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.
My reading has far outstripped my reviewing capacity at this point, and now I’m heading for the airport. But I simply can’t leave without recommending four books: two are historical fiction, one is a classic of psychological suspense, and one is a biography. All were outstanding, and I hope to write about each of them in detail when time permits. Meanwhile, here they are:
I mentioned The Bedlam Detective in a recent post on new historical mysteries. At that time, I had just begun the novel. Now I’ve finished it and can recommend it without reservation. It’s a vivid evocation of Britain just prior to World War One. Also it’s exceptionally well written.
When the Emperor Was Divine is more than exceptionally well written – it is just beautiful. Beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, this is the story of what happens to one Japanese-American family during World War Two. Events unfold through the eyes of a young boy, who witnesses his family being uprooted and torn asunder. When I finished it, my heart felt so heavy, I could think of nothing else all day.
Of Georges Simenon‘s Act of Passion, John Banville asks, “Has there ever been a more penetrating account of love’s destructive power?” Penetrating, riveting – and profoundly shocking.
When I finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I felt compelled to learn more about just what happened to Ann Boleyn, and why. So I turned to Alison Weir’s biography of that hapless figure in history. The Lady in the Tower was all absorbing and deeply tragic. And some questions are still not answered, and may never be.
Pamela Werner lived in the storied Chinese city of Peking, on a street called Armour Factory Alley, with her father E.T. C. Werner, a retired consul and noted expert on Chinese language, history, and culture. In 1911, Werner had married Gladys Nina Ravenshaw, “a girl of the British Empire.” She was 22; he was 45.
In 1919, they adopted Pamela. Gladys lived a mere three years longer, dying at age 35 and leaving her three-year-old daughter in the care of her husband and various servants of the household.
Paul French sets the stage for a tragedy by describing the strange and exotic world of prewar Peking, a place where men in traditional garb strolled the ancient avenues displaying their song birds in cages, Above the streets there loomed a sinister building known as the Fox Tower, a remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The Chinese shunned this edifice, believing it to be inhabited by malign spirits. At night, it was populated by bats and wild dogs. It was here, in the early morning hours of January 8, 1937, in the vicinity of the Tower, that Pamela Werner’s body was first discovered:
When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between the road and the tower, the wild dogs–the huang gou–were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.
It was the body of a young women, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost.
Paul French describes a murder scene that is acutely horrific. In terms of sheer savagery, it put me in mind of the victims of Jack the Ripper and also of the so-called Black Dahlia murder. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it nearly put me off the book altogether. But as often happens in such situations, there were sufficiently compelling reasons to read on, and so I did.
At the age of 19, Pamela Werner was still in school, yet at the same time she was on the brink of womanhood. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, she came and went from various venues in the city on her bicycle. She loved to go ice skating with her friends; in fact, this was the activity she was engaged in on the last night of her life. On that cold, dark evening, as Pamela prepared to cycle back home, one of those friends asked if she was scared to be making the trip all by herself. She responded:
‘I’ve been alone all my life….I am afraid of nothing–nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.’
That last statement of course proved to be tragically wrong – at least it was, for Pamela Werner. But what of the first comment, about being alone all her life? At the time of her death, Pamela was just shy of twenty years of age. Her father was in his early seventies. Since the age of three, she’d had no mother.
My initial impression of E.T.C. Werner was that of a fusty old scholar only minimally concerned in the life of his sole offspring. And indeed, he may have enacted that part from time to time. But as Midnight in Peking ultimately reveals, there was a whole other side to the man. In the course of the investigation into Pamela’s murder, the seamy underbelly of expatriate life in the Chinese city had been exposed to considerably scrutiny. As a result, several possible suspects were identified, but there was never sufficient evidence to tie any of them definitively to the crime. Then, as the tides of history engulfed China, the murder of the young Englishwoman was relegated to the status of one of history’s footnotes. The case went cold. Everyone concerned seemed to give up on it, to be ready to forget about it. Everyone, that is, except her father, E.T.C. Werner.
