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 tombstone 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 might 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, Chap. 24
Elizabeth Pain’s Grave in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground
As the curious investigator may STILL discern????
I first read The Scarlet Letter for a high school English class. Recently, I read it again in preparation for the Challenge 1 Classical Conversations class I’m teaching. I could not believe all of the references to Boston and locations that I have had the privilege of visiting many times. But, had I made all those trips to Boston in the last 10 years and never realized that Hester Prynne, of Scarlet Letter infamy, was buried in the graveyard next to the King’s Chapel??? I’ve visited the chapel at least 20 times taking Texas tourists for Freedom Trail strolls! But, should I really be surprised? After all, in the last ten years, I’ve been able to visit the homes of Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and last, but not least, Emily Dickinson. (I actually used to live on the same street as Emily!) I’ve also walked around Walden Pond several times, and recently visited Salem’s House of Seven Gables about which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1851 -the year after The Scarlet Letter was published.
While at the House of Seven Gables back in August, I asked the museum docent if Hester Prynne was really buried next to Arthur Dimmesdale in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Well, it turns out that Hawthorne really had me going with that “curious investigator” thing!
“No,” she said. “There is no actual Hester Prynne, but there is a woman buried there who some think may be the woman upon which the character of Hester is based.
Her name is Elizabeth Pain.”
Well…. I would be sure to check that out next time I’m in Boston!
And my opportunity came very soon after that. My dear friend Kelly (a.k.a Miss Riggs) and her husband Jack came for a visit a few weeks back, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking them to Boston. (I really love Boston and never tire of taking and touring folks around that amazing city!) As we approached the King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail (a walking tour of the major historical sites in Boston), I greatly anticipated looking for Elizabeth Pain’s headstone and grave. I walked into the chapel and noticed right away that they sell copies of The Scarlet Letter in the small gift shop area. I asked for directions to Elizabeth’s grave, and easily found it in the burial ground outside the above pictured headstone. It is thought to possibly be the grave of the woman whose story matches Hester’s because of the coat of arms that adorns the headstone. It seems to match the description in the final line of the novel: “On a field, sable, the Letter A, Gules.”
Of course, there are many theories about who this woman was – and who the beloved, yet guilty minister was. I have since read several of those ideas and will spare you the details, but let me tell you…they completely fascinate me! And to think…they were real people, and it happened right here. Amazing.
Mrs. Mallard and her Ducklings:
Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack
And do you recognize these little guys? They are the ducklings from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. The story takes place right in the Boston’s Public Garden which is directly across the street from Boston Common. You can even still ride a swan boat on the pond there – which the kids and I have done many times.
Kelly and Me in front of the Old South Meeting House
Another book the students and I read this semester was Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It takes place during the time leading up to the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The book is historical fiction, and so I found myself again wondering how much of it was true. Like, did Johnny really go and listen for a secret phrase spoken by Samuel Adams in a rally at the Old South Meeting House?
“Now, Johnny, you are to listen to what Samuel Adams says next. Look you. If Mr. Adams says, “Now may God help my country, ” come back here. Then we will take off our disguises and each go home and say nothing. But, if he says, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country,” you are to get out of that crowd as fast as you can, and as soon as you get into Cornhill begin to blow upon this silver whistle.”
Johnny Tremain, Part 6, chapter 6
Well, when we visited the Old South Meeting House on that Boston trip, we walked inside, and there was Samuel Adams (in cardboard cutout) holding a sign that read,
“Do you know my secret phrase?”
So, it was true – the signal to go and dump the tea into the harbor – and I’m standing in the very place it happened!
Samuel Adams’ Grave in the Granary Burying Ground
Samuel Adams and Paul Revere are also major figures in the book (as they were in the Revolution!) and they are both buried in the first burying ground you come to as you walk the Freedom Trail. John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin’s parents are buried here as well.
View from the Prudential Building Observation Floor
A few weeks after that trip to Boston with Jack and Kelly, I had the privilege of going back there on a field trip with my students and showing them the things they had just read and written essays about! Our day in Boston began with a trip to the Federal Reserve Bank where they participated in a wonderful program on economics, received a package of shredded money, watched a video on the Federal Reserve System ( I could hear Ron Paul’s concerns running through my mind all the while!), and competed in an investment game complete with real historical investment scenarios. This was a wonderful opportunity for them, as one of our subjects this semester is economics, and they’ve been working hard to invest a pretend $10,000 in the stock market, collect weekly articles on economic current events and report on them in class.
After the Bank tour, we hit the Freedom Trail and took note of the above mentioned sites, completing a fill-in-the-blank worksheet at each historical place. We finished up our day with dinner and shopping at the Prudential Center which boasts every restaurant and hip shopping venue you can imagine.
And here are the students who got to participate in the hands-on literary, historical, political and financial field trip to Boston – Brianna, Megan, Britta, and Kory.
(I know. Poor Kory. In a class with his mom and three other women!)
Of course, they don’t know how blessed they are to live in the place where American history and literature began, but this native-Texan-turned-perpetual-New England-tourist does, and I just LOVE sharing it with them!