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Ghost Stories

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Homage to an Icon: Andrew Wyeth immortalized this scene in his painting 'Christina's World.' A latter-day Harthorn poses in Christina's place.

Traveling through time and space to find family haunts

By John Yewell

A SMALL BRONZE plaque in a concrete mount marks the spot, next to a runnel in a treeless swale called the Valley of Death. Downstream, across a gently sloping boulder-strewn meadow toward a forest 100 yards away, lies an area that was known as the Slaughter Pen. To the right, a jumble of Yosemite-size boulders, the Devil's Den, arches up to a low ridge.

Crouching for cover next to the marker, I try to imagine thousands of armed men, sweaty and tired and desperate, crossing the exposed ground in front of me, swarming through the trees and over the rocks, the air alive with lead, intending to kill me.

That is the scene my great-great-great-uncle, Private William Harthorn, faced late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as the Civil War reached its crescendo at Gettysburg.

I am not a Civil War buff, and Uncle William fought in many other major battles during his three years in the Army of the Potomac, but for some reason I cannot let go of what happened to him here. I have studied the battlefield and traced the movements of his 4th Maine regiment, and no amount of reading can substitute for walking this ground. Of the 170,000 men who fought at Gettysburg, 51,000--30 percent--would be killed, wounded or captured.

I try to imagine how a 23-year-old schoolteacher from Thomaston, Maine, survived such carnage.

This is why I travel now: I've been bitten by the Roots bug. On my mother's side, the Harthorns have served as particularly useful travel guides, several of them having popped up at key junctures of history. In recent years I've taken two trips to the East Coast, as well as many trips to Southern California, searching for their weathered headstones, rotting floorboards and worn wagon wheel ruts. I've sought out their homes and haunts, searching for connections between people and places.

I'm reminded of the character Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, being unstuck in time. Travel has become as much a temporal as a spatial journey. Like Uncle William's younger brother Halsey, a rascal Maine sailor who caught gold fever and dropped anchor for good in California, I've become a kind of miner, sifting through the tailings of the past for spirits, locales and clues to how far the fruit has fallen each time from the tree--evidence of patterns of character that survive generations and continents.

Call it a search for my inner Yankee.

Trails of the Past

GETTYSBURG WAS a passing, if violent, day in the life of one Harthorn. The defining moment for the clan was at Salem, Mass., 171 years earlier, when another Harthorn became infamous.

Uncle William's great-great-great-great-grandfather John Hathorn (the name has various spellings) was a judge at the 1692 Salem witch trials and one of those most responsible for the hysteria. John is the family pariah, and among the Harthorns with whom I grew up, he was a subject discussed only in hushed tones, if at all.

The city of Salem seems to have adopted the same attitude. Standing on Gallows Hill overlooking the town, you would hardly know there had been any drama on this spot--just finding it takes a little digging. A playground now dominates the crest, and there's a basketball court and a gazebo for picnickers to escape the weather. Across the street is a quiet residential neighborhood. No signs indicate what went on here, not even a marker commemorating the dead.

A few miles away in what is now the town of Danvers, the old parsonage of Salem Village where the delusion began is nothing but foundation stones hidden in a wooded glen, unmarked on most maps.

Unlike Gettysburg, which has no fewer than 855 markers, statues, tablets, commemorative plaques and heroic equestrian bronzes to remind the visitor of what happened there, Salem didn't have a memorial at all until 1992--and still has few indicators of important sites. Apart from the ads for cheesy "witch houses," there is no official acknowledgment of the trials in the town visitors' guide. If your purpose in coming to Salem is to look into all that ghoulish stuff, it would seem the town burghers would rather you stayed away.

Gettysburg and Salem do share one thing: both are eerie, defying the crustiest skeptic not to feel a certain phantasmal presence.

John Hathorn is buried in the old graveyard in the center of Salem along with half a dozen of his descendants. But you won't find any of his victims there. After they were hanged, their bodies were dumped among the rocks and crevices of Gallows Hill--"witches" didn't get Christian burials.

The body of one of those victims, Rebecca Nurse, was reclaimed by her husband in the dead of night and spirited by boat to the family farm, where it was secretly buried. Today, there is a monument marking her grave on the former family homestead, but getting to the cemetery is difficult; the road is privately owned and marked "No Trespassing." You have to drive about a mile to the other side of the property, park in a private lot and walk across a private field. Like most other places of note in Salem, it is not marked on most maps.

The nearby home of John Proctor, another notable victim, also bears no marker and is privately owned and inaccessible. Outside, a couple taking pictures introduced themselves: one was a Proctor descendent, the other a Nurse.

"That's interesting," I replied, with some trepidation. "I'm a Harthorn."

