A Colonial Boyhood



COME with me out of the subway station at Scollay Square. You will have been expecting to plunge at once into the bustle and hurly-burly of one of the busiest corners of Boston, a passing glance at Governor Winthrop’s statue your only tribute to old times. But we have been traveling not only under the streets of the city, but through two centuries and a quarter of time, and emerge to find ourselves on the outskirts of the seaport town which was colonial Boston, on the hillside road which in the old days skirted the foot of Cotton Hill. We are higher up in the world than we had expected to be, and the water of the Town Cove comes in nearly to the foot of the slope on which we stand. The more distant outlook is over the roofs of houses and masts of ships to the beautiful landlocked harbor and island-studded bay. In the other direction, where we had thought to see the massive pile of the new Court House, a steep, grassy knoll rises behind the scattered houses which, with their gardens, lie between it and the road. Let us enter the front gate of the nearest of these houses. An old gentlewoman and a child perhaps five years of age are walking in the “ south garden which lyeth under it.” They are none other than little Nathaniel Mather, Increase Mather’s second son, the subject of this sketch, and his grandmother, Mrs. Richard Mather, with whom he is spending the day.

At first sight the child looks, to our modern eyes, like a girl; for he wears a dress made with loose slashed sleeves and a skirt which reaches to his ankles, and on his head a handkerchief or cap tied under his chin. On his feet are clumsy little soft shoes, — like the moccasins which infants wear to-day, — square-toed and home-made, and thin enough to let in the August dew. He would seem a comical miniature edition of his grandmother, if it were not that she wears a white kerchief across her ample bosom and a steeple-crowned hat tied over her cap, and is in point of physique as buxom and substantial as he is frail and spiritlike. He has of late been “ twice ill of a fever and like to die,” and it is for his health and to relieve the tedium of his convalescence that the good lady entertains him.

I wish that I had skill to make them talk in the quaint language of the period. They have a basket between them, in which to gather fruit, and the grandam is telling her little charge that she picked the first apples that grew on that early tree, long ago, when grandfather Cotton lived there and was minister at the First Church. At this a puzzled expression comes over Nathaniel’s face. To his knowledge this is grandmother Mather. It is a riddle to him how she can also be grandmother Cotton, and his father’s stepmother and mother-in-law at the same time. However, he is content to accept the blessings which this concentrated essence of grandmotherhood brings to him, and gives himself up to the charm of the stories of old times which he knows she will tell him.

The house behind them is a large double structure, with diamond-paned windows on hinges, unpainted, and with two chimneys. John Hull, the mintmaster, lives in the south part. In the north part Increase Mather first kept house, and there his four older children, Cotton, Maria, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel, were born. Nathaniel was a baby when Madam Mather, after her husband’s death in Dorchester, came back to live in “ her house in Boston,” where she had long been John Cotton’s “ deare wife and comfortable yoke-fellow.”

On this summer’s day the situation of the old mansion is breezy and sightly, but for winter we can readily believe it was “ considerably distant from other building and very bleake.” John Hull describes it as “ greatly disadvantageous for trade; yet because I always desired a quiet life and not too much business, it was always best for me.” Grandmother Mather says that the south half of the house was built for Sir Harry Vane, the splendid young nobleman from England who was governor for one brief year. When he went away he deeded his part to uncle Seaborn, then a little fellow four years old ; and grandfather Cotton long after, respecting this whim of the young governor, confirmed the gift in his will.

Looking out over the bay, the old lady recalls the September day when the good ship Griffin came to anchor, with Cotton for the clothing, Hooker for the fishing, and Stone for the building of the colonists ; and though Nathaniel has heard that pleasantry before, they smile together over it anew. He likes particularly to have her tell him about his uncle Seaborn, a tiny baby born on the voyage ; what a welcome baby he was, and how, though there were so many ministers, and public worship was held no less than three times every day through the seven weeks’ voyage, they waited till they could take him to church to baptize him. Five other dear children were born to grandmother in Boston, in this house, two of whom died of smallpox, baby Roland and aunt Sarah ; and grandmother’s eyes fill as she tells Nathaniel that aunt Sarah’s last words were, “ Pray, my dear father, let me now go home.” Another little daughter, named Maria, who used to play and pick apples in this very garden, Nathaniel knows all about, being his own mother.

