Faculty Forum: February 2000*
Image: The Execution of Charles I, by John Weesop (1649)
A Tale of Two Tales
My story today could be called a “tale of two tales,” a short chapter of literary history about how American writers tried to make the best of some of the worst of times in New England. Both tales derive from actual events, though each one has been sufficiently embellished to pass into folklore. During the Romantic era—the interval between the Constitution and the Civil War—the two tales served as parables about American shame and virtue. But there is still plenty of good history here as well, enough to keep scholars tracking down clues to unlock some of the remaining cold cases.
If you join the search, you will find footprints all over the North Shore. Long before I had to make my way to Beverly or Malden to locate doctors’ offices and soccer fields for my children, I was living in California and pouring over the map of New England, trying to trace the shadowy trail of a fugitive known as the Angel of Hadley. Since settling here, I have also tried to hunt up places in Danvers—or, Salem Village, as the Puritans knew it—where Tituba, Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop and other accused witches presumably held their forest coven.
To be honest, it is much harder to locate these places on the map or on the landscape than it is to find them in American literature. Readers of Romantic fiction and drama will grow so accustomed to meeting the witches of Salem or the Angel of Hadley that they might be tempted to bring their video cameras into the woods and to make a movie about trying to find them.
The Romantic Witch Project
One of the tales has survived with a vengeance. Everyone here knows something about Salem witchcraft. In 1692, in the outskirts of Salem Village, rumors of voodoo, sorcery, and sexual misconduct incited a frenzy that stopped only after more than 150 persons were imprisoned and at least 20 persons executed. By medieval and Renaissance standards, the Salem hysteria was remarkable for its brevity. In this same era, hundreds of presumed witches were executed annually in many European nations, and some villages in Connecticut and Virginia hung the accused with a vigor that rivaled Salem’s.
Nevertheless, today it is Salem that is synonymous with witchcraft. That reputation has inspired some of our finest literature, such as The Crucible—and Cry Innocent. Lamentably, that reputation has also fed a predatory tourist culture, as parents pay far too much for that souvenir photo of their children stirring a witch’s cauldron.
For its secure place as the capital of witchcraft in the world, Salem can thank the American Romantics. In the early nineteenth century, many of the finest American writers and historians retold the story of the Salem crisis, and the furor of 1692 became one of the best-known episodes in the history of the Puritan colonies. Nathaniel Hawthorne spent much of his literary life wrestling with the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, the only Salem judge never to repent. When he released The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, nearly two decades after the start of his literary career, Hawthorne was still chasing the ghost of his ancestor out of the windows of his mind.
By contrast, very few people today know anything about William Goffe—one of the 59 judges who sentenced King Charles I to death in 1649 during the peak of the English Civil War. Branded a “regicide” (for the killing of the “regent,” or chief of state), Goffe and two other judges fled to New England after Charles’s son was restored to the throne, and they led a life on the run, hiding from the hounds of the King in Boston, New Haven, and the village of Hadley in western Massachusetts.
Even fewer people know the legend that Goffe emerged from seclusion in 1675 to rescue Hadley from a surprise attack by Algonkians, only to disappear again into the mist. The last time I visited Hadley, I got blank stares when I asked anyone to direct me to the sites where the Angel of Hadley presumably found cover. Try finding someone in Salem who hasn’t heard of a séance.
You might be amazed to learn, then, that during the early nineteenth century the Angel of Hadley was almost as notorious as the Devil in Salem. In Walden, for instance, Henry David Thoreau refers to William Goffe as if his was a household name. Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Delia Bacon, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—not to mention the world’s most popular novelist, Sir Walter Scott—all wrote tales based on the Angel of Hadley legend. Before 1837, when Hawthorne fit a story about the regicide into his Twice-Told Tales, the tale had already been told over a dozen times by American authors. It would be told nearly a dozen more times before John Wilkes Booth, the American regicide, paid his final visit to Ford’s Theatre.
