Hepzibah Pyncheon's Execution
Thomas St. John
Inside "The House of the Seven Gables", Nathaniel Hawthorne concealed a short story which shows the persecution, trial, and execution of Hepzibah Pyncheon as a witch. This execution story is broken up into paragraphs, sentences, and phrases, and scattered into the text of the ongoing romance. These scattered pieces are re-assembled here. They reveal the cruel old Salem witchcraft story that Nathaniel Hawthorne wished to conceal from eyes more innocent than his own.
Elizabeth Hunt Palmer was the model in real life for the witch Hepzibah Pyncheon. This is her gravestone in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she died in 1838---
Hawthorne very carefully builds up a demonic aura about Hepzibah: "she expected to minister to the wants of the community, unseen, like a disembodied divinity, or enchantress, holding forth her bargains to the reverential and awe-stricken purchaser, in an invisible hand. . .She now issued forth, as would appear, to defend the entrance, looking, we must needs say, amazingly like the dragon which, in fairy tales, is wont to be the guardian over an enchanted beauty."
Uncle Venner is described as "a kind of familiar of the house." The word familiar signifies the companion of a witch---usually a black cat or, in medieval lore, a goat.
Satan calls Hepzibah---"She was suddenly startled by the tinkling alarum---high, sharp, and irregular---of a little bell. The maiden lady arose upon her feet, as pale as a ghost at cock-crow; for she was an enslaved spirit, and this the talisman to which she owed obedience." This "ugly and spiteful little din" betrays the appearance of Satan---
But, at this instant, the shop-bell, right over her head, tinkled as if it were bewitched. The old gentlewoman's heart seemed to be attached to the same steel-spring; for it went through a series of sharp jerks, in unison with the sound. The door was thrust open, although no human form was perceptible on the other side of the half-window. Hepzibah, nevertheless, stood at a gaze, with her hands clasped, looking very much as if she had summoned up an evil spirit and were afraid, yet resolved, to hazard the encounter.
"Heaven help me!" she groaned mentally. "Now is my hour of need!"
Detail From Illustration By Helen Mason Grose
Satan has come to tempt his servant with the riches of the world, in an American version of the temptation of Christ during his forty days in the Wilderness: "Some malevolent spirit, doing his utmost to drive Hepzibah mad, unrolled before her imagination a kind of panorama, representing the great thoroughfare of a city, all astir with customers. So many and so magnificent shops as there were!" The Pyncheon cent shop is very poor.
Hepzibah has "a sense of inevitable doom" about her nearsighted frown, or scowl, for good reason. This "scowl---a strange contortion of the brow---which, by people who did not know her, would probably have been interpreted as an expression of bitter anger and ill-will" has "done Miss Hepzibah a very ill-office, in establishing her character as an ill-tempered old maid. . .The custom of the shop fell off, because a story got abroad that she soured her small beer and other damageable commodities, by scowling on them." Moreover, in "her great life-trial. . .the testimony in regard to her scowl was frightfully important."
The laboring man Dixey testifies against her in his rough voice, "Why, her face---I've seen it; for I dug her garden for her, one year---her face is enough to frighten Old Nick himself, if he had ever so great a mind to trade with her. People can't stand it, I tell you! She scowls dreadfully, reason or none, out of pure ugliness of temper!"
One Mrs. Gubbins also condemns Hepzibah. Hawthorne describes this demonic neighbor: "there came a fat woman. . .Her face glowed with fire-heat; and, it being a pretty warm morning, she bubbled and hissed, as it were, as if all a-fry with chimney-warmth, and summer-warmth, and the warmth of her own corpulent velocity." She angrily jarred and outraged the shop bell, muttered, "The deuce take Old Maid Pyncheon!" and "took her departure, still brimming over with hot wrath".
Judge Pyncheon tells Hepzibah that he has arranged to have Clifford's "deportment and habits constantly and carefully overlooked"---in order to persecute him more effectively. "The butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, some of the customers of your shop, and many a prying old woman, have told me several of the secrets of your interior."
