by Nathaniel Hawthorne

ON A PLEASANT AFTERNOON of June, it was my good fortune to be the
companion of two young ladies in a walk. The direction of our course
being left to me, I led them neither to Legge's Hill, nor to the
Cold Spring, nor to the rude shores and old batteries of the Neck, nor
yet to Paradise; though if the latter place were rightly named, my
fair friends would have been at home there. We reached the outskirts
of the town, and turning aside from a street of tanners and
curriers, began to ascend a hill, which at a distance, by its dark
slope and the even line of its summit, resembled a green rampart along
the road. It was less steep than its aspect threatened. The eminence
formed part of an extensive tract of pasture land, and was traversed
by cow paths in various directions; but, strange to tell, though the
whole slope and summit were of a peculiarly deep green, scarce a blade
of grass was visible from the base upward. This deceitful verdure
was occasioned by a plentiful crop of "woodwax," which wears the
same dark and glossy green throughout the summer, except at one
short period, when it puts forth a profusion of yellow blossoms. At
that season, to a distant spectator, the hill appears absolutely
overlaid with gold, or covered with a glory of sunshine, even
beneath a clouded sky. But the curious wanderer on the hill will
perceive that all the grass, and everything that should nourish man or
beast, has been destroyed by this vile and ineradicable weed: its
tufted roots make the soil their own, and permit nothing else to
vegetate among them; so that a physical curse may be said to have
blasted the spot, where guilt and frenzy consummated the most
execrable scene that our history blushes to record. For this was the
field where superstition won her darkest triumph; the high place where
our fathers set up their shame, to the mournful gaze of generations
far remote. The dust of martyrs was beneath our feet. We stood on
Gallows Hill.
For my own part, I have often courted the historic influence of the
spot. But it is singular how few come on pilgrimage to this famous
hill; how many spend their lives almost at its base, and never once
obey the summons of the shadowy past, as it beckons them to the
summit. Till a year or two since, this portion of our history had been
very imperfectly written, and, as we are not a people of legend or
tradition, it was not every citizen of our ancient town that could
tell, within half a century, so much as the date of the witchcraft
delusion. Recently, indeed, an historian has treated the subject in
a manner that will keep his name alive, in the only desirable
connection with the errors of our ancestry, by converting the hill
of their disgrace into an honorable monument of his own antiquarian
lore, and of that better wisdom, which draws the moral while it
tells the tale. But we are a people of the present, and have no
heartfelt interest in the olden time. Every fifth of November, in
commemoration of they know not what, or rather without an idea
beyond the momentary blaze, the young men scare the town with bonfires
on this haunted height, but never dream of paying funeral honors to
those who died so wrongfully, and, without a coffin or a prayer,
were buried here.
Though with feminine susceptibility, my companions caught all the
melancholy associations of the scene, yet these could but
imperfectly overcome the gayety of girlish spirits. Their emotions
came and went with quick vicissitude, and sometimes combined to form a
peculiar and delicious excitement, the mirth brightening the gloom
into a sunny shower of feeling, and a rainbow in the mind. My own more
sombre mood was tinged by theirs. With now a merry word and next a sad
one, we trod among the tangled weeds, and almost hoped that our feet
would sink into the hollow of a witch's grave. Such vestiges were to
be found within the memory of man, but have vanished now, and with
them, I believe, all traces of the precise spot of the executions.
On the long and broad ridge of the eminence, there is no very
decided elevation of any one point, nor other prominent marks,
except the decayed stumps of two trees, standing near each other,
and here and there the rocky substance of the hill, peeping just above
the woodwax.
There are few such prospects of town and village, woodland and
cultivated field, steeples and country seats, as we beheld from this
unhappy spot. No blight had fallen on old Essex; all was prosperity
and riches, healthfully distributed. Before us lay our native town,
extending from the foot of the hill to the harbor, level as a chess
board embraced by two arms of the sea, and filling the whole peninsula
with a close assemblage of wooden roofs, overtopped by many a spire,
and intermixed with frequent heaps of verdure, where trees threw up
their shade from unseen trunks. Beyond was the bay and its islands,
almost the only objects, in a country unmarked by strong natural
features, on which time and human toil had produced no change.
Retaining these portions of the scene, and also the peaceful glory and
tender gloom of the declining sun, we threw, in imagination, a veil of
deep forest over the land, and pictured a few scattered villages,
and this old town itself a village, as when the prince of hell bore
sway there. The idea thus gained of its former aspect, its quaint
edifices standing far apart, with peaked roofs and projecting stories,
and its single meeting-house pointing up a tall spire in the midst;
the vision, in short, of the town in 1692, served to introduce a
wondrous tale of those old times.