The two fill their basket from the early tree, inspect the ripening pears and small fruits, and gather sprigs of herbs. For almost every plant grandmother has some recollection. Many of them she herself set out. With this, for her, half-sad and half-pleasant occupation she mingles stories of grandfather Cotton, which Nathaniel has often heard before, but finds none the less entertaining on that account. She describes him as a short, fat man, with red cheeks, blue eyes, and, in his old age, snow-white hair. Of course he was a great student, an eminent preacher, and a pious, godly man, — all Nathaniel’s family seem to be that. He was fond of sweetening his mouth, he said, with a piece of Calvin before he went to sleep. But he was of a kind and gentle character, and knew wonderfully well how to keep his temper. A rude man, one day, following him home from church, told him that his ministry was become generally either dark or flat. “ Both, brother, it may be, both ; let me have your prayers that it may be otherwise,” he answered. Another saucy person, hearing him say that he wanted light on a certain subject, sent him a pound of candles, at which the good man only smiled. A company of drunken men were reeling along the street, and, seeing him walking on the other side, one of them said, “ I ’ll go and put a trick upon old Cotton.” Crossing the way, he whispered, “ Cotton, thou art an old fool.” “ I confess I am so,” said grandfather Cotton. “ The Lord make both me and thee wiser than we are, even wise unto salvation.” He was specially tender toward his children, and, ruling his own spirit, knew how to rule them. His Spiritual Milk for New England Babes was one of the few children’s books of the time. One point that Nathaniel thinks particularly interesting about this grandfather is that he was never long at family prayers.

Grandfather Mather was the minister at Dorchester, and was a tall, dark man, with a loud and big voice, and a very solemn and awful way of speaking and preaching. When he came over from England there was a terrible easterlystorm, so severe that on shore trees were torn up by the roots. The ship had lost three anchors and cables, and was being driven toward the rocks, and everybody on board had given up hope, when God guided them past the rocks, and the wind and sea abated. This makes grandmother think of far-away England when she was a girl, and where another husband (“ Then I had three grandfathers ! ” thinks Nathaniel) had died before ever she had known grandfather Cotton, — beautiful England, its peace and homelikeness all spoiled for true religionists by the wicked Archbishop Laud and King Charles ; at which Nathaniel feels like a little New England patriot and English rebel, and mightily relishes the cutting off of the king’s head.

Madam Mather and Nathaniel have by this time turned back toward the house, and are met by pretty Mistress Hannah Hull, the mintmaster’s only child, who asks them in to see her mother. Here we must leave them. If we should follow them inside, we should forget Nathaniel in the associations which the place suggests. John Cotton, Sir Harry Vane, John Hull, Hannah’s marriage in the old hall and her famous dowry, Samuel Sewall (he of the Diary and the Salem witchcraft),— all these have little to do with Nathaniel Mather, except that in the Diary which Mr. Sewall kept in this house we shall find a few references to Nathaniel’s later life.



Having ventured so far in the realm of the historic imagination, come with me yet farther, and take up Nathaniel’s acquaintance at a later period of his childhood. This time we fancy that he sits alone reading in his father’s study, and as he bends to his books, a small, quaint figure, clad in knee breeches, long stockings and buckled shoes, and a little coat with skirts, we will piece together his brief history.

The place in which we find him is one for strong impressions, — a goodly room, large and full of books ; not only the best library in Boston, but a literary workshop, and the sanctum of the most influential minister in New England; the spot, in a word, where Increase Mather writes and prays. That our boy is at ease here, and has chosen it as the place of places in which to spend a holiday afternoon, speaks volumes for his tastes and character.