The Conflated Tale, the Rival Creeds
But there is a twist to all of this. Before Lincoln’s murder the stories of Salem witchcraft and the Angel of Hadley got entangled, and they became, for all intents and purposes, one tale. Both the exiled regicide judge and the Puritan witch hunters began to share the same short stories, novels, and plays.
The conflation of the two historic episodes in Romantic literature was also swept up in the young nation’s quest for a cultural identity. Not long after the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent (arguably, the peace accord that truly secured American independence from Britain), editorialists and politicians increased their calls for an independent American culture, a literature free from the stranglehold of British publishers and the European past.
This “literary nationalism” complemented similar efforts by historians to draft a comprehensive narrative about the genesis and growth of the United States. Historians sought to fuse the heritage of each of the thirteen unique British colonies into a single dispensation with a unifying creed. There were, as you might expect, several contenders for this creed. The most popular of the historians, George Bancroft, recast the early colonies as the cornerstones of Jacksonian democracy. Others, such as New England’s John Lothrop Motley, looked not toward democracy—which was, after all, suspiciously French—but rather toward the republican principles of British and Dutch law for the roots of American ideals. All the while, novelists, playwrights and poets returned to scenes of the colonial past to locate the first fruits of the national spirit.
Caught up in this whirlwind of literary nationalism, the blended story of Salem and Hadley was tossed about by rival ideological currents. Almost inevitably, it became a gloss on contemporary issues; colonial Salem and Hadley provided allegorical ground in the boisterous debates about the rise of Unitarianism, the fear of democracy, the future of the Native Americans, and the impasse over slavery. As literary characters, these Puritans who cried “guilty”—whether they were the American judges who interrogated witches or the British judges who interrogated the King—betrayed some of the Romantics' doubts about the past and the progress of their young republic. A few words about that doubt, and its lingering shadows, will be my epilogue.
The King's Jury
Before inspecting the Angel and witches as artifacts from nineteenth-century folklore, we need to dig a few layers deeper, to the historical roots of the stories and their first claims on the popular imagination. Though usually called “judges,” the 59 Englishmen who signed the King’s death warrant in 1649 did not actually include any members of the nation’s high court, since all twelve judicial officers appointed to the tribunal refused to serve. As a result, the King’s jury—or the “commissioners,” as they were formally known—consisted primarily of baronets, hereditary peers, knights, sergeants, colonels, and generals, including a lieutenant general named Oliver Cromwell.
The execution of Charles came after nearly a decade of civil strife that began in the early 1640s, just over twenty years after hundreds of British Puritans founded Boston in the Massachusetts Bay. Many Puritans had immigrated to America because they despaired of reform in England, but by the 1640s the balance of power had begun to shift in their homeland. The rising wealth of the middle class and the insufficiency of the King’s hereditary finances strengthened the House of Commons and eroded the power of the House of Lords.
The Calvinist voices—mostly Puritans and Presbyterians, with some help from more radical groups like the Separatists—rose more vociferously against the authority of the Church of England, especially when it was led by the dreaded Archbishop William Laud. The resulting violence pitted Parliament and the Calvinist Roundheads, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, against the Cavaliers, or the royalists supportive of the King and Church. By 1645, after the Battles of Naseby and Langport, Parliament had the upper hand, and the King scampered for the cover among the Scottish Presbyterians, only to be turned over for imprisonment. His subsequent efforts, covert and desperate, to form an alliance with the Scots to topple Parliament provided the Roundhead hawks enough fodder to press charges of treason.
Restoration and Revenge
After Charles was beheaded, Parliament ruled England for eleven years without a royal regent, though when the nation fell into some constitutional and political disarray Cromwell was offered the throne. He declined, accepting instead the euphemistic title “Lord Protector,” ruling often with an autocratic hand that made many nostalgic for the monarchy. After Cromwell’s death in 1658, Parliament began to lose its way and eventually England revived the House of Stuart to the throne in 1660, an event commonly known as the “Restoration.”