I had brought the manuscript in my pocket. It was one of a series
written years ago, when my pen, now sluggish and perhaps feeble,
because I have not much to hope or fear, was driven by stronger
external motives, and a more passionate impulse within, than I am
fated to feel again. Three or four of these tales had appeared in
the "Token," after a long time and various adventures, but had
encumbered me with no troublesome notoriety, even in my birthplace.
One great heap had met a brighter destiny: they had fed the flames;
thoughts meant to delight the world and endure for ages had perished
in a moment, and stirred not a single heart but mine. The story now to
be introduced, and another, chanced to be in kinder custody at the
time, and thus, by no conspicuous merits of their own, escaped
The ladies, in consideration that I had never before intruded my
performances on them, by any but the legitimate medium, through the
press, consented to hear me read. I made them sit down on a moss-grown
rock, close by the spot where we chose to believe that the death
tree had stood. After a little hesitation on my part, caused by a
dread of renewing my acquaintance with fantasies that had lost their
charm in the ceaseless flux of mind, I began the tale, which opened
darkly with the discovery of a murder.
A hundred years, and nearly half that time, have elapsed since
the body of a murdered man was found, at about the distance of three
miles, on the old road to Boston. He lay in a solitary spot, on the
bank of a small lake, which the severe frost of December had covered
with a sheet of ice. Beneath this, it seemed to have been the
intention of the murderer to conceal his victim in a chill and
watery grave, the ice being deeply hacked, perhaps with the weapon
that had slain him, though its solidity was too stubborn for the
patience of a man with blood upon his hand. The corpse therefore
reclined on the earth, but was separated from the road by a thick
growth of dwarf pines. There had been a slight fall of snow during the
night, and as if nature were shocked at the deed, and strove to hide
it with her frozen tears, a little drifted heap had partly buried
the body, and lay deepest over the pale dead face. An early traveller,
whose dog had led him to the spot, ventured to uncover the features,
but was affrighted by their expression. A look of evil and scornful
triumph had hardened on them, and made death so life-like and so
terrible, that the beholder at once took flight, as swiftly as if
the stiffened corpse would rise up and follow.
I read on, and identified the body as that of a young man, a
stranger in the country, but resident during several preceding
months in the town which lay at our feet. The story described, at some
length, the excitement caused by the murder, the unavailing quest
after the perpetrator, the funeral ceremonies, and other commonplace
matters, in the course of which, I brought forward the personages
who were to move among the succeeding events. They were but three. A
young man and his sister; the former characterized by a diseased
imagination and morbid feelings; the latter, beautiful and virtuous,
and instilling something of her own excellence into the wild heart
of her brother, but not enough to cure the deep taint of his nature.
The third person was a wizard; a small, gray, withered man, with
fiendish ingenuity in devising evil, and superhuman power to execute
it, but senseless as an idiot and feebler than a child to all better
purposes. The central scene of the story was an interview between this
wretch and Leonard Doane, in the wizard's hut, situated beneath a
range of rocks at some distance from the town. They sat beside a
smouldering fire, while a tempest of wintry rain was beating on the
roof. The young man spoke of the closeness of the tie which united him
and Alice, the consecrated fervor of their affection from childhood
upwards, their sense of lonely sufficiency to each other, because they
only of their race had escaped death, in a night attack by the
Indians. He related his discovery or suspicion of a secret sympathy
between his sister and Walter Brome, and told how a distempered
jealousy had maddened him. In the following passage, I threw a
glimmering light on the mystery of the tale.
"Searching," continued Leonard, "into the breast of Walter Brome, I
at length found a cause why Alice must inevitably love him. For he was
my very counterpart! I compared his mind by each individual portion,
and as a whole, with mine. There was a resemblance from which I shrunk
with sickness, and loathing, and horror, as if my own features had
come and stared upon me in a solitary place, or had met me in
struggling through a crowd. Nay! the very same thoughts would often
express themselves in the same words from our lips, proving a
hateful sympathy in our secret souls. His education, indeed, in the
cities of the old world, and mine in this rude wilderness, had wrought
a superficial difference. The evil of his character, also, had been
strengthened and rendered prominent by a reckless and ungoverned life,
while mine had been softened and purified by the gentle and holy
nature of Alice. But my soul had been conscious of the germ of all the
fierce and deep passions, and of all the many varieties of wickedness,
which accident had brought to their full maturity in him. Nor will I
deny that, in the accursed one, I could see the withered blossom of
every virtue, which, by a happier culture, had been made to bring
forth fruit in me. Now, here was a man whom Alice might love with
all the strength of sisterly affection, added to that impure passion
which alone engrosses all the heart. The stranger would have more than
the love which had been gathered to me from the many graves of our
household- and I be desolate!"
