambassador for the festival," he said. "Somebody like (Haverhill native and TV personality) Tom Bergeron would have been better."
Brenna Langenau, acting director of Buttonwoods Museum in Haverhill, has a somewhat neutral outlook on the latest Duston controversy.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but I don't think it's in the best taste," she said of the Hannah poster. "I think they could have come up with something a little different."
Mayor James Fiorentini considers himself somewhat of a local history buff. But he had surprisingly little to say about the city's most famous action/adventure figure or her place in city lore.
"Hannah Duston's been controversial since I was a kid," said the Haverhill lifer. "They did a similar downtown concert last year and hardly anyone showed up, so now they've come up with a unique way to publicize it. I'm all for trying to get people downtown for a concert. So if this works, I'm all for it."
Whether Duston is heroine or villainess, the debate has Haverhill waking up to its history, said Constantine Valhouli, principal of a Bradford company that specializes in revitalizing historic urban centers and who is helping to promote the Aug. 26 music festival.
"People forget that Haverhill is one of the oldest towns in Massachusetts," Valhouli said. "But the city is starting to wake up to its history and identity. Hannah Duston is part of what gives Haverhill its unique identity."
The Haverhill Rocks festival is Aug. 26 from 2 to 8 p.m. at Railroad Square. It will feature local artists, vendors and at least 20 local bands culminating with national recording artist Entrain at 5 p.m. Tickets are $5 in advance at participating downtown businesses or $10 at the door. Sponsors include Trinity Emergency Medical Service, Haverhill Cultural Council, the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce and Rivers Edge Production.