Hathorne was born in Salem on August 5, 1641 to William Hathorne and Anne Smith. He was the fifth of nine children. His father, William, was a local judge who came to the New World on the “Arabella,” one of John Winthrop’s eleven ships that brought over 800 puritans to the colony in the summer of 1630.
William was known for being a “bitter persecutor” of Quakers and was responsible for ordering the public whipping of Ann Coleman in Salem in 1662. William was also in the military, serving as a captain of the Salem military company in 1646, during King Phillip’s War, and was promoted to major in 1656.
A savvy businessman, William used land grants to secure an extensive property, which he turned into farmland, and owned much of Salem Village, which is now Danvers, including the hill upon which the Danvers State Hospital was later built in 1874.
After John Hathorne came of age, he worked as a book keeper and was granted a small share of the family estate, a small portion of Mill Pond Farm along the edge of Salem town, according to the book Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt:
“John launched his career keeping books for Salem’s merchants, but he soon recognized the rewards of land speculation. By the age of twenty-one, he had become a propertied man and eligible bachelor, yet he wouldn’t wed until thirty-three, and then to Ruth Gardner, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a Quaker couple who had fled to Hartford, Connecticut, leaving her in the care of her uncle.”
Soon after marrying in 1675, Hathorne acquired a ship, a wharf and a liquor license and earned enough money in the shipping trade to build a mansion at 114 Washington Street (where the Bewitched statue now stands.)
In 1681, he was granted a tract of land along the wharf to build a warehouse on. Hathorne and his wife had six children together, including five sons who all later became sea captains.
Although he was involved in the shipping trade, Hathorne himself didn’t go to sea often, except for his occasional voyages as supercargo, during which he would travel on board the ship to manage the selling and buying of the cargo himself at various ports.
In 1687, Hathorne was asked, as an appointed member of the colony’s council of assistants, to mediate a dispute over whether Salem Village should break away from Salem town.
Hathorne and the other two judges involved simply advised the villagers to “act as God shall direct you.”
In April of 1690, the council sent the pair on a fact-finding mission to Maine to determine how to strengthen defenses there against Native-American attacks. Just a few weeks after their return, the town of Casco, Maine was destroyed in an attack by French soldiers from Canada and local Native-Americans.
The next time Hathorne returned to Salem Village, it was in 1692 as the chief examiner of the Salem Witch Trials, a position he may have used to his advantage, according to the book Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt:
“Hathorne’s haste in convicting the detainees, and his refusal to reconsider a verdict even after major witnesses had recanted their testimony, has left some historians wondering if he wasn’t profiting materially from his victims’ demise. The belongings of convicted witches were routinely seized, ostensibly to pay for their jail expense. They were also served attainders, which stripped them of their rights, including their right to own and bequeath land. After Samuel Wardwell was executed and his wife sentenced to death, the couple’s property in Lynn, Massachusetts was confiscated an assigned to court officials, including John Hathorne. That case would have personal implications, as Sarah Wardwell had been married to Hathorne’s younger brother, William. Even if the judge did not personally benefit from the witchcraft convictions, his calm in the presence of Satan’s minions seemed somewhat odd, as he was a devout man who professed belief in satanic power.”
“[Hathorne]: Sarah Good what evil spirit have you familiarity with?
[Hathorne]: Have you made no contract with the devil?
Good answered ‘no’
[Hathorne]: Why do you hurt these children?
[Good]: I do not hurt them. I scorn it.
[Hathorne]: Who do you imploy then to do it?
[Good]: I imploy no body.
[Hathorne]: What creature do you imploy then?
[Good]: No creature but I am falsely accused.
[Hathorne]: Why did you go away muttering from Mr Parris his house?
[Good]: I did not mutter but I thanked him for what he gave my child.
[Hathorne]: Have you made no contract with the devil?
Hathorne desired the children all of them to look upon her, and see, if this were the person that had hurt them and so they all did look upon her and said this was one of the persons that did torment them — presently they were all tormented.
[Hathorne]; Sarah good do you not see now what you have done why do you not tell us the truth, why do you thus torment these poor children?
[Good]: I do not torment them.
[Hathorne]: Who do you imploy then?
[Good]: I imploy nobody I scorn it.
[Hathorne]: How came they thus tormented?
[Good]: What do I know you bring others here and now you charge me with it.
[Hathorne]: Why who was it?
[Good]: I do not know but it was some you brought into the meeting house with you.
[Hathorne]: We brought you into the meeting house.
[Good]: But you brought in two more.
[Hathorne]: Who was it then that tormented the children?
[Good]: It was osburn.
[Hathorne]: What is it that you say when you go muttering away from persons houses?