The Guardian review of Midnight in Peking calls French’s account of the investigation ‘spellbinding.’ I agree completely. The whole book was spellbinding. Once I started it – and overcame my initial revulsion at the description of the crime scene – I could scarcely put it down.
In this video, author Paul French, a resident of Shanghai, talks about how he came to write Midnight in Peking. He also points out some of the locations crucial to the narrative. You may feel that he’s telling you too much, but believe me, he’s only scratching the surface.
Click here for the full text of Myths & Legends of China, written by E.T.C. Werner and originally published in 1922.
Alas, the time has come for me to return Destiny of the Republic to the library. Fifty-six eager readers await their copies! (Happiness it is, to dwell among fellow book lovers.) An earlier post only hinted at the riches contained in its pages.
My copy of this superb biography is festooned with post-it flags. They must now be removed. The only remedy is to read it again. This I plan to do, whether via hard copy as I’ve just done, recorded book – or on my soon-to-arrive Kindle Fire. (O brave new world, that has such devices in it!)
I would like to bid farewell to this man – this noble, courageous, compassionate man – by sharing with you Candice Millard’s description of his inauguration, which took place on March 4, 1881:
At precisely noon, a pair of massive bronze doors opened onto the eastern portico of the Capitol, and the presidential party, which had disappeared inside an hour earlier, could be seen filing out. Although nearly a dozen people stepped onto the portico, all eyes were on only three: Frederick Douglass, who led the procession; the president-elect; and his mother, Eliza. It was an extraordinary scene, a testimony to the triumph of intelligence and industry over prejudice and poverty, and it was not lost on those who witnessed it. “James A. Garfield sprung from the people, a reporter marveled. “James A. Garfield, who had known all the hardship of abject poverty, in the presence of a mother who had worked with her own hands to keep him from want – was about to assume the highest civil office this world knows. As the party so stood for a moment, cheer after cheer, loud huzzas which could not be controlled or checked, echoed and reechoed about the Capitol.”
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2 of that same year, while preparing to board a train in Washington DC, he was shot twice by a man who had been stalking him for weeks. That man, Charles J. Guiteau, suffered from paranoid delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness. He had no difficulty positioning himself directly behind the president so as to carry out his plan.
Those are the bare facts. But there is more to this story – much more….
Candice Millard has given us a riveting narrative of post Civil War America. But what I am most grateful to her for is the depiction of Garfield himself. Here was a man who wanted only to be able to farm his acreage in his beloved native Ohio, and to dwell there in pleasant amity with his wife Lucretia and their five children. Instead, his fellow Republicans, recognizing his sterling qualities, drafted him into politics, ultimately nominating him to run for president. It was not what he wanted:
‘This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day.’
Nevertheless he was called upon to serve, and he did. His reward was to be shot by maniac and to endure two month of excruciating pain and misery before finally succumbing to septicemia and a host of other ailments brought on by the shooting and subsequent ill-advised medical treatments. The date of his death was September 19, 1881. He had been in office a little more than six months.
This is a rich feast of a book. I want to write more about it in a later post. Just now, though, I want to sing the praises of Destiny of the Republic, and to recommend it as warmly as I possibly can. There were times when this was not an easy book to read. The story of Garfield’s ordeal at the hands of the medical men – Dr. D. Willard Bliss in particular, whose arrogance was largely responsible for his prolonged agony, was appalling. In an interview with Diane Rehm, Candice Millard says she had difficulty writing about his suffering because she had come to care so much about him. I had difficulty reading those passages for the same reason.
Garfield was a thoroughly admirable human being, a devoted family man, a dedicated public servant, a man of deep learning and deeper compassion.
Modest to a fault, James Garfield would have shunned the comparison, but when I finished this book, what came to my mind were the words spoken about Brutus by Marc Antony at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!
I’ve been talking about this book compulsively for weeks, to anyone who would listen. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have looked at me with bemused expressions, as if to say, You’re reading a book about James A. Garfield? Why, pray tell? I do hope I’ve answered that question.
Stokesay Castle in Shropshire: “…quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England.”
