Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America
Let’s just stipulate this up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.
Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character. As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.
William Bradford writes:
This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.
It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.
Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:
….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.
Among the sermons Mather preached was one of particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.
Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.
Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?
There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.