When both Clifford and the Judge die, in the concealed narrative, these eyewitnesses will accuse Hepzibah. She is accused specifically of the murder of Jaffrey Pyncheon, since the Judge died in her parlor. The "good lady on the opposite side of the street" will be there at the trial to explain that "there's been a quarrel between him and Hepzibah, this many a day, because he won't give her a living. That's the main reason of her setting up a cent-shop."
Dixey will be there to implicate Clifford in the murder as well--- "A certain cousin of his may have been at his old tricks. And Old Maid Pyncheon having got herself in debt by the cent-shop---and the Judge's pocket-book being well-filled---and bad blood amongst them already! Put all these things together, and see what they make!"
As one of the Judge's spies, the butcher assaults the House of the Seven Gables, prying about "every accessible door" and the window in his attempts to get a glimpse of Clifford. He sees the Judge himself sitting in the parlor---dead---and thinks that it is Clifford, whom he curses as "Old Maid Pyncheon's bloody brother."
Hawthorne's literary duplicity here convinces the unwary reader that the butcher's motive is his desire to please Hepzibah with "his sweetbread of lamb". In Hawthorne's concealed story, however, Clifford is the lamb sacrificed to the butcher's greed for Judge Pyncheon's bribe money.
The chapter called "The Flight of Two Owls" is filled with allusions to death and mortality. It records Hepzibah's sensations on her way to the place of execution and to that "gimlet-eyed" gentleman who will kill her. This acerbic old gentleman thinks that the newly invented telegraph is a great thing, "particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers. . ." Hawthorne describes his gimlet eye, which traditionally could bore into a person to cause paralysis or death.
There was "a moral sensation, mingling itself with the physical chill, and causing her to shake more in spirit than in body" and "the wretched consciousness of being adrift. She had lost the faculty of self-guidance". As they went on, the feeling of indistinctness and unreality kept dimly hovering roundabout her, and so diffusing itself into her system that one of her hands was hardly palpable to the touch of the other". She whispered to herself, again and again---"Am I awake?---Am I awake?"
And "the bell rang out its hasty peal, so well expressing the brief summons which life vouchsafes to us, in its hurried career. . . At a little distance stood a wooden church, black with age, and in a dismal state of ruin and decay, with broken windows, a great rift through the main-body of the edifice, and a rafter dangling from the top of the square tower". Hepzibah Pyncheon will die as a witch near Salem's Gallows Hill.
The final scene is a deliberate parallel to the execution of Matthew Maule at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables. Unlike Maule, Hepzibah does not curse the Pyncheons. Still, it is very difficult for Hepzibah to pray---"she lifted her eyes---scowling, poor, dim-sighted Hepzibah, in the face of Heaven!---and strove hard to send up a prayer through the dense, gray pavement of clouds.
Those mists had gathered, as if to symbolize a great, brooding mass of human trouble, doubt, confusion, and chill indifference. . . Her faith was too weak; the prayer too heavy to be thus uplifted. It fell back, a lump of lead, upon her heart". Hepzibah's prayer on the isolated railroad platform at the end of the familiar version of "The Flight of Two Owls" is, in reality, her final petition---
She knelt down upon the platform where they were standing, and lifted her clasped hands to the sky. The dull, gray weight of clouds made it invisible; but it was no hour for disbelief; ---no juncture this, to question that there was a sky above, and an Almighty Father looking down from it!
"Oh, God!"---ejaculated poor, gaunt Hepzibah---then paused a moment, to consider what her prayer should be---"Oh, God---our Father---are we not thy children? Have mercy on us!"
Then "the signal was given;" and suffering "short, quick breaths". . ."With all her might, she had staggered onward beneath the burden. . . Indeed, she had not energy to fling it down, but only ceased to uphold it, and suffered it to press her to the earth".
The hidden and scattered quotations that are re-assembled here, may be found in The House of the Seven Gables, Volume 2 of "The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne", Edited by William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude Simpson (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1965). See especially pages 33-4, 40, 41, 42, 47, 48-9, 126, 223-4, 236, 245, 253, 255, 256, 264, 266, 267, 288-9, 291-2, and 296.
