The Legend of Handkerchief Moody


By Gail M. Potter


From Mysterious New England, Yankee Books, 1971



Was he demented? Had he been scarred by an accident? Were his eyes overly sensitive? One of these, his parishioners reasoned, must be why the Rev. Dr. Joseph Moody of York, Maine always appeared with a face covering. Finally, the secret was revealed . . . 



In the 18th century, most Yankee congregations had inured themselves to the awesome sight of the ponderous powdered wigs that framed the stem Sabbath visages of their clerics. But the good folk of the Second Church of York, Maine, possessed a parson whose weird headgear caused him to go reverberating down in the annals of New England history, folklore, and legend as "Handkerchief Moody."


Joseph Moody had not always worn the black crepe veil knotted above his forehead and hanging down below his chin. For fourteen years after his graduation at Harvard, he was quite content with and competent in successive positions as Clerk of the Town of York, Registrar of Deeds for the county, and Judge of the County Court. However, his father thought he ought to preach, and he thought his father knew best. Chiefly through his father's influence, a second parish was incorporated in 1730. In 1732, Joseph hesitantly accepted the charge and was ordained its pastor.


For six years he got along tolerably well with the saving of souls, while his wife took charge of temporal things. But when she died, the care of two worlds proved too much for him, and he fell into a state of deep melancholy. In this clouded condition, his once brilliant mind developed a pronounced phobia: no one must see his face. And so he presented himself to his congregation with his features masked in a black silk handkerchief. For weeks, wonder, speculation, and rumor churned with whirlwind intensity through the village. Was he demented? His sermons were too logical for that. Had he been scarred by an accident? If so, no chirurgeon knew of it. Had his eyes been weakened by working far into the night on his sermons? With no other plausible explanation, his parishioners convinced themselves that this was the true one.


While he was as often besought for funerals as he had previously been, the veiled parson's services became less in demand for weddings, christenings, and socials. The timid people turned out of their way to avoid him; the bolder were often flippant or impertinent on the road. So Joseph Moody curtailed his daytime walks, limiting his strolls to the protecting anonymity of night. Then, without the fear of embarrassing encounters, he prowled peacefully through the seclusion of the churchyard or wandered unchallenged along the deserted shore. Little by little he abandoned his public labors, refusing to officiate at public gatherings except in cases of unusual urgency. More and more often he sought the sheltering safety of his own chamber. Only on rare occasions, when bounden duty demanded it, did he leave his sanctuary and partake of a meal with others. He was soon relieved of even this obligation. For nothing cast a quicker and more efficient pall over the gayest of village affairs than the sight of a black-clad figure, crouched alone at a small side table with its face turned to the wall.


The confused, equivocal, and tortuous groping of his unsteady mind at this time may be inferred by an extract from his diary: "This day, while engaged in prayer, I thought of a way to fasten my study door, and afterwards found a better." Before long, the Reverend Mr. Moody abandoned entirely his feeble attempts at preaching, parceled his children out among relatives, and, relieved of all responsibility, went to live with the family of Deacon Bragdon.


By 1745, he had so well recovered from his mental depression that his 70-year-old father, old Sam Moody, tore off with the younger lads of York to the siege of Louisburg. Into the hands of his son, Samuel committed the care of his congregation and the delivery of the Sabbath sermon.


Joseph supplied his father's pulpit in his own peculiar way. Turning his back to the people, he lifted his veil and read distinctly and audibly a written sermon. But when he faced the congregation for prayer and the benediction, the black handkerchief, fluttering with the rhythm of his breath, muffled and obscured his words. Along with the genes of eccentricity, the Reverend Joseph inherited his father's remarkable gift of oral supplication. His memorable "long prayer" from the pulpit of York's First Church during the Louisburg campaign has been cited as more than mere coincidence.


Frequent communications from Cape Breton conveyed the disheartening news that the fortress was still untaken. Therefore, June 17 was appointed as a day of fasting and prayer in York, and the neighboring ministers invited to attend. In the course of the service, Joseph Moody offered the prayer, and a very lengthy one it was.


He first used all manner of arguments, suggested several compromises, and uttered fervent pleas that the Lord would give the place into the hands of the English Protestants, thereby cutting off "this limb of Anti-Christ." Suddenly he ceased his entreaties. Then, scarcely pausing for breath, he began to give thanks that the citadel was at last ours and to praise God at great length for His unmerited mercy. He closed his devotions with the words: "Lord, we are no better than those that possessed the land before us; and it would be righteous if the land should spew out its inhabitants a second time."


When the forces returned from the expedition, and compared dates, it was found that the capitulation was closed on the very day of the fast and, as near as could be ascertained, at the very hour when Mr. Moody was presenting his petitions to heaven. Two years later, when peace was settled between the two countries, Louisburg was restored to France, and its inhabitants spewed out a second time when the English troops withdrew from the garrison. Death called unexpectedly for Mr. Moody in 1753. Joseph had pushed back from the deacon's dinner table and repaired to his room in exceptionally good spirits. In his exuberance, he began to hum, and then to sing aloud one of Watts' hymns in which occurs the lines:


Oh for an overcoming faith

To cheer my dying hours.


All afternoon long he caroled lustily, refusing to take time from his songfest to join the family at supper. The next morning he was found dead in his bed.


Years later, an old friend said in retrospect, "It is my opinion that, if he had been let alone to follow his own course in society, without preaching, he would have done more good in the world. He could have brought up his children himself, instead of leaving them to the care of others, would have had more real enjoyment, and perhaps saved himself the trouble of wearing his handkerchief so long."


But by then, legend had taken over and ascribed another reason for the minister's idiosyncrasies and his doleful departure from the realities of this life.


Feeling that his hour had come, Mr. Moody sent for a fellow clergyman to soothe his dying moments, commend his soul to mercy, and hear his confession. "Brother," he said, "the veil of eternal darkness is falling over my eyes. Men have asked me why I wear this piece of crepe about my face, and I have borne the reason so long within me that only now have I resolved to tell it."


Long ago, Joseph revealed, he had inadvertently killed his best friend while on a hunting trip. Dreading the blame of his townsmen, the anguish of the dead youth's parents, and the scorn of his betrothed, the minister concealed his guilt. The town believed that the killing was a murder, the act of some roving Indian. But for years the face of his dead friend rose accusingly before him.

In desperation, and determined to pay a penalty for concealing his sin, Joseph finally resolved that never again would he look his fellowmen openly in the face. "Then it was," he whispered, "that I put a veil between myself and the world."


As he had requested, "Handkerchief Moody's" black crepe hid his face in the coffin. But the clergyman who had raised it for a moment to compose his features found there a serenity and a beauty that were majestic.

Note: I include the illustration above only because it accompanied the original Yankee Magazine text. Moody died in 1753; the man in the image is wearing mid-to-late 19th century clothing... - Wes