When Charles II came out from exile in France and was crowned in Britain, the surviving regicides knew that the new king would have no qualms about taking revenge on his father’s killers, and so they fled, most notably into Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. Those who stayed behind paid a fierce price. While a handful won pardons, nearly twenty spent the rest of their days in jail, and at least twelve were hung, drawn, and quartered. Cromwell’s body was exhumed and beheaded.
Flight to New England
Three of the regicides—William Goffe, his father-in-law Edward Whalley, and John Dixwell—fled to New England after the Restoration, seeking refuge among sympathetic Puritans. Because Goffe kept a diary we can trace their actions for the first seven years after their arrival in Massachusetts. Originally greeted favorably in Boston during 1660, they were forced into seclusion after Charles II sent his agents over to track them down, and the record of their actions becomes shrouded in anecdote and hearsay.
We do know that all three made their way to New Haven, where Goffe and Whalley hid out in a cave, still known as the Judges’ Cave. In 1667, when Goffe’s diary ends, Whalley, Goffe and his wife Elizabeth were hiding in a cellar of a minister’s home in Hadley. Whalley, it appears, died somewhere in town, yet historians lose track of William and Elizabeth Goffe after that. No one knows for certain how their lives ended or where they are buried, although there more than a few proposed gravesites.
According to one story, William Goffe was still hiding near Hadley in 1675, when he suddenly emerged from his wilderness outpost, interrupted a worship service, and warned the Puritans of an impending invasion by hostile Algonkians. That tale appears to be legend, despite a brave effort recently by archivist Douglas Wilson to defend the historicity of the event. Most scholars, though, now question whether there even was an invasion at Hadley at the beginning of King Philip’s War, the confrontation between settlers and Native Americans that led to the virtual annihilation of several tribes.
But the story makes for good gothic fiction: presumably the white-haired, phantom-like William Goffe, unseen for years, emerged suddenly to deliver his warning and then retreated into the woods, leaving the townsfolk uncertain who their mysterious savior was.
The saga of the Angel of Hadley might have been lost altogether except for the efforts of two eighteenth-century historians—two friends, with sharply divided political sensibilities, who turned the story into a political fable. In 1764, Thomas Hutchinson, a former chief justice and soon-to-be governor of Massachusetts, recounted the story of the regicides in his History of the Province and Colony of Massachusetts Bay, by far the most comprehensive and admired narrative about the history of the colony printed in its day.
Hutchinson had access to an extensive collection of primary materials, including Goffe’s diary, and he became the first person to put into print the tale of Goffe’s heroics as the Angel, an “anecdote” he had been told by the governor of Connecticut. Hutchinson was a strong loyalist, so it is no surprise that he introduces the Angel to make his case for allegiance to the British throne. While Hutchinson admits that the regicides were warmly received upon their arrival in America, he implies that the Puritans in America ultimately disowned the fugitives and forced them into exile, a sign that they had recanted of their sympathies for Cromwell and embraced the restored Stuart monarchy. The notion that Goffe spent more than fifteen years in some obscure wilderness hideaway near Hadley—and the claim that no one recognized him when he did finally emerge to rescue the town—presumably confirms that the American Puritans eventually wised up and distanced themselves from the cruel sentence against the King.
By the time of the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, Hutchinson’s conservative policies were raising the stakes in the battle between Britain and America, and an angry rabble even raided and destroyed Hutchinson’s home, scattering many of his papers and possessions, including, it appears, the manuscript of Goffe’s diary, now lost for good. Hutchinson himself eventually fled to England in 1774, as tempers between Massachusetts and Britain ignited the Revolution.
Oral History, French Terror
On the one hand, Hutchinson’s account of the regicides was now fully authoritative because he had been the last person to consult the diary. On the other hand, there were some historians eager to unravel the loyalist spin that Hutchinson had spun around the Angel’s story. The most aggressive of these was Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale and an ardent Calvinist. Aware that the regicides had lingered for a few years around New Haven, Stiles set out in the 1780s to collect all the oral history about the regicides that he could—what he calls “scattered lights and traditionary information”—to recalibrate Hutchinson’s loyalist slant. In the oral tradition passed between generations, Stiles found sufficient reason to believe that there had long been a great Puritan conspiracy to protect the regicides from discovery, to preserve their tale, as it were, as a great republican heart beating beneath the weight of British tyranny.