This concealed narrative causes the smooth line of Hawthorne's romance to lurch sometimes, and there are occasionally strange juxtapositions of sentences. One critic notes that "there are gaps in the plot through which a herd of rhinos could comfortably graze. . .". Hawthorne is so skilled in anticipating his readers' innocent expectations, that his true story remains hidden. The unwary reader sees only the charming, sunny, the "blue-eyed" Nathaniel Hawthorne, casting his curiously "happy ending" over "The House of the Seven Gables".
Alertly observing this literary duplicity and misdirection, Sophia Peabody referred to her beloved Nathaniel's "flowers of Paradise scattered over all the dark places"---and despaired!
Hepzibah Pyncheon's execution seems to be a literary description of carrying a cross, combined with suffering peine forte et dure---strong and lasting pain---pressing under planks with stones piled on gradually. This punishment was intended not to kill, but to extract a pleading, or possibly a confession. Beyond a certain weight the crushing caused a lingering death.
At Salem during 1692, Giles Corey refused to plead guilty, standing mute and thus avoiding "putting himself on the country"---by refusing to answer a formal question with the precise words "By God and my country". Corey thus avoided the forfeiture of his property to the state, so that his two sons-in-law, William Cleeves and John Moulton, could inherit his prosperous estate free from "corruption of blood".
The Salem community after 1675 regarded Giles Corey as the murderer of his hired hand, Jacob Goodale. This young man was described as being "almost a Natural Fool".
Jacob Goodale died ten days after a savage beating by Corey---with a stout one inch thick stick, and nearly one hundred blows, witnessed by Elisha Kebee. Corey eventually paid a fine, but escaped hanging for murder---
Civil and criminal charges had followed him most of his life. In 1660 Corey had bought fifty acres from Robert Goodale, who owned over 500 acres in Salem Village. In 1675, one of Robert Goodale's sons, Jacob Goodale, age 33, was living and working on Corey's farm.
Corey was extremely strong, and in a fit of temper "unreasonably beat Jacob with a stick of about one inch diameter nearly 100 blows in the presence of Elisha Kebee, who told Corey that he would knock him down if he did not forbear".
About ten days later, Corey went to the house of Jacob's brother Zachariah Goodale and told him that Jacob had taken a fall. Corey said that he was afraid that Jacob had broken his arm, and desired him to take Jacob to Mrs. Mole's in town. Zachariah went to Corey's house and found Jacob confused, pale, stooping, and unable to walk properly.
Zachariah asked Corey if Jacob had any other injury besides to his arm, but
Corey would not answer. Corey, a stubborn man, refused to help. Instead
his second wife, Mary, helped Zachariah take Jacob to town, where Jacob died
a few days later.
An inquest was held. The coroner's jury, headed by Dr. Zerubabel Endicott, son of the late governor, said "The man had been bruised to death, having great bruises with the skin broken, and having clodders of blood about his heart." Corey was brought before the court and fined, "upon suspicion of having abused the body of Jacob Goodale."
Sheriff George Corwin took eighty-one year old Giles Corey to a pit in the pasture across the lane from the jail. Corey was stripped and laid under heavy boards and rocks piled on by six strong assistants. For two days he was fed bad bread and standing water.
George Corwin stood looking down at Corey's bulging eyes. Robert Calef reported that Giles's "tongue being prest out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his cane forced it in again, when he was dying". The tongue was poked in so that Giles Corey could speak.
Accounts claim that Corey called for "More weight" to break his ribs and end his suffering, but since this expression is traditional to the punishment itself, Corey may not have spoken these words at all.
Martha Pennoyer, the third wife for Giles Corey, was a literate Roman Catholic who lived in Salem Village with her mulatto son. She was hanged on September 22, 1692.
Giles Corey was buried in a grave at a crossroads near Butt's brook. His execution was considered by Salem villagers to be a case of poetic justice, complete with the ghost of Jacob Goodale standing in his bloody shroud and howling.
Nathaniel Hawthorne knew that Giles Corey was a murderer, who had been whipped more than once for petty crimes as well.
Thompkins H. Matteson
Judge John Hathorne Holding Document And Pointing
The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,---who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,---a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. 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--as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist--may be now and henceforth removed.
Thomas St. John graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and has lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont. His historical essays appear in the University of Utah's "Western Humanities Review", the Ball State University "Forum", and the online Counterpunch.