Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was a native of Salem, Massachusetts, and one of the great masters of American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote one of his best-known works, The House of Seven Gables, perhaps in part to atone for the role of an ancestor who played a role in the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692.
The ancestor, Judge John Hathorne (an earlier spelling of the family name), was a son of Nathaniel’s great-great grandfather, major William Hathorne. John Hathorne was a respected magistrate of Salem, who heard the trials with two other magistrates. He was not a vindictive man, and he put skeptical questions to the accusers who testified during the lengthy trials. Nevertheless, he believed in witchcraft as an evil and believed in the power to afflict others through magic with poppets. He was swayed by the testimony of spectral evidence and allowed it to be admitted in court.
As a young man, Nathaniel Hawthorne was fascinated and deeply affected by a family story that Hathorne had been cursed by one of the convicted witches. One of the condemned, Sarah Good, had issued a Curse as she went to the gallows. Asked by rev. Nicholas Noyes to confess, she replied, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Noyes reportedly choked on his own blood in 1717. It is not known for certain whether the curse was laid on other officials responsible for the executions, but the Hathorne family apparently came to believe so. Another victim of the Salem hysteria, Philip English, a wealthy merchant and shipper, made no secret of his hate for John Hathorne and Sheriff George Corwin. As a result of the ordeal brought on by charges of witchcraft against them, the Englishes lost all their property and fortune. The health of Mary, Philip’s wife, was so impaired that she sickened and died. English bore an open grudge against the authorities, particularly Corwin and Hathorne, neither of whom apparently ever expressed regret over their roles in the sufferings. English refused to forgive Hathorne until just before English died. Ironically, the Hathorne and English families eventually joined in a marriage, which produced the lineage to which Nathaniel Hawthorne was born.
Prior to the witch trials, the Hathorne family had been prosperous in shipping and farming. The family was established in America by major Hathorne, who left England for Boston in 1630, then moved to Salem in 1636. He became the first speaker in the House of Delegates in Massachusetts colony. In the early 1700s, beginning with Nathaniel’s great-grandfather, Captain Joseph Hathorne (born in 1692), the family fortunes began to decline, and the family lost social status in Salem as well.
Nathaniel was born on July 4, 1804, in a gambrel-roofed house in Salem that had been purchased in 1772 by his grandfather, Daniel Hathorne, the youngest son of Captain Joseph. Nathaniel’s father, also named Nathaniel, was a sea captain who died of yellow fever while on a voyage to Surinam when the boy was six. Hawthorne spent much of his childhood in Salem and Raymond, Maine, where his mother’s family-owned property. He preferred to spend time alone in the woods and was described as “fragile.”
His family scraped together enough money to send him to Bowdoin College. Prior to his entrance in 1821, Hawthorne wrote to his mother,
“What do you think of becoming an Author, and relying for support upon my pen? . . . How proud would you feel to see my works praised by the reviewers, as equal to the proudest productions of the scribbling sons of John Bull. But Authors are always poor Devils, and therefore Satan may take them.”
After Nathaniel’s graduation from college, one story goes, his older sister convinced him to restore the w to Hawthorne, which had been dropped many generations before, in order to separate himself from the infamous Hathorne lineage.
For years, Hawthorne apparently brooded about the witch’s curse. He also was fascinated by Puritan sin and suffering. In the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, he stated:
He [Judge Hathorne] made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. . . . I know not whether these ancestors of mine be-thought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties. . . . At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them . . . may be now and henceforth removed.
Hawthorne used the curse, some real-life figures from Salem and his own gambrel-roofed house in his next novel, The House of Seven Gables, written in Lenox, Massachusetts, and published in 1851. Like his own family, the Pyncheon family of the novel suffers from inherited sin related to witchcraft. A piece of property owned by Matthew Maule includes a pure, sweet-water spring. Maule’s jealous neighbour, Judge Pyncheon, becomes obsessed with owning it and is driven to have Maule accused of witchcraft. Maule is convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Before he is executed, he curses Pyncheon: “Pyncheon, God will give you blood to drink and quench your greed for eternity.” After Maule is buried, Pyncheon buys his land and builds on it the House of Seven Gables. Pyncheon invites his friends over for a housewarming dinner, which he never gets to enjoy: he is found slumped in a chair, dead of a massive throat hemorrhage. The Pyncheon family suffers decline, then is redeemed when young Phoebe Pyncheon marries a descendant of Matthew Maule, and the land and house are restored to their rightful owner.
The malicious character of Judge Pyncheon was modeled on the rev. Charles Wentworth Upham, mayor and minister of Salem, whose books, Lectures on Witchcraft (1831) and History of Witchcraft and Salem Village (1867), reveal malice and erroneous moral perspectives but nonetheless established him as an authority on the witch trials. Hawthorne borrowed the Maule name from Thomas Maule, a Quaker merchant who lived in Salem at the time of the trials, and who believed the witch hysteria and favoured the executions. Maule’s own definition of a witch was anyone who was not a Quaker.
The House of Seven Gables, as Hawthorne’s house is now called, remained on its original site near the Salem harbor until 1958, when it was moved to a new location on the harbor. It was opened to the public in 1959 and remains one of Salem’s biggest tourist attractions.
- Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: New American Library, 1969.
- Starkey, marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts. New York: Alfred knopf, 1950.