[Good]: If I must tell I will tell
[Hathorne]: Do tell us then.
[Good]: If I must tell I will tell, it is the commandments I may say my commandments I hope.
[Hathorne]: What commandment is it?
[Good]: If I must tell you I will tell, it is a psalm.
[Hathorne]: What psalm?
After a long time she muttered over some part of a psalm
[Hathorne]: Who do you serve?
[Good]: I serve god.
Hathorne]: What god do you serve?
The god that made heaven and earth though she was not willing to mention the word God her answers were in a very wicked, spiteful manner reflecting and retorting against the authority with base and abusive words and many lies she was taken in. It was here said that her husband had said that he was afraid that she either was a witch or would be one very quickly the worsh Mr Hathorne asked him his reason why he said so of her whether he had ever seen any thing by her he answered no not in this nature but it was her bad carriage to him and indeed said he I may say with tears that she is an enemy to all good.”
In his book Salem Witchcraft, historian Charles Wentworth Upham points out Hathorne’s accusational style of questioning during Good’s examination:
“It will be noticed that the examination was conducted in the form of questions put by the magistrate, Hathorne, based upon a forgone conclusion of the prisoner’s guilt, an expressive of a conviction, all along on his part, that the evidence of ‘the afflicted’ against her amounted to, and was, absolute demonstration.”
Although most historians agree that Hathorne was cruel at times, some feel he has been overly criticized for his role in the witch trials, according to the book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“He [Hathorne] was appointed a magistrate of the court oyer and terminer by Governor William Phips. The chief questioner of the presumed witches, he always seemed to suppose them guilty. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister, Elizabeth, quoted cousin Ann Savage as saying that Charles W. Upham had ‘purposely and maliciously belittled’ John Hathorne in his two-volume study, Salem Witchcraft. Hathorne’s task was to query the victims about serious accusations in a time when virtually all Christians believed in witchcraft. That he was sometimes cruel in his questioning is true. When he and Justice Corwin were examining Elizabeth Cary of Charlestown, she asked to be seated. He said that she had ‘strength enough’ and left her standing. Captain Nicholas Cary thought Hathorne and others were cruel to his wife and declared that he was ‘extremely troubled at their inhumane dealings,’ and hoped ‘[T]hat God would take vengeance on them.’ This curse as well as Sarah Good’s threat to Nicholas Noyes may have been in Hathorne’s mind when he wrote in The House of Seven Gables of Matthew Maule’s prophecy that Colonel Pyncheon, who had ‘hunted [him] to death for his spoil’ would be given ‘blood to drink’ by God in retribution. Chadwick Hanson believes that Hathorne was ‘never more brutal nor more intolerant than in the examination of Martha Corey,’ another accused and subsequently hanged witch.”
The New England Magazine ran an article in 1892, titled “Stories of Salem Witchcraft,” in which it referred to Hathorne’s examination of Martha Corey as “a sample of cross-examination and brow-beating on the part of the magistrates, which finds parallel only in the conduct of some ungentlemenly shyster lawyer of a type happily now rare. It was quite extended, but confined mainly to an effort to make the prisoner confess.”
During the examination, Hathorne repeatedly badgered Corey and outright accused her of lying, according to court records:
“[Hathorne]: Tell us who hurts these children?
[Corey]: I do not know.
[Hathorne]: If you be guilty of this fact do you think you can hide it?
[Corey]: The Lord knows.
[Hathorne]: Well tell us what you know of this matter.
[Corey]: Why I am a Gospel woman, and do you think I can have to do with witchcraft too?
[Hathorne]: How could you tell that when the child was bid to observe what clothes you wore when someone came to speak with you?
Cheevers interrupted her and bid her not to begin with a lie and so Edward Putnam declared the matter.
[Hathorne]: Who told you that?
[Corey]: He said the child said
Cheever: You speak falsely
Then Edward Putnam read again.
[Hathorne]: Why did you ask if the child told what clothes you wore?
[Corey]: My husband told me the others told
[Hathorne]: Who told you about the clothes? Why did you ask
[Corey]: Because I heard the children told what clothes the other wore
[Hathorne]: Goodman Corey did you tell her?
The old man denied that he told her so.
[Hathorne]: Did you not say your husband told you so?
[Hathorne]: Who hurts these children now look upon them?
[Corey]: I cannot help it.
[Hathorne]: Did you not say you would tell the truth? Why you asked that question: how come you to the knowledge?
[Corey]: I did but ask.
[Hathorne]: You dare thus to lie in all this assembly. You are now before authority. I expect the truth, you promised it, Speak now & tell who told you what clothes?”
