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August 18, 2006

Hannah Duston:Heroine or villainess? Festival posters rekindle age-old debate

It's quite possible Haverhill's most famous Colonial dame hasn't generated this much controversy since that spring day in 1697 when she returned to town with the scalps of as many as 10 dead American Indians.

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?"

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