Back before witches had their own TV series and movie franchises, they were imprisoned and hanged. In the year 1692, in the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of children (aged 4 to 12) ratted out 140 adults from their community to their uptight Puritan church elders . Although the evidence was slim, by today’s standards, Judge John Hathorne who presided over the Salem Witch Trials sentenced the lot of warlocks and witches to prison sentences, and some a worse fate — death by hanging. Of the 140 prisoners, 19 were hanged and 13 died in prison. Although the witch trials were a dark chapter in the history of America, the Judge never repented for his role.
More than a century later, Nathaniel Hathorne, the future author of The Scarlet Letter (written in 1850), was born in Salem in 1804. Soon after Hathorne graduating from Bowdoin College in 1825, Hathorne, having learned of his great-grandfather’s role in the Salem Witch Trials, added a “w” to his name to distance himself from that shameful legacy. In a sense, it was the addition of the letter to his surname — his own personal scarlet letter — that allowed the young author to disavow the former surname that was a badge of shame.
For further reading: The Little Book of Big Mistakes by Ken Lytle and Katie Corcoran, Adams Media (2011)