After the Salem Witch Trials ended, even though many participants in the trials regretted their actions and made public apologies, Hathorne showed no remorse.
Hathorne kept his seat on Boston’s Governing Council and later followed in his father’s military footsteps as the commander-in-chief in the failed Siege of Fort Nashwaak in Nova Scotia in 1696.
According to the book Nova Scotia’s Massachusetts, it was Hathorne’s military inexperience that led to the failure of the King William’s War battle:
“While returning to Boston, [Colonel Benjamin] Church was amazed to meet three Massachusetts vessels carrying 100 men under the command of Colonel John Hathorne of Salem, a member of the Massachusetts Council. Hathorne had been appointed the new commander-in-chief of the expedition and had orders to attack Fort Nashwaak and to capture ‘the ordnance, artillery, and other warlike stores, and provisions lately supplied to them from France.’ Church was, as he put it ‘not a little mortified’ at what he considered to be the inexperienced Hathorne’s effrontery in shouldering aside the famous Indian fighter. Church argued that his troops had had enough of Nova Scotia, and ‘having their faces towards home, were loath to turn back’ – but turn back they did, at least as far as the mouth of the St. John River. Hathorne’s October assault on Nashawaak was a failure; he should have remained in Salem where his military skill might have been of some value. After a desultory thirty-six hour siege, his force meekly withdrew to the mouth of the river where it joined the rest of the volunteers and hurried back to Boston…The Hathorne-Church fiasco disgusted many members of the Massachusetts General Court and the general populace. It seemed to be convincing proof that Massachusetts lacked even the necessary military resources to deal effectively with the tiny French force in Nova Scotia. The fiasco appeared to drain away whatever might have remained of Massachusetts’ expansionist independence.”
In 1702, Hathorne was appointed to the Superior Court. He held this position for 10 years before he finally resigned from the bench in 1712. Hathorne died on May 10, 1717 at the age of 76 and was buried in the Old Burying Point cemetery on Charter Street, which is located next to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.
Even though Hathorne never expressed regret for what he had done during the Salem Witch Trials, his descendants were ashamed of their connection to him, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is rumored to have changed the spelling of his last name to distance himself from the witch trial judge.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was haunted by the figures of his ancestors, both John and William Hathorne, and wrote numerous novels and short stories, many of which were about overbearing Puritan rulers, with them in mind.
Hawthorne feared that John and William’s persecution of Quakers and alleged witches brought a curse upon his family. Although the Hathorne family had been wealthy during the 17th century, the succeeding generations continued to lose the family’s land and money until they had almost nothing left, prompting the rumor about a family curse.
In an autobiographical sketch for the introduction of the Scarlett Letter, titled The Custom-House, Nathaniel wrote a scathing criticism of John and William Hathorne, during which he apologized for their actions and asked for the curse to be lifted:
“But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor, as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.”
In a strange twist, a number of John Hathorne’s descendants married descendants of the accused witches Mary and Philip English and John Proctor.
Two of Mary and Philip’s granddaughters, Mary and Susannah Touzel, married two of Hathorne’s grandsons, Captain William Hathorne and Daniel Hathorne (great-uncles to Nathaniel Hawthorne).
Proctor’s great-great-great grandson, Thorndike Proctor, married John Hathorne’s great-great granddaughter Elizabeth Hathorne (cousin to Nathaniel Hawthorne).
In 1953, John Hathorne appeared as a major character in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. In the play, Hathorne is depicted as a biased and vindictive judge who acted more like a prosecutor than an impartial judge.
Judge John Hathorne Historical Sites:
Former Site of the Salem Village Meetinghouse
Address: Near corner of Hobart and Forest Street, Danvers, Mass. Historical marker on site.
Former Site of the Salem Courthouse
Address: Washington Street (about 100 feet south of Lynde Street), opposite the Masonic Temple, Salem, Mass. Memorial plaque located on Masonic Temple.
Judge John Hathorne’s grave
Address: Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, Mass
Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt; Diane E. Foulds; 2013
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca; Rosemary Guiley; 2008
The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide; K. David Goss; 2008
The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne; Margaret B. Moore; 2001
Salem Witchcraft; Charles Wentworth Upham; 1867
Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County; Ellery Bicknell Crane; 1907
Nova Scotia’s Massachusetts; George A. Rawlyk; 1973
The Literary Traveler: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Struggle and Romance with Salem: http://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/hawthorne_salem_ma/
Scarlett Letter; Nathaniel Hawthorne; 1878 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25344/25344-h/25344-h.htm
Hawthorne in Salem: The Paternal Ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/Life&Times/Family/Paternal/Introduction.html