By the end of the thirteenth century a wool merchant named Laurence of Ludlow had become one of England’s richest men. In the way of the wealthy throughout history, he wished for a material representation that would stand as a signal to the world of his new found prosperity. This was the result of that quest:
I could wax philosophical about the passage of time, the persistence of memory, ghosts in ruined castles and abbeys, but others have already done so with far more eloquence than I could ever summon. Instead, I offer our pictures as mute testimony to all of the above:
Look out beyond the few outbuildings: the countryside, green and undulating, stretches out, seemingly without end.
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot
Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston
Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.
Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:
The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest: . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”
When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)
We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:
The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.
Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:
The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled streets of the town:
Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:
In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.
Here is the St. Winefride Window:
Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series.
During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:
Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.
Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.
(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )
Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.
(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)
“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss
When I heard that a memoir by Louis Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!
The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:
Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.
(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)
Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.” (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)
In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!), a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:
It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions, were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.
In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:
These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.
He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!
Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety). At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.
Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)
Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:
Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor. Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.
Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)
Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:
‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’
Auchincloss writes that at that moment, he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)
In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.
Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Short story collections
- Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
- Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
- On Sister Carrie (1968)
- Motiveless Malignity (1969)
- Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
- Richelieu (1972)
- A Writer’s Capital (1974)
- Reading Henry James (1975)
- Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
- Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
- False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
- The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
- Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
- The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
- The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
- Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
- Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)
Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).
It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.
The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times; by Ilyon Woo
I recently received two invitations to make a piece of Shaker furniture. The first one arrived just today via e-an mail from the Shaker Workshops Online Catalog. “Don’t let cabin fever get you down,” it exhorted me. Instead, build a chair like this one from one of our kits!
The second invitation fell into my hands in the form of a slight yet beguiling volume pulled off the library’s new nonfiction shelves last week: Was I right to see these two instances as invitations? Or, should I rather consider them gifts…
In The Great Divorce, author Ilyon Woo explains: “In Shaker parlance, a ‘gift’ meant an inspiration, a revelation, or an order from above.” And this of course puts us in mind of “Simple Gifts.” The melody of this Shaker hymn, originally penned by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848, attained its apotheosis through Aaron Copland’s sweeping symphonic treatment in his “Ballet for Martha,” Appalachian Spring * :
If you’re like me, the hymn and the furniture pretty much sum up what you know about “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers or Shaking Quakers” (so denominated in the Wikipedia entry). I had also heard that the sect was celibate, able to replenish or increase its ranks only through acquiring converts from the outside world. This was a tricky business, as the outside world was perceived as being full of snares for the unwary – or for the wary also, in some cases. But Ilyon Woo’s book is about those who knowingly choose to become part of a Shaker community and those, like Eunice Hawley Chapman, who make a try at the life but reject it. Her story would have stopped there except for one critical point: her estranged husband James did join. He joined, and he took his and Eunice’s children with him.
In early nineteenth century America, he had every right to do this. In accordance with the laws of the time, the children was his property. So, for that matter, was Eunice. Never mind that James was an alcoholic who deserted his family on several occasions and failed to provide for them on a consistent basis. Men did far worse and still retained their rights in the law. Even more crucially, their wives’ divorce petitions were repeatedly rejected, even in cases where physical abuse had occurred.
The Great Divorce describes an epic legal battle that played itself out in the New York State legislature. The logistics may have been complicated, but the reason for the action was simple and straightforward. Eunice Chapman’s three children – George, Susan, and Julia – had disappeared behind the high walls of the Shaker community. She wanted them back, and she was prepared to go to any lengths and use any tools to hand in order to achieve her purpose. (You’ll be surprised by just what those tools were.)
Ilyon Woo provides a fascinating glimpse into the Shaker world, from its founding in England by Mother Ann Lee to its establishment in the New World in the early nineteenth century. Some admirable qualities characterized the Shakers. The communities they built with their own hands were models of cleanliness and efficiency, contrasting favorably with some of the cities and towns of the period, with their poor sanitation and general slovenliness. Members of the sect were staunch pacifists. In addition, their settlements provided a haven for those who were living in dire poverty or suffering some kind of abuse in the outside world. This was particularly true of women and children. The relentless industry of the Shaker men and women not only produced the furnishings and smaller objects for which they became famous; it also resulted in an abundance of food deliciously prepared and graciously served up at meal times.