However, as Stiles was building his case, the French Revolution broke out—a good thing, Stiles thought, at least in the early going. For the Yale President, the Puritans’ courageous decision to execute a tyrant and to proclaim the rule of a Parliamentary republic in 1649 was a triumphant precursor of the French crusade for liberty in 1789.
But the revolution in France soon went awry—the rebels cut off the head of Louis XVI and the rebellion led to a “reign of terror.” The killing of Louis, which horrified most Americans, threatened to undermine Stiles’s portrait of the Puritan regicides as noble precursors of the American patriot. The shadow of the French guillotine was now falling harshly over the Puritans who had beheaded their own monarch. So, quite hastily, before his book went to press, Stiles wrote a long concluding essay, vindicating the killing of Charles I and contrasting it with what he considered the less justifiable execution of Louis XVI. Often deemed the finest thing Stiles wrote, this chapter nonetheless displayed considerable nervousness about the moral and legal principles upon which the Puritans could justify their regicide court.
In the end, Stiles chose not to rest his defense on legal precedent, but rather on the regicides’ prescience—on their courage to sentence the King based on principles that were ahead of their time, or, as Hawthorne would later say, with no small measure of irony, ideals that were “too mighty for the age.” Where Hutchinson deplored the regicides for murdering a king without a solid legal precedent, Stiles clung to the hope that a future era of equality and justice would vindicate the regicides’ dangerous verdict.
What truly vaulted the story of William Goffe into American fiction, however, was the work of a Scotsman—Sir Walter Scott. Around about 1820 Scott ran across Stiles’s History. Immediately fascinated by the Angel’s tale, he quickly inserted it into his novel The Peveril of the Peak (1823). Such attention from the world’s most popular novelist inspired many Americans to reclaim the tale for their own.
Scott’s balanced political instincts—his love of tradition, his sympathy for the peasant—are reflected in his retelling. Like Hutchinson, Scott shudders at the regicides’ “horrible crime of parricide”; however, like Stiles, he admires the Angel’s courage and perceives him as supernatural persona whose voice may “be heard in the future during an hour of need or triumph.”
Virtually every rendition of the regicide story since Scott has presented the Angel of Hadley in the same guise—as a ghostly, conscience-wracked figure torn between his fearful sense that he had executed the king without a firm grounding in law and his brighter conviction that his religious and political ideals would be vindicated by a later generation. From The Peveril of the Peak onward, the fictional regicides generally had the conscience of a criminal and the wisdom of a seer. Within American fiction, the gloomy wood where the Angel of Hadley hid was not simply a fugitive’s shelter but a metaphor for the dark nights of his own soul and the oracle of his imagination.
We will leave the Angel of Hadley for a moment, lingering here in Scott’s 1823 novel as a murky blend of guilt and courage, and retrace our steps to the witchcraft debacle of 1692. Ironically, Salem’s emergence as the world’s hometown for witchcraft stems not so much from the vigor of the trials, as from the Puritans’ vocal doubts.
The Salem events were, nearly from the beginning, a philosophical crisis for Massachusetts, and today there seems to be a seemingly endless parade of arguments about what caused the trials. You have your choice of theories: fear of theological liberalism, the decline of piety, the repression and distrust of women, the neurosis of living on the edge of the wilderness, a fear of the “otherness” of the Native Americans, the decline of the agrarian economy, and even the presence of an LSD-like weed in the diet of the settlers.
As soon as the last of the executions occurred, the most prominent intellectual of the colony, Cotton Mather, quickly wrote Wonders of the Invisible World, a vindication of the trials and their verdicts. One of Mather’s primary goals was to defend the admission of “spectral evidence” into the proceedings. Presumably, the “specters” or hazy images of the witches, while under the spell of Satan, would appear before the victims and taunt them.