Leonard Doane went on to describe the insane hatred that had
kindled his heart into a volume of hellish flame. It appeared, indeed,
that his jealousy had grounds, so far as that Walter Brome had
actually sought the love of Alice, who also had betrayed an
undefinable, but powerful interest in the unknown youth. The latter,
in spite of his passion for Alice, seemed to return the loathful
antipathy of her brother; the similarity of their dispositions made
them like joint possessors of an individual nature, which could not
become wholly the property of one, unless by the extinction of the
other. At last, with the same devil in each bosom, they chanced to
meet, they two on a lonely road. While Leonard spoke, the wizard had
sat listening to what he already knew, yet with tokens of
pleasurable interest, manifested by flashes of expression across his
vacant features, by grisly smiles and by a word here and there,
mysteriously filling up some void in the narrative. But when the young
man told how Walter Brome had taunted him with indubitable proofs of
the shame of Alice, and, before the triumphant sneer could vanish from
his face, had died by her brother's hand, the wizard laughed aloud.
Leonard started, but just then a gust of wind came down the chimney,
forming itself into a close resemblance of the slow, unvaried
laughter, by which he had been interrupted. "I was deceived,"
thought he; and thus pursued his fearful story.
"I trod out his accursed soul, and knew that he was dead; for my
spirit bounded as if a chain had fallen from it and left me free.
But the burst of exulting certainty soon fled, and was succeeded by
a torpor over my brain and a dimness before my eyes, with the
sensation of one who struggles through a dream. So I bent down over
the body of Walter Brome, gazing into his face, and striving to make
my soul glad with the thought, that he, in very truth, lay dead before
me. I know not what space of time I had thus stood, nor how the vision
came. But it seemed to me that the irrevocable years since childhood
had rolled back, and a scene, that had long been confused and broken
in my memory, arrayed itself with all its first distinctness.
Methought I stood a weeping infant by my father's hearth; by the
cold and blood-stained hearth where he lay dead. I heard the
childish wail of Alice, and my own cry arose with hers, as we beheld
the features of our parent, fierce with the strife and distorted
with the pain, in which his spirit had passed away. As I gazed, a cold
wind whistled by, and waved my father's hair. Immediately I stood
again in the lonesome 91 road, no more a sinless child, but a man of
blood, whose tears were falling fast over the face of his dead
enemy. But the delusion was not wholly gone; that face still wore a
likeness of my father; and because my soul shrank from the fixed glare
of the eyes, I bore the body to the lake, and would have buried it
there. But before his icy sepulchre was hewn, I heard the voice of two
travellers and fled."
Such was the dreadful confession of Leonard Doane. And now tortured
by the idea of his sister's guilt, yet sometimes yielding to a
conviction of her purity; stung with remorse for the death of Walter
Brome, and shuddering with a deeper sense of some unutterable crime,
perpetrated, as he imagined, in madness or a dream; moved also by dark
impulses, as if a fiend were whispering him to meditate violence
against the life of Alice; he had sought this interview with the
wizard, who, on certain conditions, had no power to withhold his aid
in unravelling the mystery. The tale drew near its close.
The moon was bright on high; the blue firmament appeared to glow
with an inherent brightness; the greater stars were burning in their
spheres; the northern lights threw their mysterious glare far over the
horizon; the few small clouds aloft were burdened with radiance; but
the sky, with all its variety of light, was scarcely so brilliant as
the earth. The rain of the preceding night had frozen as it fell, and,
by that simple magic, had wrought wonders. The trees were hung with
diamonds and many-colored gems; the houses were overlaid with
silver, and the streets paved with slippery brightness; a frigid glory
was flung over all familiar things, from the cottage chimney to the
steeple of the meetinghouse, that gleamed upward to the sky. This
living world, where we sit by our firesides, or go forth to meet
beings like ourselves, seemed rather the creation of wizard power,
with so much of the resemblance to known objects that a man might
shudder at the ghostly shape of his old beloved dwelling, and the
shadow of a ghostly tree before his door. One looked to behold
inhabitants suited to such a town, glittering in icy garments, with
the motionless features, cold, sparkling eyes, and just sensation
enough in their frozen hearts to shiver at each other's presence.
