June 23, 2020

The Minister's Veil: Guilt, Murder and (Maybe) Demons in Old Maine

I appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction more and more as I get older. I find the weird mix of the supernatural, the sentimental and the moral very appealing. I recently read his short novel The Blythedale Romance, which is about a 19th century commune, a psychic, and a love triangle, and it was really fantastic. I recommend it if you're into that sort of thing.

Today, however, I want to write about "The Minister's Black Veil,"which was published in 1832 and is one of Hawthorne's better known short stories. Like some of his other work it is based on a kernel of truth, and in addition to Hawthorne's story some interesting legends have grown up around that kernel.

First the fiction. In "The Minister's Black Veil" Hawthorne tells the story of Reverend Hooper, a minister in a small New England town in the 1700s. A quiet but respected member of his community, Reverend Hooper shocks his congregation one Sunday by arriving at the church wearing a black veil over his face. He delivers his sermon without explaining why he's wearing, or even mentioning, the black veil. The congregants are unnerved.

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
That same day Reverend Hooper, still wearing the veil, presides over a funeral. As he prays over the open coffin a mourner believes she sees the corpse shudder when it sees what is under the veil. Another mourner believes they see the deceased person's spirit walking next to the minister in the funeral procession. That night Reverend Hooper presides over a wedding, his face still covered in black. At the wedding reception he sees himself in a mirror and runs out in terror.

He continues to wear the veil in the following days and his fiancee begs him to take it off. She tells him that people in town think he's trying to hide from his sins:
"What grievous affliction hath befallen you," she earnestly inquired, "that you should thus darken your eyes for ever?" 
"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil." 
"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Elizabeth. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal."
The gentle reverend refuses to remove his veil and his fiancee leaves him. He wears the veil for the rest of his life, becoming an object of both fear and reverence in town.
By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that before he brought them to celestial light they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections. 
Reverend Hooper leaves the veil on even as he lies on his death bed. As he breathes his last breaths he initially agrees to let someone remove the veil, but as they reach for it he pushes them away with the last bit of his strength, telling them to leave it on. When he dies he is buried in the veil.
The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial-stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the black veil.
That's Hawthorne's story. It's mysterious and a little creepy. What does that black veil mean? Why won't Reverend Hooper show his face? American high school students have pondered those questions for decades.

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
That's the fiction, but there is some fact behind it. Hawthorne based his fictional story on the real life of Joseph Moody, which he probably read about in Jonathan Greenleaf's 1821 book Sketches of the Ecclesiastical History of the State of Maine. Moody was born in 1700 in York, Maine and served as a town clerk, register of deeds, and county judge. He became minister of York's second Congregational church in 1732. In 1738 he started to act strangely after his wife died:
Mr. Moody's disorder was of the nervous kind. He supposed that the guilt of some unforgiven sin lay upon him, and that he was not only unworthy the sacred office he held, but unfit for the company of other people. He chose to eat alone, and kept his face always covered with a handkerchief when in company. (Jonathan Greenleaf, Sketches of the Ecclesiastical History of the State of Maine, p. 13)
His congregation waited three years for him to recover but in 1741 they finally hired another minister to take his place. Unlike Hawthorne's Reverend Hooper, Moody eventually did remove the handkerchief but not before earning the nickname "Handkerchief Moody." He died in 1753 and is buried in York. 

There has been a lot of speculation about why Joseph Moody wore that handkerchief. What was the unforgiven, secret sin he was concerned with? These leads us to several legends about Moody, the  most popular legend of which is that he killed someone when he was a boy. According to Gail Potter in Mysterious New England (1971), he accidentally shot his best friend on a hunting trip. He lied and told everyone his friend had been killed by Indians, but "for years the face of his dead friend rose accusingly before him." He finally decided to wear the veil as a form of secret penance and only confessed to killing his friend on his deathbed. 

Photo from a 2015 fashion show by Thom Browne
There is some truth to that story but it's not entirely accurate. When he was eight years old Joseph Moody and his friend Ebenezer Preeble were playing with a pistol when it went off and shot Preeble in the head, killing him. This is gruesome but apparently was not a secret that Moody concealed from anyone. It probably wasn't related to the handkerchief on his face, which the Museums of Old York believe he wore because of grief at his wife's death and just overall emotional exhaustion.  

Another legend from Mysterious New England claims that Moody accurately predicted the outcome of the Battle of Louisburg, when the troops from the English colonies fought the French for control of a fortress in Quebec. On June 17, 1745 Moody was preaching in York while the English troops battled the French far to the north. He prayed fervently from the pulpit that God would deliver Louisburg to the English. He abruptly stopped and then loudly thanked God for giving the English success and delivering the fortress to them. His congregation later learned that at that very moment the French had surrendered hundreds of miles away. Somehow Moody knew what had happened. 

I don't know if that story is true but it's also good one. A third legend relates to Moody's diary, which he kept beginning when he was 20 years old. He wrote the diary in Latin and in code. According to Kate Holly-Clark, who has given ghost tours in York, the contents of the diary are deeply disturbing. The diary's contents remained a mystery until the 1970s or 1980s when it was decoded by a retired York man who had been a code-breaker for the military. He was shocked by what he read. The diary contained omens of doom, mysterious portents, and references to demonic beings. He finally stopped working on the diary because he was too disturbed by its contents. 

Again, that story is quite creepy but is it true? You can read excerpts of Moody's diary online now. I didn't see anything about demons, but maybe those pages haven't been made public. Or maybe it's just a legend... 

I'm sure that Joseph Moody didn't think he'd inspire nearly three-hundred years of legends and a classic short story when he donned that handkerchief. 


John Haynes said...

Could it simply be a matter of memento mori for both Moody and Hawthorn?

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment John. I think you could be right. For Hawthorne, it might also be a symbol for sin. The ending of the "The Minister's Black Veil" has some similarities to the ending of "Young Goodman Brown," where Goodman Brown realizes (spoiler) everyone he knows has already pledged their soul to the Devil. In "Minister's Black Veil," the minister shouts out as he dies that he sees a black veil on everyone's face. But I guess that could be a symbol of death as well?