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Saturday, November 1, 2014

My 9th Great Grandmother Wore the Scarlet Letter "A" (Part I)

                             Did Mary Magdalene Baily Bachiler Inspire Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 Novel the Scarlet Letter?

As a longtime genealogy buff, I decided to research the Staples surname, part of my maternal lineage. My grandmother Esther Eaton of Searsport Maine was the granddaughter of Hiram Eaton and Nancy A. Staples. I knew a lot about Captain Eaton, but very little about Nancy. My research led me to the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Kittery, which is now part of Maine, and to the family of Peter and Elizabeth Beadle Staples. Elizabeth's mom was Mary Baily Beadle Bachiler Turner. Other ways to spell these surnames, for example, would be Bailey, Baley, Beedle, Batchelder. Mary made my breath catch. 

Of all the books I read in my high school's literature class, The Scarlet Letter was and is my favorite. The struggle of Hester Pyrnne was my struggle to understand her life and the society of her generation. Never did I imagine my ninth great grandmother could be the catalyst for Hester Pyrnne. In a book written in 1910 Mary was revealed as the woman inspiring Nathaniel Hawthorne's account of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

Captain William Hathorne, as the name was originally spelled, was an immigrant and a Massachusetts Bay Colony commissioner. Captain Hathorne was an ancestor of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. For his valued service to the Colony, Hathorne was granted 870 acres of land along the Piscataqua River, just three farmsteads north of that of my ancestor Mary in Kittery so Capt. William Hathorne knew the story of Mary and Stephen. On his later visits to the area, Nathaniel Hawthorne, an avid follower of colonial stories, learned about Mary Beadle Bachiler of Kittery. Hawthorne's journal does not name Mary specifically, but does "note a young woman doomed to wear the Letter A on the breast of her gown under an old colony law as punishment for adultery."

Mary Baily's first husband was fisherman Robert Beadle, lost at sea in 1648. Widowed, her second husband was Reverend Stephen Bachiler, who was in his 80s, about sixty years her senior. Stephen had been excommunicated in England and in America he was punished for allegedly attempting to seduce the wife of a neighbor in Hampton, NH, which took him to Kittery as a missionary. Oliver Wendell Holmes described him as "that terrible old sinner and ancestor of great men"; i.e. President Nixon and Daniel Webster. Mary was hired as his housekeeper. The townsfolk buzzed about her being in the same house as the tainted reverend, forcing them to marry on April 1, 1650. Stephen conducted their marriage but failed to file a record of the marriage within a few days and was forced by the Colony to do so. In 1651, while married to the elderly Stephen, Mary was convicted of adultery with her next door neighbor, widower George Rogers by whom she became pregnant. George received flogging of "forty stripes save one" and, following the birth of their child which adulteress Mary named as Mary Bachiler instead of Mary Rogers, Mary was flogged with 40 stripes and was forced to wear the letter A on her gown. The reverend was ordered to live with his wife Mary. The reverend tried and failed to get a divorce, was pursued by many religious enemies, and ultimately returned to London where he died at 95 years of age. The child of George and Mary grew to up to wed William Richards and led a respectable life in Portsmouth, NH.

Adulteress Mary Bachiler, on the other hand, was further involved with the law on 14 October 1652 when the Kittery District Court charged her with "entertaining idle people on the Sabbath." Despite her run-ins with the governing law, just a few days later on November 1, 1652 Mary signed a Certificate of Submission turning Kittery over to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Mary, who was a principal land owner in Kittery after she was granted the land of her former husband, Robert Beadle, was eligible to sign the document, and did. Mary knew how to write her signature; many men did not. It is interesting that the town put the property of Robert Beadle in her name and did not follow the custom of her current legal husband, the Reverend, being granted the land. Mary received additional land in 1653 and 1654 because she had signed this certificate.
Thomas Turner worked at the Hansom Shipyard in Kittery and wanted to marry her, but was not able to as the Reverend failed in his divorce request. So, the resilient Mary appealed to the Massachusetts General Court for divorce in 1656. To support her position she stated that she did not wish to live on charity of others and needed to be free to marry and care for two ailing children who were in her charge and to preserve her holdings. Also she alleged that Reverend Stephen was married again in England. Add possible bigamy to his list of sins. She married Thomas in 1657 when she was 34 and led a respectable and quiet life thereafter. Ironically, 17 days after her divorce was granted, Stephen died in England on October 31, 1656.

Mary's life does, in fact, fit with the fictional account of Hester Pyrnne, the Puritan protagonist in The Scarlett Letter. In Part II of this article, I will share what I found about Mary inspiring Hawthorne to write his novel.  Read on....

Photo of an A: