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.
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.