August 09, 2015

Is The Scarlet Letter A True Story?

I was on vacation last week, and what book is better for beach reading than Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter? Secret sins, illegitimate children, adultery, repressive Puritans, and possible supernatural shenanigans - it has everything you want in a summer book.

I hadn't read The Scarlet Letter in many years, and one thing I had forgotten is that the first chapter is a really long autobiographical essay about the time Hawthorne spent working at the Salem Customs House. Unless you are into the office dynamics of 19th century bureaucracy (and don't be ashamed if you are), this chapter is pretty dry.

Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter.

However, it ends with Hawthorne describing how he found an embroidered letter "A" wrapped in an old document in the Customs House. Hawthorne learns the letter was placed there by a previous employee, Surveyor Pue, who had died suddenly before the Revolution. The document contains the story of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, and Hawthorne claims his novel is merely an expanded version of it.

In short, he claims The Scarlet Letter is a true story: should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself, - a most curious relic, - are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them.

Unfortunately, this isn't true. Hawthorne never found a scarlet letter at the Customs House, so I am not sure what he told people who asked to see it. He simply used this literary device to make his story seem more authentic, just as he incorporated real people (such as Governor Bellingham and the accused witch Anne Hibbens) into the narrative.


There is a nugget of truth behind The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne and her illegitimate daughter Pearl never existed but Hawthorne, who read extensively about Puritan history, may have based his novel on the story of Mary Bailey Beadle.

Mary Bailey emigrated to Kittery, Maine in the 1600s. She married a local fisherman named Robert Beadle and had two children with him. Robert died five years after their marriage, and Mary took a position as a live-in housekeeper with Stephen Batchelder, a retired minister in his 80s. (Mary was only in her 20s at the time.) Batchelder was a somewhat controversial figure. He had left England for religious freedom, but found the Puritans in New England even more repressive than the British king. He made many enemies among the local Puritans with his liberal approach to theology, and they were determined to make his life miserable.

Although there was no romantic relationship between Mary and the minister, gossip spread that they were living in sin, and the local authorities fined them 10 pounds for living together unmarried. To quell the rumors Batchelder said that he and Mary had been secretly married. This doesn't really seem like a good plan, and unsurprisingly it didn't quite work out. They were instead ordered to pay a fine of 5 pounds (for not recording their marriage) but Mary was to pay a much greater price.

While working for Batchelder, she began a secret affair with George Rogers, a neighbor nearer her age. The affair became public in 1651 when Mary became pregnant with his child. The court at York, Maine delivered the following verdict:

We do present George Rogers and Mary Batcheller, the wife of Mr. Stephen Batcheller, minister, for adultery. It is ordered that Mrs. Batcheller, for her adultery, shall receive forty stripes save one, at the first town meeting held at Kittery, 6 weeks after her delivery, and be branded with the letter A.

Rogers was also flogged. Their affair ended, and Mary and Batchelder tried repeatedly to divorce, but for many years the local court vindictively would not allow it. Their divorce was only granted when Mary traveled to Boston to plead her case. Batchelder by this time had returned to England, and died seventeen days after the divorce announcement.

Despite the scandal and being branded, in 1657 she married a man named Thomas Turner. The rest of her life was relatively peaceful, and she died in 1685 at the age of sixty-three.

So there's the story that may have inspired Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter. The Puritans in his novel seem cruel, but the punishment that was inflicted on Mary Bailey Beadle was actually much crueler than the one inflicted on Hestery Prynne. Hester merely had to wear an embroidered letter A, while Mary had one branded into her flesh. Sometimes truth is even grimmer than fiction.

I found a lot of my information about Mary Bailey Beadle on this site and this site


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I love "The Scarlett Letter" because Reverend Stephen Batchelder is my 11th great grandfather, and my 2nd great grandfather, Abijah Franklin Hitchings, was the deputy customs collector at the Salem Custom House. How cool is that? The first chapter was one of my favorites (although I can see that to anyone else it would be pretty boring).

Peter Muise said...

Hi Heather! Thanks for the comment. That is amazing that you have two personal connections to The Scarlet Letter! Sorry for dissing your favorite chapter of the book :)

I'm really enjoying re-reading it. Hawthorne is mostly concerned with sin and redemption, but he throws in a lot of cool stuff about witchcraft, alchemy and folklore as well. And in your case, the book is tied to genealogy!

Sharon said...

Could you clarify, Peter. You wrote "Mary Bailey......married ....Robert Beadle and had two children with him. John died five years after their marriage." Was John one of the children, or was that an error & you meant to say "Robert" died 2 years after their marriage.?

Karen K said...

What an awesome story, completely unfamiliar until now! Rev. Stephen Batchelder was my 10th and 11th great grandfather through three of his daughters-- Theodore, Joanna, and Anne. I'm going to link to this on my blog and on Facebook. Great blog, Peter.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sharon!

Thanks for catching that error. Her husband Robert died two years after their marriage. Sorry for the confusion!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Karen,

I'm glad you liked the post. When I started to write this post I assumed that Hawthorne made up everything in THE SCARLET LETTER, and was surprised to find this story instead. Very cool that you are also related to Stephen Batchelder!

Erin | Bygone Living said...

Interesting... Thank you for sharing!

a. Hughes said...

I wonder if Karen and Heather realize they are related....hmmm small world indeed...ha

a. Hughes said...

Can't stop reading your blog...thank you

a. Hughes said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Muise said...

Hi A. Hughes! I'm glad you enjoy the blog!

Lynn Herbst said...

Rev. Stphen Bacheller was also my husband's 11th great grandfather.
His 1st son Nathaniel Batcheller, born in 1590, a son from his 1st wife Ann Baates is my husband's 10th great-grandfather.
There's no relation to Stephen's 4th wife Mary Batcheller.

Cynthia Cornwell said...

I am 11th generation in the Wing Family. Stephen Wing. Stephen Wing's mother was Deborah Batchelder.
I have not read the book but I am going to now!
Thank you for the information!

Marianne said...

Hi Peter! Mary Bailey Beadle Bacheller Turner is my 11th Great Grandmother; her daughter Elizabeth Beadle is my 10th Great Grandmother.

Dawn Sanborn said...

That's so cool that so many of you are connected. I recently looked into my ancestry and Stephen's daughter Anne is my 10th or 11th great grandmother.

Melisa Bernards said...

Wow this is amazing. Stephen is my 13th great grandfather.

Patti Cappy said...

Stephen is my 10th great grandfather. Saw this reference on Looking forward to the book