The Reverend John Smeet, with his strangler’s hands and his Geneva gown, walked as daintily as he had to the gallows. The red print of the rope was still around his neck, but he carried a perfumed handkerchief in one hand.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the second in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty.
The Reverend John Smeet long puzzled literary analysts of The Devil and Daniel Webster. No record could be uncovered as to his existence. Scholarly debate raged as to whether Benet had been referring to other historical personages. The mystery was not cleared up until 1960 when his widow, Rosemary Benet, wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review in which she stated that Smeet was an imaginary character that her late husband simply inserted into the work. This was not unusual for Benet. He had invented a character called John Cotton, and even written a brief bio of him. I will now do the same for the Reverend Smeet.
The people of Boston mostly adored their new young minister, John Smeet. Immigrating from England in 1660, he had been a soldier under the Commonwealth before hearing the call of the pulpit. Rather than endure the immorality of the reign of the Merrie Monarch, Charles II, he entered into a new life across the Atlantic in Boston. He was noted for his fiery sermons, and for his personal kindness and affability outside of the pulpit. Many a young maiden in his congregation dreamed that she would go through life by the side of the handsome minister as Mrs. Smeet. Some of his male parishioners privately thought that some of his mannerisms, including a perfumed handkerchief, were effeminate, but they mostly attributed these to his upbringing in an aristocratic family in England. When a rash of murders struck Boston, the victims invariably being young women who were strangled, the Reverend Smeet stepped forward and helped organize a night watch, to try to catch the culprit committing these fiendish crimes.
After five women had perished, the villain made the mistake of attempting to strangle Patience Embers, an unusually beautiful but also unusually strong maid. Her resistance and cries alerted a member of the newly formed night watch who came to her rescue. He pulled the hooded figure away from her and was duly shocked when the hood was lifted from the culprit’s head and the Reverend Smeet was revealed. At his trial Smeet said that he had fought against the murderous impulses that beset him since he was a young man but to no avail. He realized now that he had been predestined before time began to commit the murders and to be damned for them for all eternity. He made the statement with no emotion but rather as a man would who had suddenly realized the solution to a mathematical equation that had long perplexed him. Prior to his execution on May 27, 1664, he preached a sermon on the gallows that many of the hundreds of observers proclaimed as eloquent in its testimony to the omniscience of God and the depravity of Man.