Web Exclusive – March 29, 2011
Behind the Book: Searching for a giant in the family tree
One of the benefits of writing a novel based on a well-documented historical figure is the wealth of material available to help with character development. My first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter [read our review], was based on Martha Carrier, my grandmother back nine generations—an accused witch hanged in 1692 who Cotton Mather referred to as The Queen of Hell—and the stories my family had been passing down for 300 years.
There were court transcripts, depositions, arrest warrants and contemporary essays detailing some of Martha’s deeds (or misdeeds in the eyes of her accusers) chronicled by the magistrates, neighbors and family who knew her, all of which I was able to use in creating the narrative.
It was quite a different experience developing the character of Thomas Carrier, Martha’s husband, for my second novel, The Wolves of Andover. In Massachusetts there were only a few tax records that I could find, and a petition by him following the witch trials that he be compensated for his wife’s unjust death. And yet, Thomas was a man who Carrier family legend claimed had lived to 109 years of age, was seven feet tall, and was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. I had grown up hearing stories of Thomas from my grandparents, but I had assumed for a long time that these tales were like the proverbial fish stories: stories that had grown in size over time.
While researching The Wolves of Andover, I was able to substantiate his age and height. The New England Journal of 1735 reported that Thomas, at that time living in Colchester, Connecticut, had died at age 109; was over seven feet tall with a full head of hair; and had walked several miles with a bag of grain over his back a few days before his death. The Journal reported that he was still, at that advanced age, “fleet of foot.” When I travelled to Connecticut to visit his gravesite, I marveled at the numbers carved into the headstone: AE 109 Yrs. According to the local stories, two coffins had to be fitted together to bury him.
Proof of his being one of the two executioners of King Charles I may never be substantiated. It is widely believed that the official executioner at the time refused absolutely to cut off the head of an anointed king, and that Cromwell at the last minute had to find two willing axmen. This story, in the form of local gossip, seemed to follow Thomas throughout his life, both in Massachusetts and Connecticut. According to a Connecticut historian I spoke to while doing research, Thomas even gained a reputation in Colchester as a ferocious Indian fighter, continuing to protect the homes he had built for himself and family well past 70 years of age.
In the past few years I have spoken to fellow descendents, from different branches of the Carrier line, who heard the same stories I was told, not only of Martha and the witch trials, but of Thomas, who was the giant who killed a king.
Here’s what I was able to establish through research: He never abandoned his family during the witch trials and helped rally his neighbors to raise funds to free some of the children accused of witchcraft from prison. He kept his farm going in Andover until 1711, when he was compensated by the Crown for his wife’s death, and then he left for Colchester, with all his surviving children and grandchildren. There he built three homes and a blacksmith forge, and the bag of grain he was carrying the few days before he died was for an ailing widower in the neighboring town of Glastonbury.
Sometimes, though, it’s what is not in the historical records that gives an intriguing glimpse at a character’s inner life or purpose. Thomas, who was 48 years old when he married Martha, never married again after her death—a highly unusual and even scandalous position for a single male in Puritan society. As the writer of the story, I got to make the call as to his reasons for never again taking a wife. I believe it was because Martha Carrier, his wife, was a remarkable woman, a woman he stood by no matter what, a woman whom he appreciated for her independent nature, with whom he was able to share his darkest secrets, a woman who was irreplaceable. As much fun as it was to write a story about Thomas’ adventures in England and the mystery surrounding his work for Cromwell, it was even more satisfying to pay homage to the love story of these two remarkable people.
Kathleen Kent is a New England writer with a fascinating family tree. The Wolves of Andover is her second novel, and a prequel to her best-selling debut, The Heretic’s Daughter.