In colonial New England, the ideal was not freedom but conformity.
May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By EDWARD ACHORN
Many of the Founders revered their Puritan ancestors, who had braved the deadly Atlantic, endured bitter winters, and fended off Indian attacks and starvation to establish a new society in New England, free from the oppression of the British crown. When it came time to fight the slide toward tyranny under George III, those who supported the revolution drew strength from their ancestors’ courageous insistence on a measure of self-government.
But a book like The Devil Made Me Do It! makes you wonder if H. L. Mencken had a better take on the Puritans. The Sage of Baltimore famously defined Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and less famously (and less succinctly) sputtered:
This compendium of Puritan punishments for Sabbath-breaking, public drunkenness, blasphemy, adultery, crooked dealings, marital bickering, witchcraft, and other crimes (or supposed crimes) speaks of a society that tried to bully humans into forming a utopian state that no one could achieve. And though New Englanders knew full well that man is a fallen and sinful creature, they seemed to believe that severe pressure on society’s members to conform, using punishments that ranged from public humiliation to disfigurement (such as slicing off ears), torture, and death, would create a more godly state. Of course, lest we be too snobbish about those times, there are plenty of reckless and arrogant bullies in 21st-century America who want to run our lives in the interest of creating a perfect society, however demonstrably unattainable.
In 1642, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, pondered the failure of severe punishments to curb sins effectively, especially drunkenness and extramarital sex. “The Devil should take some blame,” he reflected, “being determined to cast a stain and blemish upon us . . . by tempting Saints into sin.” The Puritans felt a force of evil coursing through their communities, leading men, women, and children to do things they did not, in good conscience, want to do—hence the defendants’ cry that is the title of this book. In 200-plus brief pages, Juliet Haines Mofford sets these crimes and punishments into the context of a society on the edge of extinction, requiring a degree of cooperation and conformity to survive. But there’s not a great deal of social analysis here: The bulk of the book is juicy (and ultimately depressing) examples of real 17th-century people running afoul of the law, sometimes through no fault of their own, drawn from the author’s remarkably extensive research into trial records, official documents, diaries, broadsides, prison-keepers’ records, and other primary sources.
We all know about the stocks on the town square, where such troublemakers as public scolds endured taunts from townspeople and found themselves pelted by children wielding rotten eggs, apples, garbage, or even stones or snowballs. As Mofford notes, Nathaniel Hawthorne surely knew of a 1694 law requiring any woman found guilty of adultery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to wear a capital A “sewn conspicuously upon her garments.” Some of these punishments seem amusingly commendable, as when York County Court (in today’s Maine) filed a complaint against Timothy Yeales “for Instigating people to go to law [sue in court], an evill practice . . . very hurtful to Civill Society and contrary to the Law of God and His Majesty.”
But often, the smile must fade. Readers with teenagers at home may relate to a Massachusetts General Court order of November 4, 1646, which dealt with disobedient sons, 16 or older. The child’s parents were instructed to “lay hold on him, and bring him to the magistrates assembled in court, and testify unto them, by sufficient evidence, that this their son is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey their voice and chastisement but lives in sundry notorious crimes. Such a son shall be put to death.” (Fortunately, Mofford found no evidence that the colony enforced this measure.)
Impulsive teenagers caught in the act of bestiality were hanged after watching the authorities kill, one by one, the animals that they had purportedly defiled. In some cases, acts of homosexuality went unpunished; in others, those involved were flogged or executed. But the book’s most depressing passages pertain to the famous witch trials, in which learned and serious men were deceived by fear and prejudice into sentencing to death people who had been falsely and absurdly accused of witchcraft, or coerced into making phony confessions.
Before his execution at Salem in 1692, the much-admired Rev. George Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer without stumbling on the words, something it was thought impossible for a true witch to do. Cotton Mather soothed the crowd with the observation that “the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light.” Page after page of this made me grateful that the Founders, however much they revered their ancestors and shared elements of their Christian faith, created a country founded on liberty and the jealously guarded rights of the individual.
Edward Achorn, deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.