The Society of Mayflower Descendants in Plymouth, Massachusetts, keeps pretty close watch over folks who can trace their lineage back to the Pilgrims. Among the descendants are the predictable (the Adams clan), the shocking (Lizzie Borden and John Hinckley), and the wildly unexpected. At the top of the heap in the Wildly Unexpected category is Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn was descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins — arguably the two most famous Pilgrims to step off the Mayflower — through their eldest daughter and first child, Elizabeth. Marilyn was a seven-times-great granddaughter of the Aldens. But she didn’t know it.
After dredging up this nugget, I checked the index of every biography of Marilyn I could lay my hands on, but didn’t find a single citation for her famous ancestors. It’s unfortunate, because this particular factoid would have delighted her husband Arthur Miller. Miller’s play, The Crucible, debuted in 1953 — three years before the couple married — and Marilyn’s descent from the Aldens would have thrilled the playwright, because another of Marilyn’s ancestors was John and Priscilla’s first-born son, John Alden, Jr., who was one of those accused of practicing witchcraft during the Salem witch hysteria of 1692. It would have given Miller a personal link to the witchcraft trials, even if it was only a link by marriage.
You’ll recall that in February 1692 about half a dozen girls and young women, ranging in age from 10 to 18, began denouncing their neighbors of being witches. Within a few months they were accusing people farther afield. One of those accused was John Alden, Jr. of Boston. Alden Jr. was a man who had no patience for foolery, so when he was summoned to before the judges in Salem, he entered the court with his hat on his head and his sword at his side. He was in a foul mood, and as one of the Salem girls shrieked, “There stands Alden! A bold fellow with his hat on before the judges. He sells powder and shot to the Indians and the French, and lives with Indian squaws and has Indian papooses!”
Alden’s bold address to the judges was a denunciation of his own — he called the hysterics, “Wenches… who played their juggling tricks. There is not a word of truth in all they say of me.” (Fortunately, the transcript of Alden’s examination has come down to us through court records and Alden’s own account of his experiences in Salem. All of this material is preserved at the Essex County Archives in Massachusetts.)
The girls couldn’t let Alden get away with that, so they exclaimed that Alden’s spirit pricked them with his sword. That was enough for the marshal. He arrested Alden, confiscated his sword, and marched him to the meetinghouse for further examination. So the spectators could have a clear view of the man accused of being a witch, Alden was forced to climb up on a chair. The afflicted girls had followed, and now whimpered that Alden’s spirit pinched them.
The judges ordered that Alden be held for trial, and as the marshals led him away, Alden denounced his accusers again, saying that the spirit that possessed them was “a lying spirit.”
Given his standing in the colony, Alden was not locked up in the Salem jail, but was sent back to Boston where he was placed under house arrest. Rather than being treated as a pariah, he was visited often by his friends, among them the Rev. Cotton Mather, an expert in witchcraft whose book, Memorable providences relating to witchcrafts and possessions, was considered the definitive work on the subject, and Judge Samuel Sewell, one of the magistrates who heard the cases in Salem and believed the girls were afflicted by witches. If Mather and Sewell were on Alden’s side, how could any judge condemn him?
On July 19, 1692, the saintly, 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse and four other women were hanged for witchcraft. If someone so innocent as Nurse had been convicted and executed, Alden’s life might truly be in danger. His friends and neighbors gathered in his house for a day of prayer and fasting. Several weeks after this appeal to heaven, Alden took matters into his own hands and escaped from Boston to Duxbury where he had friends. In the middle of the night he pounded on their door crying, “The devil is after me!”
His friends kept him hidden, and the witchcraft judges, who found their influence waning and an ever-growing number of colonists turning against them, made no attempt to track down Alden. Finally, Governor Williams Phips issued a public proclamation, clearing John Alden of the charge of witchcraft.
It’s a great story, and it’s a shame Marilyn never heard it. And it’s a shame that Arthur Miller, who certainly would have seen the Alden transcript while he was reading up the witchcraft trials, never knew that he had a personal connection to the understandably irascible “witch” from Boston.
And speaking of possession, what possessed the modeling agency to transform Marilyn into a Pilgrim bombshell?
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée.
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