This became quite damning proof, since the Salem magistrates believed that the Devil could not take the shape of an innocent person. Thus, the testimony of villagers that they saw the specters of Bridget Bishop and Rebecca Nurse confirmed that these women, like other accused, were necromancers indeed. Mather’s defense of the trials rested strongly on the claim that sufferings of the victims all but disappeared after the suspects were hung. In Wonders of the Invisible World, he writes: “It has been amazing unto me to see how a devilish witchcraft. . . has driven many poor people to despair and persecuted their minds with such buzzes of atheism and blasphemy as have made them even run distracted with terrors, And some, long bowed down under such a spirit of infirmity, have been marvelously recovered upon the death of the witches.”
Eschatology and Shame
Mather’s justification of the trials, though, ultimately reaches toward eschatology, rather than legal evidence. We know from other sources that he had considerable skepticism about the spectral proof, despite his public face. Not long after the trials ended—and even as he was finishing Wonders of the Invisible World—Mather was writing his great opus, the Magnalia Christi Americana, or “The Wonderful Works of Christ in America,” a large, kaleidoscope of a book that blends history, politics and theology into a vision of a Puritan theocracy in America.
For some scholars, the Magnalia is Puritanism’s last intellectual gasp, a desperate effort to resuscitate the theistic commonwealth amidst the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the growing cultural and religious diversity of New England. In Mather’s eschatology, Wonders of the Invisible World tells the story of the tribulation, the time when Satan was loosed for his season in Salem, the final test before the dawn of the great millennial reign of Christ, which the Magnalia anticipates and affirms.
That worldview, however, soon began to crack under a torrent of doubts. Five years after the trials, one of the seven judges, Reverend Samuel Sewall, publically recanted and begged for forgiveness for his role in the executions. Sewall posted a public announcement declaring that he was “sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself,” admitted that he was willing to take “the blame and shame” of the trials, and asked for pardon. And with a gesture ahead of its time Sewall turned to writing an anti-slavery tract, entitled The Selling of Joseph, virtually as soon as he declared the witch trials an error. Abolition, at least in part, might have offered some means of penance.
Robert Calef's Rebuttal
Other judges joined Sewall with apologies, but Mather never followed suit, and he was soon the target of a derisive satire. In 1700, less than a decade after the trials, Robert Calef published More Wonders of the Invisible World, a parody of Mather’s book and a point-by-point refutation of Mather’s logic, especially his reliance on spectral evidence.
At the time of its release, Calef’s book was condemned for its uncharitable assault on Mather’s character, and most historians in our time generally agree that Calef overplayed the ad hominen barbs. But during the early nineteenth century it was Calef’s portrait of Mather that carried the day. Thanks to Calef, one of New England’s most prolific scholars became the archetype of the Puritan witch hunter, a repressive anti-intellectual marked by intolerance and paranoia. And, thanks largely to Calef, the Puritans’ faith in spectral evidence was equated with a manipulative, irrational sophistry. Reexamined through nineteenth century eyes, spectral evidence became the symbolic fatal flaw in the Puritan worldview—it provided a fierce contrast with the emerging rationalism of the Enlightenment even as it blurred the sharp distinction between the Puritans’ disciplined exegesis and medieval superstition.
More than a century later, Arthur Miller treated the spectral evidence as a prime reason for the miscarriage of justice in The Crucible, leaving many hints that the spectral hallucinations in Salem mirrored the spurious laundry list waived around Congress by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s.
Calef and the Unitarians
Calef’s influence on Romantic fiction, especially his censure of the spectral evidence, was profound—and it caught a wave of Unitarian liberalism sweeping through New England letters. Neither a Puritan nor liberal himself, Thomas Hutchinson had only briefly depicted the trials as a sour, anachronistic episode, but did not linger over the causes and consequences; the appearance of his history in 1764 did not vault the Salem tragedy into the literary limelight. That began to change when a prominent Boston printing house reissued Calef’s More Wonders in 1796.