If we look over his shoulder, we shall see that he is deep in a volume of church history, and his absorbed expression proclaims it to be the magic carpet on which he has been transported far away from North Street and seventeenth - century New England. Plainly, he belongs to the great fraternity of bookworms, of which all the Mathers were distinguished members. As we closely observe him, he appears too pale for modern taste in children ; the hands grasping the large folio look veined and thin, and his neck seems a slender column for the dome of his head. He has often been ill. Since we first saw him, a serious fall nearly deprived him of the use of his tongue, and in the great epidemic of 1678, when four of the Mather children had smallpox, he was one, though happily he was “ gently smitten.” We shrewdly guess that the study has also the attraction for him of being a safe retreat from the terrors and dangers of an uncongenial outside world. It is at the close of King Philip’s War: what must not Indians have meant of sleepless nights and terrified days to so delicate a boy ! Though good John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, may have often taken him on his knee and told him he should pray for Indians, he must also have seen Mrs. Rowlandson, and heard, perhaps from her own lips, the sorrowful story of her captivity. Her little daughter, who was taken captive with her, and whose pitiful death occurred soon after, had been Nathaniel’s own age. He is old enough to have shared from the beginning in the excitement and apprehension which the war aroused in Boston, and to have been an intelligent witness of the marching of the soldiers to the help of the distressed settlements on the frontier, the transportation of the praying Indians down the harbor to Deer Island, and his father’s searching sermons on the causes of the war, among which — periwigs! Nathaniel has also had personal experience with a perennial danger of wooden Boston, namely, fire. He was seven years old when the great fire occurred which nearly destroyed the North End, and we may believe that the impression long remained with him of awakening on that cloudy Monday morning in November, to be hurried, along with his sisters and two-year-old brother Sam, to a place of safety, perhaps up on Cotton Hill, whence they saw what must have seemed to them like the end of the world : fire and smoke, great flakes of blazing thatch and shingles floating over toward Charlestown, high-leaping flames and hurrying men, the multitude hastening to bring water from the reservoir in Dock Square, — fed, by the way, from grandmother Cotton’s and uncle Seaborn’s spring on Cotton Hill, — and the melancholy spectacle of women and children carrying such remnants of household goods as they were able to rescue from the flames, wet by the rain which early began to fall. Increase Mather’s house and church both perished, but the precious library and most of his household furniture were saved. Finally, the Devil was, in those days, a most real and tangible source of fear. The Devil is in the dark for Nathaniel ; thunder and lightning are to him the Devil’s instruments for destroying churches and ministers’ houses ; behind every evil, personal and public, lurks the Devil as a natural cause. Especially is the delusion of possession by the Devil taking fresh hold on men’s minds, and Nathaniel’s dreams must often have been horribly disturbed by the paraphernalia of witchcraft, — the old woman and the broomstick, the witch pins and evil eye, and the torments of the poor bewitched.

For these or similar reasons the adventurous spirit of normal boyhood may be lacking in our Nathaniel; but, occupied with his beloved books, amid the surroundings which breathe security and sympathy for him, he is the image of a thoughtful, high-bred child, happy in his lot. Though no portrait of him exists to warrant it, we fancy there were mingled in him the dark Celtic and blond German-English types which the Mathers and Cottons represented. From his mother, we like to think, are derived the sweetness of his expression, and a certain neatness and carefulness of appearance such as a devoted and capable mother like Maria Cotton could not have failed to impart. Of his father a biographer of Cotton Mather writes : “ His company was a school for his son; his example was an education ; his position was an inspiration; and his piety was an incentive to a holy life.” The love which Increase Mather’s sons felt for him is a pleasant witness to the softer side of that imperious genius’s true character.

Nathaniel has lingered long enough over his books. The door opens, and a handsome youth enters, wearing an unmistakable air of authority and self-confidence. It is Nathaniel’s brilliant elder brother, young Cotton Mather, just over from Cambridge. Although only seventeen, he has graduated from Harvard, and is now studying at the college for his second degree. He is also tutor to his brothers and sisters at home, and under his instructions Nathaniel will soon be ready for college. Abruptly he breaks the spell under which Nathaniel has been resting. Addressing him in Latin, he reproves him for moping over his books, and orders him out to play. Then, with a gentler impulse, he detains him to read to him a letter which he has received from London; and as he reads he halts a little in his speech, the only flaw in his precocious perfections. The letter is from a Nathaniel Mather in England, and reads as follows : —

“ DEAR COSING. I rejoyse exceedingly that your little scholar, Your Br. Nat. is of such promising hopes. I fear his entring the Colledge too soon and his too slightly grounding in the learned languages. Remember if hee bee therein defective, the blame will redound upon you. Let it bee your care also that he bee well studyed in Logick, that ὄργανoν ὀργάνων.”

Folding the letter thoughtfully, Cotton regards Nathaniel from the vantage of the hearthstone, and, resisting the impulse to improve the occasion as a spur to the already too studious boy, he again urges him to his recreations.



