In May 1629, a handful of Englishmen living in Mount Wollaston (now Quincy) gathered to celebrate the arrival of spring in a fashion popular among folks in rural European communities but frowned upon by political and ecclesiastical authorities.
Those in attendance had settled at Mount Wollaston under the leadership of Thomas Morton, a renegade who had little respect for authority and was a professed atheist. Morton had renamed Mount Wollaston “Merry Mount” and proclaimed himself the community’s “Lord of Mis-rule.”
In the best pagan tradition, Morton’s followers had erected a celebratory maypole and laid in a plentiful supply of liquor and food. Native Americans living nearby, especially women, were invited to the festivities.
The lively event was not envisioned as a brief celebration. The merrymaking would go for days or until the food or drink was gone. No behavior was considered out-of-bounds.
Eventually, news of the goings-on at Mount Wollaston reached the ears of Massachusetts Gov. John Endicott, then in residence at Salem. Endicott was none too pleased to learn that a “dissolute, lawless settlement” was operating within his jurisdiction, and for Morton, that would be very bad news indeed.
Endicott was a man of action and had the authority from his employers in England to impose their will on all persons living within in the boundaries of the new colony. The phrases that Essex County historian Sidney Perley used in describing John Endicott in his “History of Salem, Mass.” are telling. The governor, Perley wrote, “ruled with a determined hand, sometimes with violence,” was “quick to assert and ready to maintain,” “firm and unyielding,” and comfortable with “crushing insubordination.”
With a small group of well-armed men, the governor traveled by boat to Mount Wollaston. The confrontation with Morton and his merrymaking followers was brief and one-sided. By the time Endicott set out for home, the Maypole had been destroyed, the celebrants “rebuked” and threatened. The “licentious,” “profane” Morton, the Lord of Mis-rule, was banished from the colony. Morton would go on to cause further trouble elsewhere, but was a non-factor in Massachusetts.
The story of this episode in Massachusetts history captured the imagination of the Salem author Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his short tale, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Hawthorne recounts the events at Mount Wollaston while adding a fictional love story for effect.
The author’s description of the May gathering, he wrote in a brief preface, was “in accordance with the manners of the age” when such pagan gatherings were common in England and throughout Europe. In attendance at Hawthorne’s Merry Mount were frolickers dressed as wolves, bears, stags and a “bearded he-goat.” Many others wore fools-caps and had bells attached to their garments that tinkled gaily as they moved to the music provided by roaming minstrels.
A planned highlight of the bacchanal was the wedding of a young couple, gaily dressed and madly in love.
But the event, even as it was to climax with the union of the young “king and queen” of the May, is disrupted by the arrival of Endicott and his men, representatives, says the author, of “a settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches who said their prayers before daylight” and met in enclaves not to celebrate but to “hear sermons three hours long, or to proclaim bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians.”
As he had done in real life, Endicott has the offensive maypole hacked to pieces. He will soon regret having done so, realizing it would have served wonderfully as whipping post.
The governor’s attention then turns to the forlorn — and terrified — bride and groom whose nuptials have been so rudely interrupted. In a show of mutual love, each of them begs that all punishment, even if it be death, be given to him or her alone so that the partner would be spared.
Stirred by this show of genuine gallantry, the hardhearted Endicott goes easy on the young couple. More appropriate clothing is sought for both, and the young man’s inappropriately long hair is cropped in the acceptable “pumpkin-shell fashion.” Then Endicott, the “severest Puritan of all,” throws a wreath or garland of roses torn from the maypole over the couple’s heads.
The couple never returned to Merry Mount. “But as the flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.”
Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.