The publication occurred just as the Unitarian movement was securing its footing in New England, as religious liberals began to hold up the Puritans’ reliance on spectral evidence as a prime exhibit in their campaign for an “enlightened catholicity” and “theological tolerance.” In 1785, King’s Chapel in Boston had become the first Congregational Church to turn Unitarian, and nine years later the great British Unitarian Joseph Priestly immigrated to America to escape opposition in England and to help fan the Unitarian wildfire in America. During the 1790s the First Congregational Church of Salem joined the Unitarian ranks, even as the First Church of Plymouth, the congregation founded by the Pilgrims, was mired in a struggle between its Calvinist pastor and its liberal lay leadership.
Within a couple decades, the Calvinist sandbags around Harvard and many of the region’s most prominent churches had split open. England formerly legalized Unitarianism in 1813. The presidency of Harvard soon fell into Unitarian hands, and the founding of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1816 gave the liberals an academic nerve center.
Then, in 1820, a short, anonymous novel entitled Salem Witchcraft appeared in Boston, with a portrait of Cotton Mather based almost entirely on Calef’s account. That short novel rekindled interest in the Salem witchcraft crisis among the country’s literary nationalists, so much so that Calef’s book was once again reissued in 1823. A cascade of witchcraft tales by historical novelists would follow, well before Hawthorne discovered that dusty old scarlet letter in the Salem Custom House. For historians and novelists, there was no statute of limitations: the Unitarians had dragged the Puritans out from their own fearful chronciles to put them on trial. When Charles Wentworth Upham, a distinguished Salem historian and Unitarian, published his famous lectures on Salem Witchcraft in 1831, the guilty verdict was in.
The Merger of Motifs
1823, therefore, is the year when both roads merged in the North Shore woods, the year when Scott’s Peveril of the Peak and Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World crossed the paths of American readers and writers. Within months of their release, James McHenry, an Irish immigrant living in Philadelphia, published his own short novella, entitled The Spectre of the Forest. As literature, The Spectre of the Forest is hardly memorable: the characters, dialogue and plot are run-of-the-mill contrivances. But the novella enjoys its place in literary history as the occasion when the spectral motifs of Salem were first intertwined with the ghostly presence of the Angel. McHenry’s title itself is revealing: the mysterious fugitive in the Salem backwoods is not only haunted by his verdict against King Charles, but his apparitional presence also inflames rumors among the villagers that the Devil keeps his company.
That we eventually discover the Spectre to be a father figure for one of the protagonists makes the allegorical quagmire even thicker. Is the old regicide truly a father of American political principles, the tragically misunderstood and ostracized prophet of the republican ideals that would shape the new nation? Or does the tale insinuate that the Roundheads’ bloody action against their King may not be all that different from Salem’s hysterical verdicts against their own children?
In this case, as in many of the blended tales, the shadowy regicide will intercede not to rescue the settlers from invading Indians but to save the Puritans from themselves. His “spectral” intervention actually counteracts the frantic use of spectral evidence—a means, as it were, for the regicide to redeem his own criminal past by thwarting further injustice. It is easy to argue, then, that McHenry wants the best of Puritan ideals—such as the Roundhead spirit of liberty—to overcome the darkest episodes of Puritan bigotry.
But in The Spectre of the Forest, as in many subsequent tales, the moral is not so clear-cut. McHenry, after all, was a broad-minded Presbyterian living amongst Quakers, and for all the gothic intrigue of depicting a lonely, conscience-wracked regicide hiding in the forest, he may have been just as happy to leave him there in order to purge the theocratic past and signal a future of religious latitude. So many of the regicides in Romantic fiction will indeed prove to be fathers of other characters, admittedly a stock device of nineteenth-century denouements, but also an opportunity for the new American nationalist to line up the old Puritan patriarchs for a literary form of patricide.
