December 10, 2019

Is The House of The Seven Gables A True Story?

I just recently finished re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1851 novel The House of The Seven Gables. This New England Gothic tale is full of murder, ghosts, witchcraft, curses and hidden secrets. And although it is fiction much of the plot is based on actual events. 


The House of the Seven Gables
begins in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Wealthy and powerful Colonel Pyncheon wants to build his family estate on land owned by Matthew Maule, a poor farmer, but Maule refuses to sell. Pyncheon acquires the land after he accuses Maule of witchcraft. Before Maule is executed he curses Pyncheon, saying “God will give him blood to drink!” The colonel is unphased by the curse and builds his dream house, an enormous wooden structure with seven gables. 

The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem
He never gets to enjoy it. On the day the house is finished he is found dead inside a locked room. It appears the Colonel has choked to death on his own blood. Everyone in Salem assumes this is Maule's curse in action.

Generations later, the House of Seven Gables is still owned by the Pyncheon family but has fallen into disrepair. The house’s only inhabitants are Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly eccentric, and young Mr. Holgrave, a boarder who earns his living making daguerrotypes (an early type of photograph) and practicing hypnosis. They are soon joined by Phoebe, Hepzibah’s young cousin from the countryside, and also by Clifford, Hepzibah’s brother who has recently been released from decades of imprisonment for murdering his wealthy uncle. The house is also said to haunted by multiple ghosts. Meanwhile Judge Pyncheon, a wealthy and powerful cousin, has secret plans for the family and house...


In some ways The House of The Seven Gables is a classic Gothic novel. It features a crumbling old house, dark family secrets, murder, and eerie happenings. But unlike many Gothic writers who opted for exotic settings Hawthorne instead set the novel in his own hometown and based many of the plot points on actual occurrences.

A youthful Nathaniel Hawthorne
For example, the House of the Seven Gables is a real building, although technically it is called the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion. It was erected in 1668 and during Hawthorne’s youth was owned by his cousin Susannah Ingersoll. Hawthorne often visited and learned the history of the house, which by the 1840s had lost some of its gables. In 1908 the house was renovated became a museum. Although the full number of gables were restored some renovations were not historically accurate. A small store inspired by one in the novel was added, and a secret passage was also constructed. 

Matthew Maule and his curse were also inspired by real people and events. Matthew Maule is fictional, but the Maules were an actual family involved with the Salem witch trials. The most famous of them was Thomas Maule (1645 – 1724), a Quaker who initially accused Bridget Bishop of witchcraft but later changed his views. After the trials ended Thomas Maule was arrested for publishing pamphlets critical of the witch trials.

Hawthorne based Matthew Maule’s fictional curse on the actual one hurled by Sarah Good (1653 – 1692) at the Reverend Samuel Noyes during her trial for witchcraft. Good shouted, "I'm no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink!" Sarah Good was executed by hanging. Twenty-five years later Noyes died when he choked to death on his own blood, much like Colonel Pyncheon does in the novel. Locals believed it was Sarah Good's curse coming home to roost. Hawthorne felt a personal connection to the Salem trials because one of his ancestors was Judge John Hathorne; Hawthorne may have added the "w" to his surname to distance himself from this notorious hanging judge.

Hawthorne claimed the Pyncheon family was fictional, and that he had chosen the name to reflect their greedy, grasping nature. However, shortly after the novel’s publication members of an actual Pynchon family contacted him asking if the novel's family in the novel was based on them. Ooops! 

Did Hawthorne really not know there was a Pynchon family? I’m not sure. They were early colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and one of them, William Pynchon, served as a magistrate in the witchcraft trials of Mary Bliss Parsons of Springfield in the 1670s. The most famous modern Pynchon is novelist Thomas Pynchon, author of classics like Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. 
A portrait of Captain Joseph White
Finally, the murder of Clifford's uncle was probably inspired by a similar murder that happened in Salem in 1830. Captain Joseph White, a wealthy older bachelor, was found bludgeoned to death in his bedroom. Various relatives were suspected, and ultimately two of them, Joseph and Frank Knapp, were convicted and hanged. Their friend Richard Crowninshield, who actually did the bludgeoning, hanged himself in his jail cell. 

Although Nathaniel Hawthorne incorporated many true events into The House of The Seven Gables there's also a lot in the novel that's purely imaginary, like a wizard who can enter people's dreams, a flock of small misshapen chickens, and a ghost who plays the harpsichord. It's definitely fiction. I'd forgotten how weird and clever nineteenth century novels can be and I really enjoyed reading it. I recommend it if you're in the mood for something Gothic and unusual. 

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