Once more we shake the kaleidoscope of fancy, and apply ourselves to a new combination of years and circumstances, in which Nathaniel appears as himself a Harvard student. In those good old days “ college ” was spelled with a d, which suggests the consideration that if Cotton and Nathaniel Mather did enter Harvard at twelve years of age, it was under certain ameliorating circumstances. The requirements for admission were as follows: “ When scholars had so far profited by the grammar schools that they could read any classical author into English, and readily make and speak true Latin, and write it in verse as well as prose, and perfectly decline the paradigms of nouns and verbs in the Greek tongue, they were judged capable of admission to Harvard-Colledge ” — with a d in it! That is to say, they must have a good working knowledge of Latin and the beginnings of Greek, and that was all. After entering college the way was equally plain. Little questioning for Nathaniel as to what he was going to be, or wondering what he should study. He was destined, as were most of his fellow students, to enter the ministry ; and his business was to learn how to preach, and to acquire the tools necessary for the ministerial profession, namely, Greek and Hebrew. He studied a little mathematics, and for his second degree learned chemistry and astronomy, and there was much practice in declamation and argument ; but his attention was chiefly given to the Bible in the original tongues, and we find him, soon after he entered college, going through the Old Testament in Hebrew, and the New in Greek.

Several considerations help us to revive the Harvard of that day : the youth of the students, the few numbers, — in Nathaniel’s class fourteen graduated, which means about sixty students, all told, — the smallness and meanness of the college buildings, and the situation in the country. It presents itself to our imagination like some solitary academy, strict in discipline, remote from town life, and enlivened by the antics of a handful of young boys. The students had to board in commons, keep study hours, and get permission for eating in public houses, spending money, and going home; the penalty for breaking the rules being whipping and fines.

In Nathaniel’s class were two cousins, Rowland Cotton and Wareham Mather. Wareham was from Northampton, and we may imagine that he had many an exciting Indian story to tell our townbred boy. Nathaniel was the youngest in his class, a slight-built, crop-haired boy, going bareheaded within the college bounds, clad in the academic robe of gingham, — with black for best, — and called “ Mather,” according to the college rule. “ The marks and works of a studious mind were to be discovered in him even as he walked the streets,” says his biographer, “ and his candle would burn after midnight, until, as his own phrase for it was, ‘ he thought his bones would fall asunder.’ ”

While he was in college Harvard Hall was finished, and we may believe that he had a room in it, a sanctum of his own ; bare and plain, no doubt, in its appointments, but where he studied and treasured the beginnings of his library. Of this library there are several mentions in his diary. March 13, 1682, when he was a sophomore and thirteen years old, he wrote, “ This day I received of my father that famous work, the Biblia Polyglotta, for which I desire to praise the name of God.” On June 29 — in Cambridge, and a few days before Commencement — he records, “ This day my brother gave me Schindler’s Lexicon, a book for which I had not only longed much but also prayed unto God, blessed be the Lord’s name for it! ” And again the next year, among causes for thankfulness he mentions the increase of his library. Many prayers left over to us from Nathaniel’s time sound insincere and forced, but this shy student praying for books is readily believed in.

Of his life outside his study, one of the daily events which we should have liked to witness would have been prayers. In summer, the boys, gathering in the college hall at five o’clock in the morning, had the company of the birds and were blessed with the freshness of the new day. In winter, to assemble at six, in the cold and dark, and by candlelight render a chapter in the Old Testament out of Hebrew into Greek, and listen to President Rogers’ long prayers, — he was a descendant of John Rogers, the martyr, and had a gift of continuance in prayer, — must have savored of hardship. On one such morning, Nathaniel shared the general astonishment occasioned by the reverend president’s coming to a close in half his usual time. The students were dismissed, to find the hand of God was in it. “ The scholars returning to their chambers found one of them on fire, and the fire had proceeded so far that if the devotions had held three minutes longer, the colledge had been irrecoverably laid in ashes, which now was happily preserved.” We may feel confident that President Rogers made up for his morning’s brevity when he returned thanks at prayers that night.

