Salem, Massachusetts witnessed horrific and shameful events in 1692 that haunted the town for three centuries. Accused as witches, nineteen innocent people were hanged and one was pressed to death. Judge John Hathorne and Reverend Nicholas Noyes handed down the sentences. One victim, Sarah Good, cursed Noyes from the hanging tree: “If you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink!” She then set her eyes on Judge Hathorne. “I curse you and your acknowledged heirs for all time on this wicked earth!” Hathorne was not only Sarah Good’s merciless judge; he also fathered her son Peter and refused to acknowledge him.
In 1717, Nicholas Noyes choked on his own blood and died. Every generation after the judge continued to lose Hathorne land and money, prompting the rumor of a family curse. By the time his great great grandson Nathaniel was born, they faced poverty.
Ashamed of his ancestor, Nathaniel added the ‘w’ to his last name. His novels and stories explore his beliefs and fears of sin and evil, and he based many of his characters on overbearing Puritan rulers such as Judge Hathorne.
When Nathaniel first met Sophia Peabody, they experienced instantaneous mutual attraction. Sparks flew. He rose upon my eyes and soul a king among men by divine right, she wrote in her journal.
But to Sophia’s frustration, Nathaniel insisted they keep their romance secret for three years. He had his reasons, none of which made sense to Sophia. But knowing that he believed Sarah Good’s curse inflicted so much tragedy on his family over the centuries, she made it her mission to save him. Sarah was an ancestor of Sophia’s, making her and Nathaniel distant cousins—but she kept that to herself for the time being.
As a spiritualist and medium, Sophia was able to contact and communicate with spirits. She knew if she could reach Sarah and persuade her to forgive Judge Hathorne, Nathaniel would be free of his lifelong burden.
Nathaniel finally agreed to announce their engagement, and married Sophia on July 9, 1842. They moved into their first home, The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts.
The Old Manse, the Hawthornes' first home as newlyweds
As success eluded Nathaniel, they lived on the verge of poverty. After being dismissed from his day job at the Salem Custom House, he wrote The Scarlet Letter, which finally gained him the recognition he deserved.
But the curse he believed Sarah cast on his family still haunted him. On a visit to his cousin Susannah Ingersoll at The House of the Seven Gables, Sophia spotted a judge’s gavel. Out of curiosity Sophia picked it up and a shock ran through her as if electrified. Susannah told her Judge Hathorne had used it during the trials.
The House of the Seven Gables
But he did not believe the curse could be lifted.
At that moment Sophia knew what she needed to do. She invited renowned spiritualist John Spear to The Gables. She explained that she needed to complete one final step to convince Nathaniel the curse was lifted.
John Spear urged Nathaniel to forgive Judge Hathorne. Nathaniel bowed his head and whispered his forgiveness.
Sophia Peabody's Family Home in Salem, Next to the Ancient Burial Ground, Final Resting Place of Judge Hathorne
I read several of his books and stories, to get a better background on him for my book. He wrote from the heart, about his true beliefs, and his loathing of how the witch victims were treated. He did consider it disgraceful, and it certainly was. He added the 'w' to his last name to distance himself from the judge. That tormented him and his family all his life. It must have been cathartic to him to have his writing as his outlet.
I live near Salem and have been to all the Hawthorne landmarks there, and in Concord. The House of the Seven Gables has been my favorite house in the world since I'm a kid. I've always felt a strong spiritual connection to Salem, and always wanted to write one of my books set there, and include the witch trials.
Feb’y 3, 1850 – another date I’ll never forget
Nathaniel entered the parlor as I sat by the fire darning Una’s socks. I looked up at him as he stood before me, eyes twinkling, shoulders squared, posture erect, and a smile upon his lips. Without a word, he rejoiced in some jubilant event, and I knew our worst days were behind us.
I stood and cupped his face in my palms. “You look so happy.”
“My Dove…” His voice broke with emotion as he grasped my wrists in his ink-stained hands and delivered the words I’d waited so long to hear: “I finished the book.”
My eyes filled with tears as a wave of relief washed over me. I dropped the darning and embraced him. We rocked to and fro, laughing, crying, sharing our mutual release of so much pent-up tension, grief, and frustration. “Oh, darling, I knew you could do it. I’m so proud of you.”
We caught our breath and sat side by side, thigh to thigh. “Will you read me the final chapters?” I asked.
“Are you sure?” Without awaiting a reply, he went to retrieve the manuscript. I tucked my feet under me and grabbed the coverlet, wrapping it round my shoulders. This is fiction, I reminded myself and determined to stay detached enough that it would not dampen my spirits, for I still floated on a cloud of happiness from his joyous news.
He returned, tossed another log on the fire, sat across from me, and cleared his throat.
Sparks showered the hearth as he began to read. His voice trembled, wavered, and shook as he took deep breaths between phrases. He reached the end, “And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both…it bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so somber is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow. ‘On a field, sable, the letter A, gules’.”
He looked up at me, clutching the pages to his chest, holding his breath.
But I could not speak. I heaved a sob and tears spilled down my cheeks. I thought an ocean was trying to pour out of my heart and eyes.
He dabbed at my tears with his fingertips. “A positively hell-fired story, is it not?” His lips formed a tight line as he blinked away his own tears.
A headache began its invasion behind my eyes. As I staggered to my feet, pressing my hand to my forehead, he caught me. “I’ll put you to bed.” He swept me off the floor and carried me up the stairs, my slippers dangling from my feet. He rubbed my head in wide circles, as if he knew exactly where the pain was most blinding. He was my opium, my hyoscyamus, my mesmerist.
But when I woke the next morn, sun streaming into the room, snuggled in the warmth of my cocoon, I told myself it’s a novel, nothing ever happened this way. Pain free, I lay abed, allowing myself a few extra moments of luxury, and my mind wandered to our future. Would this book provide security, free us from debts, skimping, and the humiliation of endless borrowing?
So elated for him, I didn’t even mind when I overheard him tell James Fields, “It broke her heart and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success.”
James replied, “I exploded and went off like a sky-rocket after reading it.”
I knew in my heart The Scarlet Letter would make the world explode, go off like a sky-rocket—and break every heart along the way.
I was fortunate to get a private tour of the House of the Seven Gables when I was writing the book; two of the guides, Ryan Conary and David Moffat, showed me around, and it was fabulous.
Click here to see their book about the house.