The story of the Rev. Joseph Moody, who preached with a handkerchief over his face, was too good for Nathaniel Hawthorne to pass up.
The legend of the Puritan preacher in colonial Maine was passed down for generations, and Hawthorne got wind of it. He wrote a fictional short story about Moody called The Minister’s Black Veil..
But Joseph Moody kept the story of his own life in a diary written in coded Latin.
The real Joseph Moody was born in 1700 in York, Maine, graduated from Harvard in 1718 and died in 1753.
As the minister of the Second Church of York, he was greatly esteemed, according to an epitaph. He was also
...an excelling instance of knowledge, ingenuity, learning, piety, virtue and usefulness, was very serviceable as a school master, clerk, register, magistrate and afterwards as a minister was uncommonly qualified and spirited to do good
Joseph Moody was the son of Parson Samuel Moody, a longwinded, eccentric and irritable minister. Parson Moody served as chaplain to Sir William Pepperell’s regiment during the siege of Louisbourg in 1745.
There are several stories about when – and why – Joseph Moody wore the handkerchief over his face, as well as its color.
According to one version, he was happy for 14 years as schoolmaster, York’s registrar of deeds, county clerk and judge. But his father thought he should preach, and prevailed upon the town to incorporate a second parish in York.
Preaching didn’t suit Joseph Moody. He sank into melancholy, his mind became disordered and he started wearing the black handkerchief knotted above his forehead and hanging below his chin. . As townspeople began to shun him, he became more of a recluse, wandering the churchyard at night.
According to another version, Joseph Moody was disappointed when his cousin Mary Hirst wouldn’t marry him. He grew increasingly eccentric, finally donning the black silk handkerchief. According to a third story, he killed a friend in a hunting accident and wore the handkerchief ever after. His father made him stay up all night with the body of his friend as atonement.
The Real Joseph Moody
Richard Bowen, a program specialist at the Museums of Old York, offered a fourth – and more plausible – explanation: Joseph Moody was vulnerable to depression and guilt. After years of overwork, he suffered a mental and physical breakdown when his wife and infant daughter died in childbirth.
Only during that period did he wear a white handkerchief over his face. He recovered, and his parishioners welcomed him back. He went on to become the esteemed minister described in his epitaph.
When Joseph Moody turned 20 years old, he began to keep a diary, in code and in Latin. The book was tiny, about five inches long by three inches wide. (You can read excerpts from it here.)
His diary, later deciphered, records life on the Maine frontier. It contains news of conflicts with Indians, of pirates and of dangerous voyages by boat to Marblehead, Gloucester and Newbury in Massachusetts.
On May 25, 1723, for example, he wrote,
Tis said that Sergeant Card was beset by two Indians about 9 or 10 o'clock last night near Capt Harmon's barn one of which fired on him and pierced the breast of his Jacket we scarce know what to think of so strange a story.
On April 5, 1724, he reported:
Several vessels lately taken by Nutt ye Pirate and kindly treated.
Joshua Elwells was taken from him.
Joseph Moody also seemed preoccupied with death, often recording only that someone had died – even as far away as Boston.
Joseph Moody died in 1753 at the age of 52. People said he sang hymns in his room during his last hours. Today, you can find his tombstone at the old Second Parish Burying Ground on Route 91 in York. It reads:
Although this stone may moulder into dust,
Yet Joseph Moody's name continue must.
This story was updated in 2018.