Early in his college course Nathaniel was much exercised on the subject of religion. Then began the entries in his diary which, morbidly introspective as they seem to us, were destined to make him a model of early piety in the eyes of his contemporaries. He kept days of secret fasting and prayer ; he made a list of his sins and his mercies, and, in the strange fashion of the day, kept, figuratively, digging himself up to see if he had grown in grace. When he was fourteen he drew up a formal covenant between God and his soul, duly dated, November 22, 1683, signed, and sealed ; so quaint, so formal, withal so naïve and simple, that we are in doubt whether to smile at it, or cast it aside in disgust, or blush at examining a document so intimate. Yet not all his college days were spent in study and the exercises of religion. Model as he was of piety and propriety, he had his period of backsliding. We have no clue as to what he did, much as we should like to know the spot in which temptation found him vulnerable ; but during his junior year, when he was fifteen, his brother says that he fell into “ some vanities,” though not into any “ scandalous immoralities.” He became familiar with “ some that were no better than they should be,” and grew cold in spiritual things. It was the turning point in his life. Whatever temptations he yielded to, he soon repented of them “ with sore terrors and horrors of his wounded soul,” and “ afterwards maintained a constant and an even walk with God until he died.” He had been a good boy up to this time from force of habit and physical weakness ; henceforward he was good from choice.

All the scenes in Nathaniel’s college life connected with his father we should be glad to recall. After being repeatedly urged to accept the presidency, and as many times refusing it on account of his unwillingness to leave his Boston church, Increase Mather became the honored president of Harvard in July, 1684.

Let us try to picture to ourselves Commencement Day of 1685, when Nathaniel graduated, and his father for the first time presided as actual head of the college. He had sat in the president’s chair before, but only pro tempore. It is Wednesday, the first day of July. Harvard Hall, in all its newness, standing end toward the street, is the college building we must keep in mind. Near it, in the college grounds, tents and awnings have been erected, and under these temporary shelters from the sun, as well as on the college steps and in its open windows, appear the guests of the day. Outside the yard, on the Common, the uninvited multitude celebrates in a fashion of its own, with side shows, wrestling matches, plenty to eat and drink, and a free fight in the afternoon. We shall confine ourselves to the more decorous side of the fence.

Whether the mothers and sisters of the graduates may be expected I do not know. It is certain that ten years before, when Samuel Sewall took his second degree, Hannah Hull was in the audience, and set her affection on him then and there. At all events, the leading men of Boston and the region round are all present, and for once prepared to enjoy themselves. It is an assembly, for the most part, of woolen coats and steeple hats, with a liberal sprinkling of the black garb and snowy bands of the ministers, and everywhere the robes and caps of the students. We recognize Mr. Samuel Sewall talking with a group of dignified-looking men near one of the tents. On the steps of Harvard Hall stands young Mr. Cotton Mather, in the sombre glory of ministerial habiliments. He is twenty-three years old, and two months since was ordained his father’s colleague at the North Church. Between them, they can carry on church, college, and colony. Just once we catch a glimpse of Nathaniel’s pale face. It is .a great day for him, and he nervously anticipates both failure and success in the ordeal before him. For three weeks he has been subject to examination, “ weeks of visitation,” so called, and to-day he is to “ entertain the auditory with a Hebrew oration on the academic affairs of the Jews.”

The crowd moves to the assembly room in Harvard Hall. On the platform the magistrates and ministers of the colony and officers of the college sit in dignified array. In the centre are Governor Bradstreet, “ an old man, quiet and grave, dressed in black silk, but not sumptuously,” and he on whom alone Nathaniel looks, his father, Increase Mather, the president of the college. He is forty-six years old, tall, dark, powerful, the embodiment of dignity and majesty, — a man of great parts intellectually, and of uncommon ability in persuading and influencing men. The boys at the college worship him, and Harvard has begun a new lease of life with his administration. The plain freemen in town meeting wept at his brave words of resistance to tyranny. Later, when he shall stand before King James, and King William and Queen Mary in England, he will get all that any man can get by way of favors to the colony in the new charter. No wonder that his sons love and honor him, and that Nathaniel, at the close of the day, full of Latin and Greek orations and declamations and Hebrew analysis, and answers and disputations in “ Logicall, Ethicall, and Metaphysicall ” questions, crowned by an address in Hebrew by the president himself in praise of academic studies, counts it a special privilege to receive his book of arts from such a father’s hands.



Nathaniel has come to the final period of his life. For the greater part of it, which comprised his residence at Cambridge, we must think of him as Sir Mather ; for so the students for the Master of Arts degree were entitled. A certain dignity as of an older student, separate from the undergraduates, accrues to him. He has more liberty, and is often at home, where he has become his younger brother Samuel’s tutor in Greek and Hebrew, as Cotton once was to him. For himself, says the Magnalia, “ the Hebrew tongue was become so familiar with him as if he had apprehended it should quickly become the only language which he should have occasion for.”

