The Story of Marmaduke Johnson

As promised, it’s time to talk about the real life story of Marmaduke Johnson. Readers who are familiar with the Scarlet Letter, keep Hawthorne’s story in mind while you read…

 

When Cambridge, Massachusetts printer Samuel Green was first approached about the Eliot Indian Bible, he correctly realized such a project was beyond his current capacity. In order to set the type of a complete Bible in a language he couldn’t himself read, an alarmed Green sent a request to England for a special supply of paper and another compositor to help him print the book.

 

Marmaduke Johnson arrived about six months later and was welcomed into the home of the greatly-relieved Samuel Green. Which was a mistake, in retrospect.

 

The two printers soon found a rhythm of preparing about a sheet a week. This partnership came to a grinding halt when Green took Johnson to court for “obtaining the affections” of Green’s daughter without his consent. Here’s the story in all its sordid plot twists, from The Book: A History of the Bible by Christopher de Hamel (which I highly recommend):

 

With the fascinated outrage which Americans show even today in romantic scandal, the records of the court supply us with intimate details of Johnson’s trysts with his master’s daughter. She confessed that Marmaduke had proposed marriage to her. This, one might think, would be [satisfactory]…except that it emerged during the trial that Johnson already had a wife in England. She, in turn, had run off with a married silk stocking weaver, called Jeoffries. Subsequently Jeoffries’s own wife intervened and the hapless Mrs. Marmaduke Johnson was sent off to Barbados and (to everyone’s convenience) died on the voyage.

 

Which brings us back to the Scarlet Letter. In Hawthorne’s story,  major aspects of the plot would be impossible without this same strangely comedic problem in communication from one continent to another. However, I’d say on the whole the characters of the Scarlet Letter act quite more circumspectly than the circus that actually occurred in real life to Johnson. My question is this: while Hawthorne was researching for the Scarlet Letter, did he come across the records of Johnson’s trial? What must he have thought? Certainly the Massachusetts of the 1660s was not quite as Puritanically moral as it seems to us in retrospect.

 

A first edition of the Scarlet Letter (1850). The events in the book take place from 1642-1649, about ten years prior to Johnson's story.
A first edition of the Scarlet Letter (1850). The events in the book take place from 1642-1649, about ten years prior to Johnson’s story.

 

How did the Bible reach completion, if it was a two-person job and one of those people has seduced your daughter? Apparently John Eliot himself had to intervene to get the two to work together again. Which they did, finishing the Bible within a year. And thank goodness. We would have lost one of the greatest printings of the Bible in history. Even though we can’t read it, we still love it.

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting as usual !! Intriguing too. One question [okay, I admit this sounds a little dumb ] … – you mention “greatest printings of the Bible in history. Even though we can’t read it” …. we can’t read it obviously because most Americans can’t speak or read any Native American – I am assuming it is a dead language then? There are no Native American tribes that can read it either? Thanks. Gary

  2. jb says:

    it appears that a good deal of the new england literary landscape seems to include a lot of tortured moralistic tales swirling within a sanctimonious society.

  3. Hester Sturrock says:

    Is this an *only in America story?* What a hoot. And also, very interesting. Its rather hard to imagine a life without lots and lots of books, magazines, and newspapers around (you know, the old stuff!) much less TV, the internet, etc. Well, even though in retrospect some of the missionaries of foreign lands and early settlers in the US thought very little of the natives, at least once in a while something was preserved of the earlier cultures.

    Not sure why your story brought this into my mind: I remember watching a movie that was one of the most achelingly (not sure if this a word) beautiful ones I’d ever seen. It was about early settlers in the northeast, most of which was in Canada. I think Jermey Irons played a Eurpean Priest in it. The photography etc. was surperb. Towards the end of the movie, it was lightly snowing, the Indians were all dressed in white garments with white feathers, the music was very romantic and tore at your heart. Then when the movie ended, there was an end note that all of the Indians that were in the tribe portrayed in the movie all died from small pox. WOW.

    So the language of these long ago people lives on. I’m sure this books is a wonderful one to look at.

    So much sentimetality for a Friday afternoon. At least Spring has arrived in Atlanta. I know, lots of you are still deep into winter. But I’m looking forward to some sun.

    Best – Hester from Atlanta

  4. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account
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