You just read his name and images of bats, Poe, poison, and sinister mustaches just flashed through your brain uninvited, didn’t they? I know. Same here.
Contrasting with the dark cinematic world he inhabited, in reality he was intelligent, cultured, a loving dad, an art collector and foodie. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of the hero of the story, yet he loved playing the villain. His film debut was in 1938 and by his third film, 1939’s Tower of London, he was already dipping his toe into the horror genre, for which he would be best known. He rarely played a true hero. Even his protagonists often had a bit of gritty complexity or darkness to them, just as his villains were also not one sided.
Could there be a genetic reason why this tall drink of water and leading man prototype would be drawn to tales of darkness and woe? Perhaps…
Vincent Price’s parents were Vincent Leonard Price and Marguerite Cobb Wilcox, both people who had illustrious lineages bursting with prominent historical American and English figures. I had recently discovered my 9th great grandparents included in a book listing the Emperor Charlemagne’s descendants (he ended up being my 39th great grandfather). I have always been interested in English royalty and I dove in to discovering all about this side. In the midst of doing so, I stumbled across a connection with Vincent Price through one of his mother’s lines. It turns out that we share a few great grandparents: King Edward I of England (my 24th great grandfather and his 20th); Eleanor of Castile, Queen Consort of England (my 25th great grandmother and his 20th); and Elizabeth de Badlesmere, Countess of Northampton (my 23rd great grandmother and his 18th) among them. We are cousins several times over, but the closest connection I could find make us 19th cousins 4 times removed. This rather large and intricate side of the family has known its share of drama.
King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile’s daughter Elizabeth married Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford (Prices’s 19th great grandparents). In the Battle of Boroughbridge, de Bohun was killed rather horrifically, according to historian Ian Mortimer , by a pike through the anus into his intestines. His grandson (Price’s 17th great grandfather) Richard FitzAlan, 11th Earl of Arundel, also met a unpleasant end. FitzAlan was a friend of King Richard II’s uncle Thomas of Gloucester, an imposing presence who sought to influence the king, including convincing him to promote himself and FitzAlan to the king’s council. After coming into his own, the king dismissed his uncle and FitzAlan and replaced them with his own crew of bffs, a move that did not go over so well with Gloucester and FitzAlan. In retaliation they took their replacements prisoner, a bold and ultimately unwise move that the king never forgave. He eventually took his revenge and had FitzAlan arrested and beheaded for opposing him.
On Price’s father’s side, his 7th great grandmother was also a tragic figure. The Salem Witch Trials are so infamous today that often when people find out the actual number of those who were killed (19 hanged, 1 pressed to death, and about 5 died in jail after being accused), they are surprised it was not more. This speaks to the horror of what actually happened, how mass hysteria, lopsided trials, unchecked power, religious extremism, and inhumane punishments can become the stuff of nightmares, capable of haunting generations to come.
Vincent Price’s 7th great grandmother, Rebecca Towne Nurse, and her sister Mary Towne Esty, Price’s 8th great aunt, were 2 of the 19 hanged for witchcraft in 1692. They had immigrated to North America from England and settled in Salem Village, Massachusetts. The village was made up of Puritans who had left England for religious freedom in America and whose religion made them believe in the constant internal battle between the devil and a pure soul. Conflict in the village was already boiling over due to land, money, and religious disputes between townspeople. The idea of witchcraft and witch trials was not new at this point; accusations in Europe began in the 14th century and America’s first case was in 1645. With the amount of tension that already existed in Salem Village, one accusation of witchcraft was like a powder keg going off.
The accusations began in February of 1692 with 71 year old Rebecca Nurse being named as a witch by the Putnam family a month later in March. So said her tween accusers, Rebecca’s “certain detestable arts” aka witchcraft was responsible for sending them into fits and spasms as well as causing the deaths of certain deceased persons . Later, Rebecca’s younger sisters Sarah Towne Cloyce and Mary Towne Esty were also arrested and interrogated for witchcraft. Though many of the people who were initially accused were in some way considered different or outcasts, Rebecca and her sisters were upstanding members of society who attended church regularly. Their arrest surprised many. Rebecca, in particular, was noted to be a kind and devout woman and several townspeople went to bat for her, unfortunately to no avail. On July 19, 1692 Rebecca Nurse was hanged for witchcraft after being found guilty. Her sister Mary Esty was likewise hanged on September 22, 1692. Their younger sister Sarah Cloyce escaped conviction and spent years trying to clear the names of her sisters. One of their accusers, Ann Putnam who was 12 at the time and one of the group of girls responsible for many of the accusations, later apologized for her role in the tragedy. She was forgiven by the family, but their forgiveness was not extended to Samuel Parris, a minister who fanned the flames of the accusations and served as a prosecutor during the trials. His involvement and position of influence was potentially a key reason why the accusations escalated into full blown hysteria. Some historians believe that it was no accident why certain people were accused of witchcraft, having been in some way rivals or enemies of the Putnam family or Samuel Parris.
One can almost imagine Price playing Parris in a film about this event. The manipulative and blood-thirsty puppeteer pulling on the townspeople’s strings as they did his dark bidding suited his cinematic MO. He didn’t make the movie, but I still feel like I’ve seen it. The gnarled tree with a noose image that witch trial era Salem evokes seemed to jump right out of one of his films. One of my favorite Price films, the gothic drama House of the Seven Gables, comes to mind, and with good reason: the novel it was based on was written by Salem inhabitant (100 or so years after the witch trials) and author of The Crucible, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Like Price, Hawthorne also may have felt the pull of his ancestors and their influence seeped into his work. He shared a name with the Nathaniel Hawthorne who served as judge in the Salem witch trials, the only judge never to repent for his role in the events. In context, The Crucible almost seems like Hawthorne’s apology for the sins of his ancestors.
Price would also star in the 1968 film Witchfinder General where he would play a conniving, murderous witch hunter in 1600s England who (SPOILERS) meets a bloody end. One can’t help but wonder if Price found this onscreen death as a way of getting vengeance for Rebecca Nurse, whether he was conscious of it or not.
What stamps on the soul do we inherit? Are we innately drawn to relive scenes of our past, in some way or another, no matter how dark? I can’t answer that with certainty, but I do find it comforting that the tragedy and sacrifice of our ancestors may not necessarily be limited to a sad story destined to fade into the recesses of time. Occasionally, something good comes of it. Occasionally, it’s a Vincent Price.
- Mortimer, Ian. The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327–1330 (100–9, 114, 122–6), London: 2003
- Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1600-1889