His attainments in preparation for his profession were the pride of his family and the wonder of his day. He fairly earned the encomium “ an hard student, a good scholar and a great Christian.” As precocious as his famous elder brother, like him graduating from Harvard at sixteen and proceeding Master of Arts at nineteen, he gave every promise of equaling, if not of surpassing him, as a preacher and scholar. To modern taste, he displays also a depth and fineness of character such as Cotton Mather never dreamed of. He was preëminently modest, — the one truly modest Mather, — no talker, and in appearance the retiring scholar. He had gentle and obliging manners, in his unobtrusive way being always more ready to do favors than to ask them. Everybody loved him, and those who knew him best loved him most. “ Our Nathaniel ” and “ deare Nathaniel ” they called him. Of his tastes and habits we get several glimpses in the extracts from his diary quoted in his biography. “ My study, my Paradice ! ” he exclaims, and he enumerates the “ pleasant enjoyments of this world” as “ liberty, library, study and relations.” " He considered that the whole creation was full of God, and that there was not a leaf of grass in the field which might not make an observer to be sensible of the Lord.” “ While others,” says his brother, “ can sleep in prayer, he sometimes would pray in sleep.” Assaulted by temptations in his sleep, he dispelled them, also in sleep, by praying. That he realized that his way of life was unnatural seems apparent from the passage in his diary where he speaks of “ the many wearisome hours, days, months, nay, years that I have spent in humane literature,” and “ my many toilsome studies in those hours when the general silence of every house in town proclaimed it high time for me to put a stop unto my working mind, and urged me to afford some rest unto my eyes which have been almost put out by my intenseness on my studies.” Another passage has touches of nature in it which we could ill spare : “ Jan. 8 A. M. Being about to rise, I felt the cold in a manner extraordinary; which inclin’d me to seek more warmth in bed before I rose ; but so extream was the cold that this was not feasible ; wherefore I resolved to dress myself without any more ado ; and so going to the fire in my cloaths, I soon became warm enough.” We can fancy how cold it was that January morning, and we like Nathaniel none the less for learning that for once he was tempted to lie abed. Another bit, shorn of the forced moralizing in which it is imbedded, is delightful: “ Being very young, I was whittling on the Sabbathday ; and for fear of being seen, I did it behind the door.” With unconscious humor, he mentions as the mercy to be recorded under date of 1669, the year he was born, that God then gave him a godly father and mother.

Of a different nature — in Cotton Mather’s, not Nathaniel’s taste, we believe, and on the former’s authority, not in Nathaniel’s diary — is the assurance that Nathaniel prayed three times a day, “nor did he slubber over his prayers with hasty amputations.” It is also with an ideal of excellence far different from our own that we are told that he was “ an old man without grey hairs upon him,” and learn of

“ His rare devotion, such now seen,
A sign of ninety at nineteen.”

Of external interests and excitements the last year of Nathaniel’s life was full. Sir Edmund Andros was in Boston, and all that New England stood for by way of religious and political liberty was in jeopardy. Nathaniel must have seen the Episcopal service set up in the First Church. Increase Mather was the leader of the Puritan party, and under his roof every encroachment of tyranny was no doubt watched and jealously discussed. Where was Nathaniel on that night in April, 1688, when Dr. Mather got secretly off for England, bound on his mission to the court in behalf of the charter ? We can hardly underestimate the anxiety with which the family connived at their father’s concealment at Mr. Phillips’s house in Charlestown, — Mr. Phillips was Cotton Mather’s father-inlaw, — and waited for news of the safe arrival at the ship of the boat which took him down the harbor. Young Samuel Mather, Nathaniel’s pupil, went with his father to England. How he got off, also in secret, is an episode left entirely to our imagination. Did any of them feel, in those hurried good-bys, that Nathaniel must soon set out on his own long journey, without his father’s presence and sustaining help ?

Another episode full of color in the summer of 1688 was the return to Boston of Sir William Phips, New England’s first self-made man. The Mathers had always known him, and watched his career from an unlettered ship carpenter up to this brilliant culmination, the successful finder of Spanish treasure, rich, respected, and honored by the king with knighthood. What a story Nathaniel must have heard from Sir William’s lips, when he came to pay his respects to Mrs. Mather and Mr. Cotton Mather ! And the 44 fair brick house in the Green Lane ” so long promised to Sir William’s lady, — Nathaniel was very likely a witness to the laying of its foundations.