Moral Confusion, Moveable Feast
After McHenry’s tale, the blended regicide-witchcraft saga took wings. Just one year later another Philadelphian, former mayor James Nelson Barker, published the script for Superstition, or the Fanatic Father, often considered the best American play prior to the Civil War. An anonymous novella entitled The Witch of New England appeared in 1824. James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Wept of Wish-ton-wish (1829), John Augustus Stone’s extremely popular play Metamora (1829), and Delia Bacon’s short novel The Regicides (1831) all put an ominous Angel on the fringe of the witch-crazed village. William Alexander Caruthers’s The Cavaliers of Virginia, or the Recluse of Jamestown (1834-35) relocates the Angel to the Chesapeake, where he intervenes in the midst of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, while Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Gray Champion” (1837) draws the regicide out of hiding during the 1688 Glorious Revolution.
By the 1830s, then, the Angel of Hadley had not simply been swept up in the Salem panic, but the blended tale had become a moveable feast, ready to be imported anywhere that Americans needed to sort through the legacy of Puritan liberty and intolerance. With a gravitas and somber alienation, the Angel almost always advocates for human freedom even as he may attempt to atone for his former mistakes. But his moral standing is always cloudy. In a couple of the harsher tales, the Angel emerges nearly as a demonic figure, indistinguishable from the most oppressive witchcraft judge. But even in more sympathetic tales the Angel remains a specter, ostracized from the Puritans and the emerging nation, at once a Greek chorus and a tragic loner left to comment on moral confusion but also doomed to die in obscurity, unable to vindicate his past or to shape the American future.
The Tarnished Tale
For a brief season, then, the prospect of uniting the Angel of Hadley and the Salem judges into a single fable was nearly irresistible. America’s literary nationalists knew a typological opportunity when they saw it. The chance to let a mysterious exile with a Roundhead pedigree forecast the American Revolution even as he was halting the madness in Salem must have seemed like a quick way to strike literary gold. What remains to be said is why the tarnish came so quickly.
First, it may only be a slight exaggeration to say that all Puritans—Angels and demon-mongers alike—were in the process of being disestablished. The First Amendment to the Constitution had prevented Congress from establishing a national church, but the early courts did not prohibit states from supporting their preeminent denominations, as long as all citizens were given the right to the “free exercise” of their own faith.
Congregationalism had sufficient power in Massachusetts to ward off earlier attempts to disestablish it as the state-supported creed, but in 1833 Massachusetts became the last state in the nation to sever the tie between church and state. For Transcendentalists, Free Masons, Unitarians, and all others sympathetic to disestablishment, reducing Mather to an oppressive bigot in fiction was an easy way to bolster the case for freedom from the Puritan—or Congregational—dominance. In Superstition, the Philadelphian James Nelson Barker lets his aged Roundhead forecast the coming of a “gentle” religion, such as a civic Quakerism, as an escape hatch from all this Puritan gloom. It is as if the Roundhead patriarch signals the end of the Calvinist reign and drifts off to find his unmarked grave.
Anarchy and Democracy
By the 1820s, the political landscape had changed as well, both at home and abroad. Over half a century removed from Bunker Hill and Yorktown, Americans were also less likely to see prescience in the slaying of Charles than an omen of anarchy. Not only had the great French rebellion of 1789 led into Napoleonic hegemony, but the 1820s saw failed revolutions in Belgium and France, and a wave of workers’ revolts and anarchists swept through European streets. The Angel’s guilt, jumbled up with the chaos of Salem, now absorbed some of the American anxieties about lawlessness and social dissolution, and the aged fugitive preaches more prudence than revolutionary zeal.
Among New England authors, there are also some edgy nerves about the emergence of a more populist democracy. With the defeat of John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election, the center of power shifted, quite literally, from New England into the west, into Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee and the wilderness beyond the Appalachians. Admittedly, some of the regicide and witchcraft stories were written by Democrats, most of them eager to mark the decline of New England Federalism. In their tales, the old Roundhead Angel who comes out of seclusion to fight the Indians looks remarkably like Andrew Jackson himself, and he has the charisma to lure a few young, progressive youth away from the grip of the Puritan patriarchs.