A precisely choreographed form of social dancing formed an integral part of the Shaker worship service (click on picture to enlarge):
But you gave up much when you joined the sect. You could not own anything, you were expected to feel, or at least to express, nothing but the mildest affection for your fellow beings. Idle talk was discouraged; idleness in general was not tolerated. The men and the women had prescribed clothing which they wore at all times. The activities for each day, including and especially the Sabbath, were set out in advance and did not vary.
As I made my way through this thoroughly engrossing narrative, my feelings about the Shakers kept changing. Believers, as they called themselves, were for the most part caring, generous, and above all, kind. The level of commitment to the community and the striving to attain perfection before God were impressive, even moving. At the same time. the almost aggressive plainness of their surroundings seemed oppressive. Beauty belonged solely to the spirit, and was not to be indulged in where material objects were concerned. A chief value advocated by the sect was the loss of all that made an individual unique, as he or she merged with a group that became almost like a single organism. For me, that loss of selfhood was the single most incomprehensible and troubling aspect of a Believer’s life within the Shaker community.
The story of Eunice Chapman’s struggle to win back her children plays out against the backdrop of a country that even in the early 1800s was on the cusp of legal and social change. Eunice’s law suit was instrumental in bringing those changes about. It is unfortunate that she went after the Shakers as she did, but she felt she had no choice, and once you’re fully apprised of the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree with the actions she took. They were born of desperation. She would surely have left the Believers in peace if they had not been harboring her children and making it nearly impossible for her to see them. This is a convoluted tale, and Ilyon Woo’s ability to explain and clarify its various aspects, especially the legal ones, while preserving the narrative’s forward thrust is truly impressive. Far from getting bogged down in the details, I actually had trouble putting the book down.
Ilyon Woo does a great job of illuminating an obscure corner of early American life. For instance, here she describes what Eunice, her parents, and her siblings would have encountered when the family emigrated from Connecticut to Durham New York around the turn of the nineteenth century::
…Durham fell along the route of the brand new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men–homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that the dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.
In the course of her travails, Eunice Chapman was influenced by a novel called Charlotte Temple. Written by Susanna Rowson and first published in this country in 1794, Charlotte Temple is the classic seduction tale. Young and impressionable, the eponymous heroine allows herself to be seduced by a callow villain who spirits her off to America, gets her pregnant, and then abandons her on this alien shore to fend for herself. Ilyon Woo calls this novel “America’s first best seller.”
I’m always finding rather startling stories of true crime in the most unlikely historical tomes. So it was with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale; so it is in The Great Divorce. The case to which I refer was contemporaneous with the Chapman imbroglio. Here’s what happened: one Abraham Kessler had deserted his wife on their wedding day. Five years later he returned to their home, not for the purpose of reconciliation but in order to poison said wife. He had found someone else he wanted to marry, and knew that as things stood, it would be impossible for him to secure a divorce. Woo observes: “The Kessler case provided yet another reminder of the limitations of New York’s marriage laws, trumping even the Chapmans’ in its degree of tragedy.”
Here is Ilyon Woo:
The Shaker Workshops Online Catalog provides a succinct history of the sect; in addition, there are links to fascinating historical sources. I clicked on “Life with the Shakers,” edited by Frederick W. Evans (1888) and was immediately struck by this sentence: “Then all seat themselves and eat the meal with speechless assiduity.” It was once again driven home to me why I am increasingly drawn to reading the classics…”speechless assiduity.” I do love that kind of felicitous phrase making!
*Some of my favorite nonfiction books are found in the juvenile collection of the Howard County Library. The call number for Ballet for Martha is J 784.21 G.
It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”
But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!
But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.
Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.
Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.
Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)
I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC. Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)
The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:
Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.
The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.
The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)
On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)
I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:
So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:
Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based. )
The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!
The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.
Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small – very small – chunks.
Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.
Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:
As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”
If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!