At Commencement, about the time of his nineteenth birthday, Nathaniel took his degree of Master of Arts. He had long been ailing. Ever since his graduation, three years before, 44 his neglect of moderate exercise, joyned with his excess of immoderate lucubration,” occasioned in him many 44 pains and ails, especially in some of his joynts.” The same causes made him subject to melancholy. In August he went to Dr. Swinerton’s, at Salem, for treatment, the general 44 ill-habit of his body ” having resulted in a tumor in his thigh. His sad eyes saw the marshes and Nahant and the blue ocean, with Egg Rock in the distance, just as they are to-day, though it was a journey through the country then, past scattering farmhouses ; not, as now, in the midst of towns and cities which almost meet in their excess of population.

On August 14, 1688, he writes as follows to his brother : 44I came to Dr. Swinerton’s on Wednesday Last, which was Lecture Day. After Lecture I dined at Mr. Noyce’s. On Thursday I went to Mr. Mould’s and do go every day to him to dress my hip.” Letters follow, asking for books to be sent to him, with familiar directions as to where they may be found, as 44 on my table ” or 44 my father’s table.”

In his going to and fro among his father’s friends in Salem, we wonder if he caught hints of the tragedy so soon to be enacted there. The Swinertons had nothing to do with witchcraft, but already feeling had begun to run high on the subject, and at Mr. Noyce’s, who was teacher at the church in Salem, it must have been much discussed. In Boston, in this very year, Cotton Mather had the bewitched Goodwin children at his house, and successfully drove the Devil out of them, he believed, by fasting and prayer.

In September “ there was an incision, with mature advice, made into the tumour ; ” but blood poisoning followed, and on the 17th of October Heaven, in the phrase of the Magnalia, gave Nathaniel his third degree. In those soft autumn days, while, with fever-bright eyes, he was looking his last on earth, many were the visitors who hung over his couch to catch the influence of his passing spirit. One of his sisters was there, and perhaps his mother. Judge Sewall called on him on September 25. The two ministers of Salem came every day. His brother Cotton was with him at the end. All were watching for some expression of his religious state. He, poor boy, was meanwhile tormented by horrible conceptions of God, even blasphemous suggestions about God “ buzzing about his mind,” an affliction to which his papers afterwards proved him to have been often subject. After this ceased, he was still true to his natural modesty and reticence, and would say nothing to edification. When the ministers talked with him, he answered in Latin if any one else was by. Crumbs of comfort, merely, to his pious friends were his request, on his last night, that his watcher would read the song of Simeon to him, and his words in the morning, which, however, he refused to enlarge upon, “I have now been with Jesus.” Just before his death, which occurred about one of the clock in the afternoon, when asked if he found comfort, he whispered, “ I endeavor to those things which will issue in comfort,” and so died.

“ Thus he went away,” says his biographer in a characteristic passage, “ to the heavenly society, where he is beholding the ‘ face of God in righteousness 5 and solacing himself in the company not only of his blessed grandfathers and uncles, and all the ‘ spirits of the just,’ but of the amiable Jesus himself which is by ‘far the best of all.’ ”

They buried him in Salem, in the Charter Street burying ground.

“ A Spanish wrack hath not more silver than the grave of such a young man hath learning buried in it,” sighed Cotton Mather.

“ Deare Nathaniel is better of it than any of us. — Sir, be not discoraged,” wrote John Phillips to Increase Mather.

“ Whom the gods love die young,” quoted little brother Samuel in Greek.

The loss to the church of God, — that was the note of mourning universally struck. That it was not all loss witness this little picture out of Cotton Mather’s diary, nine years later : “ While I was at Salem I retired unto the burying place and at the grave of my dear younger brother there, I could not but fall down on my knees before the Lord, with praises to his name, for granting the life of my dead brother to be writ and spread and read among his people and be very serviceable.”

We too may stand beside Nathaniel’s grave, in the old cemetery, full of Salem’s earliest worthies. It is beside Dr. John Swinerton’s and that of Hannah his wife, and its memorial, after these two centuries, reads plain and clear : —


Over it hovers, as ever out of the quaint pages of the Magnalia, the figure of a young scholar ; not known to fame, like Cotton Mather, nor monarch of all he surveyed, like Increase Mather, but in whom intellectual power was united with graces of character which made him the best loved Mather of them all.

Kate M. Cone.