Hawthorne’s “Gray Champion,” which appeared in 1837, betrays the mixed messages in the regicide-witch motif. As the never-fully-reliable narrator of Hawthorne’s tale declares, the ghostly patriarch stands always ready to “vindicate” the New England character, reassuring no doubt to those readers who worried that the nation had turned increasingly toward the west. The Gray Champion does try to avert the mob violence that spills out from a populist frenzy, but the looming anarchy derives not simply from democratic fervor but also from spiritual self-righteousness. In Hawthorne’s lens, the rush-to-judgment against the loyalist governor Andros on the eve of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 seems like an eerie foreshadow of the rush-to-judgment at Salem four years later. The Angel is now caught between unbridled democracy and dogmatic rage, with little option at the end but to retreat once more into his shadowy isolation.
On just a few occasions, the blended Angel-witchcraft tale evokes the two great racial questions of the age—the dislocation of the Native American and the perpetuation of slavery. Unable to stop the self-destruction in Salem, a couple of the literary Angels become mad sages of the forest, American Lears mourning the sins of their own children and finding comfort among the vulnerable tribes.
James Fenimore Cooper has his Angel repent for his intervention at Hadley and reconcile with the Native American people. This Angel sees, in retrospect, that his redemption of the Puritan village fuels the violence that will lead to the annihilation of whole tribes during King Philip’s War. In Superstition, the Puritan bigots ward off internal opposition to their trials by deliberately inflaming the settlers against the Algonkians, as spiritual paranoia sparks genocide.
Admittedly, the regicide-witchcraft tales occasionally perpetuate a paternalistic view of the Native American victims as “noble “but “doomed savages,” but in the guilt-ridden regicide we get something more than the usual dichotomy between settler and savage—we get a spectre of the forest, an exile caught between two cultures, lamenting his own failure as a Christian idealist to resolve the clash between ethnic peoples.
As an early skirmish in King Philip’s War, the Angel’s rescue of Hadley would eventually suffer scrutiny from New England’s abolitionists, especially after the anti-slavery societies proliferated in the 1830s. In at least one tale published on the eve of the Civil War, the Roundhead exile bewails the enslavement of the Native Americans at the end of King Philip’s War. Aloof in his forest isolation, the old Roundhead sounds as zealous and sensible as William Lloyd Garrison, arguing for a “higher law” that trumps both royal prerogative in Stuart England and spineless legalism in antebellum America.
By 1865, a few decades of revolutionary disarray in Europe—and four years of carnage on American soil—had made it all the more difficult for American authors to cast the English Civil War as beacon for American liberty. Some American Romantics, to be sure, joined Thomas Carlyle in cleaning up Oliver Cromwell’s reputation, but the Reconstruction of the American union still required the heirs of the Puritans and the Cavaliers to lay down swords.
And it may be no surprise that the shadowy regicide virtually disappears from American fiction after John Wilkes Booth murdered the American regent. Well before Lincoln’s death, though, the merger of Salem and Hadley in American folklore seemed headed toward a symbolic dead-end, paralyzed by some of the same moral and political issues that led to the very war that would claim the President’s life.
The witchcraft saga survived past Appomattox, but with less of Hawthorne’s elegance and filial angst. In the last half of the century there were a few earnest and pedestrian tales about the moral courage of those in Salem who stood for human rights, but mostly fables about Puritanism’s self-destruction. And when the regicides did re-emerge in American letters after the turn of the twentieth century, it was primarily in an antiquarians’ squabble over whether Goffe’s intervention was even plausible.
By then most every native tribe had been tragically subdued and quarantined on government reservations. By then Salem had long since become the symbolic firewall between the Puritan theocracy and the American nation. There was far less reason to imagine that the aged Roundhead in an Indian war was one of the better angels of our nature.
*This essay was designed as a presentation to the Faculty Forum, and it draws on two of my previous articles: “The Witches of Salem, the Angel of Hadley, and the Friends of Philadelphia,” American Studies (Spring 1993), 34:1, 108-120; and “Thomas Hutchinson, Ezra Stiles, and the Legend of the Regicides,” The William and Mary Quarterly (July 1992), Third Series, 49:3, 431-448. Full source materials are listed there.
Photo: Judges' Cave near New Haven, Connecticut.