By this fantastic piece of description, and more in the same style,
I intended to throw a ghostly glimmer round the reader, so that his
imagination might view the town through a medium that should take
off its every-day aspect, and make it a proper theatre for so wild a
scene as the final one. Amid this unearthly show, the wretched brother
and sister were represented as setting forth, at midnight, through the
gleaming streets, and directing their steps to a graveyard, where
all the dead had been laid, from the first corpse in that ancient
town, to the murdered man who was buried three days before. As they
went, they seemed to see the wizard gliding by their sides, or walking
dimly on the path before them. But here I paused, and gazed into the
faces of my two fair auditors, to judge whether, even on the hill
where so many had been brought to death by wilder tales than this, I
might venture to proceed. Their bright eyes were fixed on me; their
lips apart. I took courage, and led the fated pair to a new-made
grave, where for a few moments, in the bright and silent midnight,
they stood alone. But suddenly there was a multitude of people among
the graves.
Each family tomb had given up its inhabitants, who, one by one,
through distant years, had been borne to its dark chamber, but now
came forth and stood in a pale group together. There was the gray
ancestor, the aged mother, and all their descendants, some withered
and full of years, like themselves, and others in their prime;
there, too, were the children who went prattling to the tomb, and
there the maiden who yielded her early beauty to death's embrace,
before passion had polluted it. Husbands and wives arose, who had lain
many years side by side, and young mothers who had forgotten to kiss
their first babes, though pillowed so long on their bosoms. Many had
been buried in the habiliments of life, and still wore their ancient
garb; some were old defenders of the infant colony, and gleamed
forth in their steel-caps and bright breast-plates, as if starting
up at an Indian war-cry; other venerable shapes had been pastors of
the church, famous among the New England clergy, and now leaned with
hands clasped over their gravestones, ready to call the congregation
to prayer. There stood the early settlers, those old illustrious ones,
the heroes of tradition and fireside legends, the men of history whose
features had been so long beneath the sod that few alive could have
remembered them. There, too, were faces of former townspeople, dimly
recollected from childhood, and others, whom Leonard and Alice had
wept in later years, but who now were most terrible of all, by their
ghastly smile of recognition. All, in short, were there; the dead of
other generations, whose moss-grown names could scarce be read upon
their tombstones, and their successors, whose graves were not yet
green; all whom black funerals had followed slowly thither now
reappeared where the mourners left them. Yet none but souls accursed
were there, and fiends counterfeiting the likeness of departed saints.
The countenances of those venerable men, whose very features had
been hallowed by lives of piety, were contorted now by intolerable
pain or hellish passion, and now by an unearthly and derisive
merriment. Had the pastors prayed, all saintlike as they seemed, it
had been blasphemy. The chaste matrons, too, and the maidens with
untasted lips, who had slept in their virgin graves apart from all
other dust, now wore a look from which the two trembling mortals
shrank, as if the unimaginable sin of twenty worlds were collected
there. The faces of fond lovers, even of such as had pined into the
tomb, because there their treasure was, were bent on one another
with glances of hatred and smiles of bitter scorn, passions that are
to devils what love is to the blest. At times, the features of those
who had passed from a holy life to heaven would vary to and fro,
between their assumed aspect and the fiendish lineaments whence they
had been transformed. The whole miserable multitude, both sinful
souls and false spectres of good men, groaned horribly and gnashed
their teeth, as they looked upward to the calm loveliness of the
midnight sky, and beheld those homes of bliss where they must never
dwell. Such was the apparition, though too shadowy for language to
portray; for here would be the moonbeams on the ice, glittering
through a warrior's breast-plate, and there the letters of a
tombstone, on the form that stood before it; and whenever a breeze
went by, it swept the old men's hoary heads, the women's fearful
beauty, and all the unreal throng, into one indistinguishable cloud
I dare not give the remainder of the scene, except in a very
brief epitome. This company of devils and condemned souls had come
on a holiday, to revel in the discovery of a complicated crime; as
foul a one as ever imagined in their dreadful abode. In the course
of the tale, the reader had been permitted to discover that all the
incidents were results of the machinations of the wizard, who had
cunningly devised that Walter Brome should tempt his unknown sister
to guilt and shame, and himself perish by the hand of his
twin-brother. I described the glee of the fiends at this hideous
conception, and their eagerness to know if it were consummated. The
story concluded with the Appeal of Alice to the spectre of Walter
Brome, his reply, absolving her from every stain; and the trembling
awe with which ghost and devil fled, as from the sinless presence of
an angel.
