Almost Famous – Pain, Prynne, and Slate

I wanted to follow up my discussion of slate on Mt. Snowdon by focusing on slate in America. If you had been born a hundred years ago, you would have rarely spent a day of your life without seeing slate. Here is a short list of slate products: laundry tub, fireplace mantel, counter top, hitching post, curb, sidewalk, steps, electrical panels, pool table, blackboard, urinal, and roofing. But its most famous early use was for tombstones.

Elizabeth Pain’s tombstone. Photo by Adam Shyevitch

King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston was one of the first to contain slate grave markers. Few are more infamous than the one that marks the grave of Elizabeth Pain. It is a classic three-lobed tombstone. Carved into the central panel is a winged skull, or death’s head, with perfect teeth, as if death had seen an orthodontist. Atop the grinning skull flies a winged hour-glass, about half the height of the skull. A rosette and garlands that resemble abstract owls run down the outside quarters of the panel below the lobed shoulders.

The facts dominate the smooth center of the stone. Elizabeth Pain, wife of Samuel, died November 26, 1704, age near 52. The words appear next to a heraldic shield, or escutcheon, bearing two lions, and several one-inch wide lines, which link together in a resemblance to the letter A.

Pain’s tomb derives its notoriety because of the final lines of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance tale of morality in Puritan Boston, The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote: “In that burial ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built…[O]n this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: — ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Do those linked lines on Pain’s tombstone form the famed scarlet (Gules means red) letter A on its sable background? Was Pain the model for Hawthorne’s adulteress Hester Prynne? Did Pain’s gravestone seed Hawthorne’s imagination? Many people have raised these questions. The facts are few, the speculations many.

Thompkins Harrison Matteson’s famous oil of The Scarlet Letter, 1860.

Hawthorne lived in Boston twice. The first time he lasted six months as editor of American Magazine. He returned almost three years later, in March 1839, and stayed until November 1840. Scholars know that during his time as editor, Hawthorne often visited the Boston Athenaeum, a famed library originally located next door to King’s Chapel Burying Ground. A vigilant researcher and active explorer of Boston, he more than likely walked through the graveyard and saw Pain’s gravestone. Adding a bit of spice to the story, Pain did go to trial, not for adultery, but for murdering her child. She was found not guilty, but still was whipped 20 times.

Many guidebooks and web sites report that there is no doubt that either Pain or her gravestone inspired Hawthorne, but no one knows for sure. Although Hawthorne did base many characters in The Scarlet Letter on real people, no direct, unequivocal evidence links Pain and Prynne. Whether Pain inspired Hawthorne is not critical. I am simply happy to have people go look more carefully at slate. And by the way, it’s also worth reading the book.

Slow Stone on Snowdon

Michael Welland of Through the Sandglass recently sent me this odd story about slate. A new visitor center has been atop Mount Snowdon, the tallest peak in Wales, at 1,085 meters. Judging from the photos in the article and accompanying web-based slide show, the building is quite handsome. It also replaces what that famed wordsmith Prince Charles called “the highest slum in Wales.” But what is more important is that in one of the world’s most famous regions for slate, the architect decided to use slate as a building material.

Photo of Hafod Eryri, the Welsh name for the building, from Snowdon Summit Blog

Slate quarrying was long Wales’ claim to fame and one of the most important industries in the country. Welsh slate was shipped around the world for use as gravestones, school slates, and most famously, for roofing. The men of the Welsh slate industry also traveled far. Poor working conditions, poor pay, strikes, and food shortages led to an exodus of Welsh workers to America in the 1840s. Their arrival jump started the nascent American slate industry and within a handful of years, slate from Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and Maine became the plastic of its day, a nearly ubiquitous material in the building trade.

Oddly, however, instead of using the 400-million-year old slate found on the sides of Snowdon, builders of the new structure imported their slate from Portugal. (Local granite, however, does clad the building.) I am sure that money was an issue but it seems odd to me that it wasn’t possible to find enough local slate to cover the roof of the building. Couldn’t the builders have simply gone around to abandoned quarries and just picked up some left over blocks of slate and made new roofing?

Stone has long been sent willy-nilly around the globe and as someone obsessed with seeing the wonderful stone used in the building trade, I shouldn’t complain, but sometimes I wonder if someone shouldn’t start a local stone movement, at least in a place such as Wales, where slate defined the country for centuries. I can see the taglines now: “Prevent the Reuniting of Gondwanaland; Don’t Ship Stone.” “Support Slow Stone; Use Only Regional Rock.” Okay, maybe I am living in a dream but I do think that in this world where we are trying to be more environmentally hip, that people should consider the global footprint of the stone they use. It can’t hurt to try.