Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

Walking through Boston, Massachusetts (which is easy to do since Boston is, relatively speaking, a very small city), I happened upon King’s Chapel Burying Ground. This is on Tremont Street, next to – you guessed it – King’s Chapel. The building is a quaint old stone church in the center of a densely populated area replete with commercial businesses, tourist attractions, parks, and skyscrapers. Very out of place here – you’d expect to find it out in the country. Which is what this area was, I’m sure, when the church was established in 1686. It's graveyard is Boston’s first and oldest. 

King’s Chapel Burying Ground is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by a high fence, whose gate was locked at the time I was there in 2007. Not something that would normally thwart me from tip-toeing among the tombstones, but there were so many people around that it felt a bit uncool to do so. I made these photos through the bars.

King's Chapel is still an active (Unitarian) church, originally founded in 1686 as the first Anglican Church in New England during the reign of King James II. The original King's Chapel was a wooden church built here at the corner of Tremont and School Streets, where the stone church stands today. (Wikipedia tells us that) it was situated on the public burying ground because no resident would sell land for a non-Puritan church.

Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower ship is buried here, as is Joseph Tapping, whose stone (at left) shows a skeleton and Father Time battling over the eventuality of death. You can see the phrase "Fugit Hora" on the lower right of the stone  Latin for "the hour is fleeting."

The graveyard has quite an assortment of ‘skull and crossbones’ type headstones, which are prevalent in New England. You really don’t see such carvings in this quantity anywhere else in the United States. Lest those of us who live outside New England feel slighted, we have far more Victorian garden cemeteries than they do! There are just not many angels or statue and monument-intensive cemeteries in New England, with the exception of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (America’s first rural garden cemetery, patterned after Pere Lachaise in Paris).

Cherub head, Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Skull and crossbones
Over the course of about 200 years, the skull and crossbones as mourning art evolved into the cherub head with wings. Victorian sensibilities gradually softened the symbolism. Originally meant to portray mortality, the skull and crossbones had fearsome connotations, so fearsome that this once common symbol of death was adopted by many pirates in the early 1700s as the Jolly Roger. It became the symbolic flag of choice to strike fear in the hearts of pirates' victims.

And speaking of tombstone inscriptions…

 A few years after visiting Boston, while reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), I was surprised  to find out his inspiration for the novel came from a stone in King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Supposedly, there’s a headstone inscribed with a script letter “A” which certain people take to indicate 'adultery.' I took some liberties with the photo at the beginning of this article − this is a stone from a cemetery in Delaware.The real headstone was that of Elizabeth Pain, the model for Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne, which you see in the photo below. Pain's headstone has an engraved coat of arms in which the letter 'A' appears in the shield to the right of two lions.

Elizabeth Pain Headstone (ref.)
The Scarlet Letter is a classic American novel, but without a doubt, a tedious read. It’s a fictional story, set in mid-seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, which  tells of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair. She is made a public example by being jailed for the crime of adultery and is derided by the good Puritans of Boston. Struggling to maintain her dignity, she is forced to wear a prominent scarlet letter 'A' on her breast (a patch of cloth embroidered to all her clothing) for the rest of her life. Not only does she soldier her way through adversity, but she protects the father's identity by not divulging it. As a result, flawed Puritanical thinking puts all the blame on her. The story is as much social commentary as Hawthorne embarrasses us into realizing that morally, no one, especially the Puritan townspeople, is any better than his main character. This is especially evident when the reader learns the father is none other than the town's own esteemed young priest! Hawthorne succeeds in making the point that nothing is sacred, that we are all flawed - in other words, we are human. Not one of us is any better than the other.

King's Chapel Burying Ground is actually mentioned in the final paragraph of The Scarlet Letter:

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial–ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb–stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever–glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— “ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES” - The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne
Sam Bellamy's Jolly Roger flag (ref.)
Nathanial Hawthorne was actually a descendant of John Hathorne, a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel added the 'w' to his name to distance himself from the horrors and embarrassment of his familial past. (What a difference a letter can make.) We don’t hear John’s name nearly as often as we hear about that other holier-than-thou witch burner, Cotton Mather (which happens to also be the name of a great power pop band), who lived in Boston at the same time as John Hathorne. Mather, by the way, also presided over pirate trials, attempting to extract confessions and reform them as they awaited the hangman's noose. He was involved in the trial of Sam Bellamy’s crew, as a result of the wreck of the pirate ship Wydah off the coast of Boston in 1717. Different pirates used different flags, and Bellamy's flag, coincidentally, was the aforementioned Jolly Roger.

Even if you're not a huge fan of history, Boston is well worth a visit. They've got a great hockey team and more private ice cream parlors and doughnut shops per capita than any city in America! And with Mount Auburn Cemetery just a couple miles from the center of town, what's not to like? 

Further Reading: 

King's Chapel Website
King's Chapel Burying Ground
Expedition Wydah, by Barry Clifford