The sun had gone down. While I held my page of wonders in the
fading light, and read how Alice and her brother were left alone
among the graves, my voice mingled with the sigh of a summer wind,
which passed over the hill-top, with the broad and hollow sound as
of the flight of unseen spirits. Not a word was spoken till I added
that the wizard's grave was close beside us, and that the woodwax had
sprouted originally from his unhallowed bones. The ladies started;
perhaps their cheeks might have grown pale had not the crimson west
been blushing on them; but after a moment they began to laugh, while
the breeze took a livelier motion, as if responsive to their mirth.
I kept an awful solemnity of visage, being, indeed, a little piqued
that a narrative which had good authority in our ancient
superstitions, and would have brought even a church deacon to
Gallows Hill, in old witch times, should now be considered too
grotesque and extravagant for timid maids to tremble at. Though it
was past supper time, I detained them a while longer on the hill, and
made a trial whether truth were more powerful than fiction.
We looked again towards the town, no longer arrayed in that icy
splendor of earth, tree, and edifice, beneath the glow of a wintry
midnight, which shining afar through the gloom of a century had made
it appear the very home of visions in visionary streets. An
indistinctness had begun to creep over the mass of buildings and
blend them with the intermingled tree-tops, except where the roof of
a statelier mansion, and the steeples and brick towers of churches,
caught the brightness of some cloud that yet floated in the
sunshine. Twilight over the landscape was congenial to the obscurity
of time. With such eloquence as my share of feeling and fancy could
supply, I called back hoar antiquity, and bade my companions imagine
an ancient multitude of people, congregated on the hill-side,
spreading far below, clustering on the steep old roofs, and climbing
the adjacent heights, wherever a glimpse of this spot might be
obtained. I strove to realize and faintly communicate the deep,
unutterable loathing and horror, the indignation, the affrighted
wonder, that wrinkled on every brow, and filled the universal heart.
See! the whole crowd turns pale and shrinks within itself, as the
virtuous emerge from yonder street. Keeping pace with that devoted
company, I described them one by one; here tottered a woman in her
dotage, knowing neither the crime imputed her, nor its punishment;
there another, distracted by the universal madness, till feverish
dreams were remembered as realities, and she almost believed her
guilt. One, a proud man once, was so broken down by the intolerable
hatred heaped upon him, that he seemed to hasten his steps, eager to
hide himself in the grave hastily dug at the foot of the gallows. As
they went slowly on, a mother looked behind, and beheld her peaceful
dwelling; she cast her eyes elsewhere, and groaned inwardly yet with
bitterest anguish, for there was her little son among the accusers.
I watched the face of an ordained pastor, who walked onward to the
same death; his lips moved in prayer; no narrow petition for himself
alone, but embracing all his fellow-sufferers and the frenzied
multitude; he looked to Heaven and trod lightly up the hill.
Behind their victims came the afflicted, a guilty and miserable
band; villains who had thus avenged themselves on their enemies, and
viler wretches, whose cowardice had destroyed their friends;
lunatics, whose ravings had chimed in with the madness of the land;
and children, who had played a game that the imps of darkness might
have envied them, since it disgraced an age, and dipped a people's
hands in blood. In the rear of the procession rode a figure on
horseback, so darkly conspicuous, so sternly triumphant, that my
hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself;
but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well-won
dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his
time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those
vices of spirit and errors of opinion that sufficed to madden the
whole surrounding multitude. And thus I marshalled them onward, the
innocent who were to die, and the guilty who were to grow old in long
remorse- tracing their every step, by rock, and shrub, and broken
track, till their shadowy visages had circled round the hill-top,
where we stood. I plunged into my imagination for a blacker horror,
and a deeper woe, and pictured the scaffold-
But here my companions seized an arm on each side; their nerves
were trembling; and, sweeter victory still, I had reached the seldom
trodden places of their hearts, and found the well-spring of their
tears. And now the past had done all it could. We slowly descended,
watching the lights as they twinkled gradually through the town, and
listening to the distant mirth of boys at play, and to the voice of
a young girl warbling somewhere in the dusk, a pleasant sound to
wanderers from old witch times. Yet, ere we left the hill, we could
not but regret that there is nothing on its barren summit, no relic
of old, nor lettered stone of later days, to assist the imagination
in appealing to the heart. We build the memorial column on the height
which our fathers made sacred with their blood, poured out in a holy
cause. And here, in dark, funereal stone, should rise another
monument, sadly commemorative of the errors of an earlier race, and
not to be cast down, while the human heart has one infirmity that
may result in crime.



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