Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores

Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America

Elaine Forman Crane
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores
    Book Description:

    The early American legal system permeated the lives of colonists and reflected their sense of what was right and wrong, honorable and dishonorable, moral and immoral. In a compelling book full of the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, Elaine Forman Crane reveals the ways in which early Americans clashed with or conformed to the social norms established by the law. As trials throughout the country reveal, alleged malefactors such as witches, wife beaters, and whores, as well as debtors, rapists, and fornicators, were as much a part of the social landscape as farmers, merchants, and ministers. Ordinary people "made" law by establishing and enforcing informal rules of conduct. Codified by a handshake or over a mug of ale, such agreements became custom and custom became "law." Furthermore, by submitting to formal laws initiated from above, common folk legitimized a government that depended on popular consent to rule with authority.

    In this book we meet Marretie Joris, a New Amsterdam entrepreneur who sues Gabriel de Haes for calling her a whore; peer cautiously at Christian Stevenson, a Bermudian witch as bad "as any in the world;" and learn that Hannah Dyre feared to be alone with her husband-and subsequently died after a beating. We travel with Comfort Taylor as she crosses Narragansett Bay with Cuff, an enslaved ferry captain, whom she accuses of attempted rape, and watch as Samuel Banister pulls the trigger of a gun that kills the sheriff's deputy who tried to evict Banister from his home. And finally, we consider the promiscuous Marylanders Thomas Harris and Ann Goldsborough, who parented four illegitimate children, ran afoul of inheritance laws, and resolved matters only with the assistance of a ghost. Through the six trials she skillfully reconstructs here, Crane offers a surprising new look at how early American society defined and punished aberrant behavior, even as it defined itself through its legal system.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6273-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
    Elaine Forman Crane
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Jacob Vis had run up quite a tab at Geertje Teunis’s New Amsterdam house where Teunis tapped beer for her thirsty neighbors. Shocked at the amount of his bill, an incredulous Vis questioned the accuracy of the account: “How can it be, that I am so much in debt here?” Teunis and Vis quarreled, and according to Salomon La Chair, who witnessed the shouting match, Teunis called Vis a drunken rogue—a nod, perhaps, to both his excessive consumption and unwillingness to ante up. Perceiving her verbal slap as an attack on his reputation, Vis demanded reparation of his honor...

  5. Chapter 1 In Dutch with the Neighbors: Slander “in a well regulated Burghery”
    (pp. 17-45)

    It is difficult to imagine the Manhattan of soaring skyscrapers as New Amsterdam. In the early seventeenth century, trees blanketed the greater part of the island, while hogs and dogs ran wild in the small town clinging to its southern tip. Occasionally, an agile canine would catch a slow-moving hog and chomp on a porcine ear. Less often, a scrawny mutt would bite an even mangier goat to death. Indians, English, and Swedes threatened from all sides, while the well-being of the Dutch colony rested on soldiers who spent as much time drawing knives on each other as on their...

  6. Chapter 2 Bermuda Triangle: Witchcraft, Quakers, and Sexual Eclecticism
    (pp. 46-83)

    Three thousand people, twelve accusations, five executions. Proportionately, Bermuda’s witchcraft outbreak between 1651 and 1655 rivals the worst of the seventeenth-century episodes.¹ Chronologically, the epidemic triangulates with other midcentury witchcraft frenzies in both old and New England, as religious factionalism erupts and then disrupts the 1640s and 1650s. Similarities with English and mainland incidents abound: suspected witches curse neighbors, kill turkeys, and bestow evil gifts. Victims fall sick, lose property, see specters. Accusers turn to the law for redress, and witnesses quickly confirm dark deeds. Familiars scamper about. Some of the witchcraft flare-ups in Bermuda, England, and New England begin...

  7. Chapter 3 “Leave of[f] or Else I Would Cry Out Murder”: The Community Response to Family Violence in Early New England
    (pp. 84-118)

    No records reveal whether Merritje Joris Boodt’s New Amsterdam neighbors came to her aid when her husband Nicholas “beat her.” No documents testify that they took her in when he “shut her out.”¹ In New England, however, there is considerable evidence that community response to such public and private brutality was both anticipated and immediate. In these circumstances, popular participation was part of a culture that incorporated informal as well as formal legal remedies.

    Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the reaction to spousal violence in eighteenth-century Rhode Island before the establishment of local police forces. It suggests...

  8. Chapter 4 Cold Comfort: Race and Rape in Rhode Island
    (pp. 119-149)

    The warmly dressed widow seen boarding the ferry at Bristol was the only person seeking passage to Portsmouth in the late afternoon of December 23, 1742. With the sun only “one hour high,” daylight would soon give way to dusk and a cold winter evening.¹ Despite her outer wrap, however, Comfort Dennis Taylor was already chilled by the ride over “some miles of stony, unequall road” en route to the wharf. Yet even if time and temperature argued for haste, she might have paused at Durfee’s ferry house for a penny’s worth of rum before climbing into the sailboat for...

  9. Chapter 5 He Would “Shoot him upon the Spott”: The Eviction of Samuel Banister
    (pp. 150-177)

    Samuel Banister refused to vacate the house. The sheriff, Peleg Brown, sent Martin Howard to reason with him, but Howard’s arguments only infuriated Banister. Walter Cranston had purchased the dwelling at auction on November 19, 1744; two months later Banister still retained possession, angrily insisting he would not quit the premises. “Deliver up” the house “peaceably,” pressed Howard, or else the sheriff “as sure as he was alive wou’d actually come with Sufficient aid and Dispossess him.” Banister retorted that he had “Endeavoured to git a house but twas not in his power in no Respect.” He had even persuaded...

  10. Chapter 6 A Ghost Story
    (pp. 178-210)

    This is a ghost story. And because ghosts evolve along with the society in which they appear, the apparition in this tale of lechery and greed reflects the eighteenth rather than the seventeenth century. The spirit does not return to avenge a bloody murder, nor is he a night prowler. More aggressive than Casper, less terrifying than Banquo, this ghost is persistent but nonthreatening. He appeals to reason, reminds of promises, and persuades with assurance. His goal is the settlement of a 1796–97 civil suit that involved former lovers, four illegitimate children, and the proceeds from an estate. And...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 211-216)

    I wish I had said it first, but alas, Alexis de Tocqueville beat me to it. His insightful comments about “the shadow of the law” acknowledged Themis’s power over America, a grip that caught Tocqueville’s attention and captured his imagination because of its extent and depth.¹ The Greek goddess of law, order, and justice embraced America at its inception and never loosened her hold. Indeed, by 1775, the American enthusiasm for things legal had become the subject of discussion across the pond. “In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study . . . [A]ll...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-262)
  13. Index
    (pp. 263-278)