26 July 2015

Hawthorne and the Guilt-Ridden W?

Nathaniel Hawthorne c. 1860-1865 by Mathew Brady
Numerous articles and books repeat that Nathaniel Hawthorne added a W to his surname to distance himself from his ancestor, the hanging judge John Hathorne (1641-1717) of the Salem witch trials—without offering any proof. But is it really true? Did he ever tell someone or write down why? 

Or did people assume they could peer into his psyche—through reading his short stories and romances, perhaps—and say ancestral guilt led him to add a letter to his surname? It doesn’t make sense. 

From “Young Goodman Brown” to The House of Seven Gables, Salem permeates Hawthorne’s writings, whether it’s the setting itself, the story line, or even the Puritan mentality. Hawthorne couldn’t escape the ghosts in his past, whether he believed actual ghosts meandered through the headstones at the Old Burying Point or whether he felt ancestral eyes were watching him, much like the judge’s painting in Seven Gables.

During the early 19th century, Salem was a busy seaport. Surrounded by wealth and worldliness, Hawthornes family relied on relatives for support after his father died of yellow fever in Surinam when the author was four years old. And those relatives, no doubt, regaled the young boy with stories of his ancestors, to keep alive the Hathorne legacy.

Legends of the Tree

Hawthorn flowers
The author’s long-ago ancestors lived near Binfield and Bray, co. Berks, in England, where there’s a legend of two pots of gold buried beneath the hawthorn tree on Hawthorn Hill (p. 110). Genealogist Henry F. Waters, himself a son of Salem, regretted he didnt make this discovery earlier, when Hawthorne was still alive. Waters wrote: “How eagerly [Hawthornes] quaint and vivid fancy would have seized even upon the scanty materials offered to it in the Legend of Hawthorn Hill and its pots of gold, to weave therefrom a story that should rival in weirdness any of his Legends of New England (Register, Vol. 38, p. 203).

Home to the faerie folk, hawthorn is linked to courtship and May Day celebrations. At the same time, the tree is considered unlucky. It’s protected with thorns and blossoms that smell of illness or death—and, ironically, it’s supposed to be a favored wood used to make witches’ brooms.

It’s possible that centuries ago the family took its name from the hawthorn tree. And, like many words, some surnames evolved and changed spellings over time. Reviewing vital records, probate proceedings, and histories, the surname has appeared as Harthone, Harthorn(e), Hathorn, Hatthorn, Haughthorne, Hauthorn(e), Hawthorn(e), Horthorne, Hotharn, Hothorn(e), and Hothornne, among others. Between handwriting, literacy, and clerical errors, it’s easy to see how names change on paper.

Take it one step further and consider how the surname is pronounced. Try saying “Hathorne” with an English accent, specifically with the intonations of someone from 17th century London or co. Berks. Then try it with a 19th century Massachusetts accent. Would it sound differently?

Without the Story, It’s Guesswork

Without knowing the story behind the change in spelling, we cannot assume it’s because of guilt by association.

Who’s to say that it wasn’t Hawthorne’s publisher who added the W? Not necessarily separating the brooding author from his heritage but because the hawthorn tree, with its white flowers and red berries, added a touch of romance to the authors persona? Or because the printer made a typographical mistake on the book cover?

And who’s to say that maybe Hawthorne, inspired by his family tree, did a little genealogical research in the Salem church records and found his father was baptized as “Nathanael Hawthorne” in 1775 and his great grandfather as “Joseph Hauthorn” in 1692?

We may never know the truth, but lets stop guessing that ancestral disassociation was behind the decision to add the W in Hawthorne.

Ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne in America

Nathaniel Hawthorne, b. 4 July 1804, Salem, Mass.; d. 19 May 1864, Plymouth, NH; m. 9 July 1842, Sophia Amelia Peabody (1809-1871). Author.

Capt. Nathaniel Hathorne, bapt. 21 May 1775, Salem, as “Nathanael Hawthorne”; d. 1808 in Surinam; m. 2 August 1801, Salem, Elizabeth C. Manning (1780-1849).

John Hathorne's grave at Old Burying Point, Charter Street, Salem.
Daniel Hathorne, bapt. 22 August 1731, Salem; d. 18 April 1796, Salem; m. 21 Oct. 1756, Salem, Rachel Phelps (1733-1813).

Joseph Hathorne, bapt. May 1692, Salem, as “Joseph Hauthorn”; d. 23 June 1762, Salem; m. 30 June 1715, Salem, Sarah Bowditch.

Col. John Hathorne, bapt. 2 Aug. 1641, Salem; d. 10 May 1717, Salem; m. 22 March 1674/5, Ruth Gardner. Known as “the hanging judge” for his part in the 1692 Salem witch trials.

Major William Hathorne, born about 1606/1607, Bray, co. Berks, England; emigrated about 1633; died April 1681, Salem, Mass.; married Ann.

Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850: Salem (NEHGS online)

French, Elizabeth, “Genealogical Research in England,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 67, pp. 248-260 (1913).

Kerry, Charles, The History and Antiquities of the Hundred of Bray, in the County of Berks (London: Savill and Edwards, 1861).

Moriarty, G. Andrews, “Genealogical Gleanings in England VII,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 79, pp. 311-316 (1925).

Waters, Henry F., “Genealogical Gleanings in England,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 38, pp. 201-204 (1884).