Their eyes told me they knew the name. John Hathorn is fairly notorious in these parts--there is even supposedly a family curse. There was a short silence, punctuated by 300 years of echoes.

They seemed like nice folks and were not the first victims' descendants I'd met. Finally I just smiled, shrugged a little and said, "Sorry about that," and we shared a good laugh.

New England To Hell and Back: He survived three years of the Civil War, but tuberculosis finally felled William Harthorn. Or was it the Salem curse?

Authors' Ridge

SALEM'S SECOND great tourist draw is Nathaniel Hawthorne--who occupies a prominent perch in the family tree. The writer was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorn and added the "w" and "e" to distinguish himself from his notorious forebear. Born in Salem in 1804, he lived much of his life between Salem and Concord, Mass. Although they were contemporaries and had both lived in Maine, Nathaniel died the year after Gettysburg and never knew my Uncle William.

As the great chronicler of Yankee morals and Hathorn guilt (see The House of the Seven Gables), Nathaniel is an irresistible figure. The old Salem Customs House where Hawthorne once worked overlooks Salem harbor. The job was a patronage post, courtesy of President Franklin Pierce, an old school chum from Bowdoin College in Maine.

Hawthorne is buried in spooky Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord near the graves of his neighbors in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, on a beautiful pine-covered hill called Authors' Ridge.

At Concord, strolling a trail that Hawthorne used to walk near his home, and along the edge of Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau's cabin, it is easy to feel immersed in New England legend, Yankee or not.

Andrew's World

AFTER SPENDING a couple of years visiting his gold miner brother Halsey in Orange, Calif., Uncle William returned to Maine. Sick with tuberculosis, he died there in 1893 shortly after returning and is buried in Thomaston.

William was one of dozens of Harthorns to come out of the Thomaston area. The town is located at the head of a bay formed by the St. George River and was a major shipyard and port for a century. Today the two major employers in town are a cement manufacturer and a state prison, whose inmates produce fine model sailing ships and other knickknacks in wood.

When the grandchildren of John Hathorn left Salem in 1743, in part to escape the stigma of the witchcraft trials, they moved to a small farming village called Cushing, near Thomaston. At the tip of Harthorn Point, next to Cushing, lobstermen continue in a centuries-old way of life.

The house in Thomaston where generations of Harthorns were born, including William and Halsey, is now abandoned and boarded up. But just a few miles away in Cushing, another Harthorn house has become famous.

Across the broad mouth of the St. George River from Harthorn Point is the village of Port Clyde, the summer home of the famous Wyeth family of painters. Andrew Wyeth, now 82 years old, is very familiar with the Harthorns.

During the summer of 1939, young Andy met a resident of Harthorn Point named Christina Olson. Christina's mother, Kate Harthorn, was a niece of a Capt. Nathaniel Hathorn, who had once met his namesake author some 90 years earlier when calling at the port of Salem. Capt. Harthorn was also descended from John Hathorn of Salem, and the two turned out to be distant cousins.

Wyeth was taken with the 46-year-old Christina, who had suffered most of her life from an unknown degenerative muscle disease. For Wyeth, her stubborn Yankee refusal to yield to infirmity lent her dignity and helped her transcend her crippled body. During the next two decades, Wyeth painted Christina, her brother, Alvaro, and the aging Olson-Harthorn house. In 1948, Christina became the subject of Wyeth's most famous painting.

After Study in Grey and Black (better known as Whistler's Mother) and Grant Wood's American Gothic, Wyeth's Christina's World may be the most famous painting produced by an American artist. A young Christina lies on her side in a pink dress propped up on one arm, her back to the viewer and looking up a hill toward the house in the distance.

As I stand in that field, it is easy to see what Wyeth found so compelling in that scene. The house, which for generations was a landmark for ships sailing up the St. George, has a stark, wind-swept feel, a symbol of storm-tossed survival. Many other Wyeth paintings have captured that craggy, pine-speckled shoreline and the unassuming people who inhabit it.

Of profound interest to me was the meaning Wyeth invested in that house and the family that occupied it. Time and place were one there. According to Betsy Wyeth, the painter's wife, Wyeth believed that Christina and Harthorn Point encapsulated Maine, New England and, to some extent, the Puritan heritage that found its way into the books of distant cousin Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"Andy has very much to do with timelessness," Betsy told biographer Richard Meryman. "[Christina and Alvaro] are in the present, but they are also their own past generations."

Despite time and new neighbors, the house, and to a certain extent the Harthorns themselves, are unchanged since Wyeth immortalized them. In a comment as eloquent as any I know about the connections among people, place and time, Wyeth told his biographer:

"The world of New England is in that house."

My inner Yankee knows what he meant.

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From the April 28-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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