Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a gifted storyteller. Her father was a Unitarian minister and this greatly influenced her writing. Unitarians believe that God is only one person. But, although Jesus is not a divinity, he is a good role model. Furthermore, Unitarians do not believe in original sin nor do they believe that rational thought and science conflicts with having faith in God. They believe in the worth of each individual and in the universal salvation of all souls. And, above all, they believe that a person must use his free will and think for himself.
Elizabeth’s writing skills were rooted in oral narrative. When she wrote her first novel, she said she wrote it as if she were “speaking to a friend over the fire on a winter’s night.” Aside from novels, she wrote over forty short stories. One such story included in Gothic Tales was “Lois the Witch”.
Lois Barclay, daughter of a parson, was orphaned in 1691 when just a teen. On her death bed, Lois’ mother told her daughter to write her uncle, Ralph, now living in New England. Ralph had left England twenty years before because of his religious beliefs. Alone in the world, Lois had little choice but to cross the Atlantic to live with someone she’d never known. So, once in New England in a colony of Puritans, Lois finally meets her uncle. Although he is kind towards her, he’s dying. Soon Lois will be under the jurisdiction of Ralph’s wife, Grace. Grace, who has one son and two daughters, considers herself to be the epitome of righteousness. She immediately takes a negative view of Lois as the two practice have opposing religious backgrounds. There is also tension with her cousins. Manasseh, a self-proclaimed visionary, says God wants him to marry Lois. Faith, initially friendly, is jealous because the man she’s in love with, Pastor Nolan, has a crush on Lois. And Prudence, a born trouble maker, does everything possible to put Lois in a bad light. Somehow Lois manages to deal with the situation. But that changes when Pastor Tapppau’s daughters start having convulsions. It was obvious to the pastor that Satan was on the loose and someone in their community was a witch. Soon the blame fell on an Indian servant who, after being tortured, confessed to being a witch and was hung. Prudence, wanting to get attention for herself, began behaving hysterically and said started calling Lois a witch. Lois obviously was not but nevertheless found herself in jail. Although she refused to confess to being a witch, she was hung anyway.
Elizabeth had been fascinated by witch hunts for a long time. And it was the true story of Rebecca Nurse that inspired her to write “Lois the Witch.”
Rebecca Nurse was born in England in 1621. But her family later migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony settling near Salem. Around 1644 Rebecca married another Brit, an artisan who made wooden objects for the house. For the most part, they could be described as a normal couple. With their eight children, they lived on a farm in the Salem area. At a certain point, the ownership of the property was in dispute. Somehow the Putnam family became involved in this dispute resulting in their accusing Rebecca of being a witch. Rebecca at the time was 71 years old, an invalid, deaf, and had always been considered a pious woman. As a result of these accusations, Rebecca was hung to death.
Judge John Hathorne, a passionate witch hunter, is noted for being one of the judges responsible for Rebecca’s hanging. Although irreversible deceased, less than twenty years after her death, Rebecca was fully exonerated. Many years later, John’s great great grandson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, although born “Hathorne” changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from someone he considered “so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.” And it may have been this uncle’s actions that inspired Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter.
Related: The Oldest Witch Killed In Salem Witch Trials Was Related To Lucille Ball & Other Celebs + The Crucible by Arthur Miller + Rebecca Nurse Homestead + 10 Things You May Not Know About Nathaniel Hawthorne + Researching Unitarian Women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Unitarian Network +
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Gothic Tales. Penquin Classics. London. 2000.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell. Faber & Faber. London. 1993.