Friday, December 28, 2012

The Politics of Murder, Then and Now: a guest blog by Sam Thomas

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here's something you don't know about me: I am deeply, deeply interested in 17th century Puritanism. My history concentration in college was the English Civil War; in grad school; New England Puritanism. My thesis in Law School was on the influence of the English Commonwealth's theologians on the Massachusetts colony's attempts at creating a Mosaic civil law. (Have I made your eyes roll into the back of your head yet?) 

I find England and America in the 17th century endlessly fascinating, but the period is almost unexplored in popular fiction. Which is why I got so excited when I heard about Dr. Sam Thomas. Late of Wittenberg University and UA Huntsville, Sam jumped off the tenure track to teach at University School in Ohio. He's also (lucky for me!) taken to crime fiction with The Midwife's Tale, which our own Rhys Bowen enthusiastically blurbed. Here's the cover copy for The Midwife's Tale:


It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer. 

What most interests me about the turbulent 17th century? The many parallels with our own 21st century culture. Today, Sam is going to tell us one of the ways the past informs the present.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the nation came together, united in support of the victims and their families. And then, at varying speeds, partisans in America’s culture wars returned to the ramparts intent on linking the killings to larger social ills. Those on the left took a practical approach, pointing to the woeful state of our mental health system and decrying the free and easy access to assault weapons. Some (though by no means all) on the political right have offered a different narrative, passing over the weapons the killer used in favor of the culture in which he lived. Charles Krauthammer went some distance down this road, and the NRA criticized “blood-soaked slasher films” and “vicious, violent video games with names like…Grand Theft Auto.”

While few observers can profess genuine surprise at these developments it is worth noting that the politicization of murder is no new thing. In the seventeenth century, England found itself in the midst of its own culture wars, as the nation split along religious lines between Puritans on one hand, and more moderate believers on the other. But whatever a faction’s religious leanings, when the blood started to flow each tried to turn it to their advantage. By looking back at these early modern conflicts, I would argue that we can gain a new perspective on our own society’s reaction to such a tragedy.

One Sunday in 1668, an apprentice named Thomas Savage slipped out of his master’s house and, instead of going to church, went to a brothel. When his money ran out so too did the fun, so one of the prostitutes urged him to rob his master and return. Thomas took this advice, but was discovered by a fellow servant who reprimanded him for his sinful life. He responded by beating her to death.

After his execution, a group of Puritan ministers published a book about Savage’s crime, and it is in their retelling that politics were injected into the story. According to the authors, Savage represented England’s depravity: he was a drunkard, a whoremonger, a thief, and a murderer. What is more, he killed his victim when she pointed out his sin and urged him to repent. From the Puritan perspective, this was how the world worked: They warned sinners of their impending doom, and the sinners responded with violence rather than thanks.

A few decades earlier, however, it was Puritanism’s enemies who spun a gruesome murder to their advantage after a young man named Enoch ap Evan murdered his brother and mother with an axe. While it is likely that Enoch was insane, this was not the explanation favored by Peter Studley, a virulent anti-Puritan.

According to Studley, Enoch represented the logical outcome of Puritanism. He was a religious fanatic who saw himself as one of God’s Elect, singled out for salvation no matter how sinful his life. In Studley’s telling, Enoch killed his family in a dispute over whether communion should be taken while kneeling, which Puritans viewed as a form of idolatry. As evidence of Enoch’s Puritanism, Studley cited his habit of walking for miles in search of Puritan preachers, and his over-heated dedication to religion. While Thomas Savage killed because he was not religious enough, Enoch killed because Puritan religion had filled him with pride.

What ties these cases together is that whether they are writing in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first, these culture warriors describe the world as they would like to see it. The Puritans who wrote about Thomas Savage imagined an England free from sin and dedicated to the Lord, while Studley envisioned an England united in belief as it had been before the rise of Puritanism.

In the same way, when those on the left look at Sandy Hook, they hope it will serve as a catalyst for better health care and tighter regulations on guns. The NRA, in contrast, imagines an America with fewer guns in video games, but many more in its elementary schools.

I suppose it is up to us to choose which vision of the future we wish to pursue.

Note: This interpretation of Enoch ap Evan’s case is drawn from Peter Lake, “Puritanism, Arminianism, and a Shropshire-Murder,” Midland History, Volume 15 (1990), pp. 37-64. The interpretation of Savage’s case is my own.

Something you've always wanted to know about Puritans? Or maybe you want to weigh in on your own favorite historical period - and its fiction? Join us on the back blog. One lucky commentor will get a copy of The Midwife's Tale!

You can find out more about Sam Thomas and read an excerpt from The Midwife's Tale at his website. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter as @SamThomasBooks, and delve into all things historical fiction at his blog, A Bloody Good Read


  1. A fascinating piece, Dr. Sam. Fun to read. Did the Puritan population of the new world recognize mental health problems among themselves, or was every troubled person a witch who needed burning?

  2. Fascinating, Doctor Sam . . . thanks for sharing a very interesting commentary. I don’t know if it is comforting or not to know that the same sort of issues . . . and the resulting politicizing of them . . . have plagued humanity for far longer than we might wish to acknowledge. I’m looking forward to reading “The Midwife’s Tale.”

  3. Another writer to add to my TBR list.

    The parallels in history are pretty interesting. Almost makes one think that nothing is ever new.

    Since I read Deb Harkness' SHADOW OF NIGHT I've been extremely interested in English historical fiction. I can't wait to read THE MIDWIFE'S TALE. Thank you for sharing with us, Sam.

  4. Hey Sam, great to see you here! (Funny where old college friends pop up, isn't it.) Looking forward to the book (off to get it now). Congratulations!

  5. SO fascinating! Thank you! I also thought about today's Congress as I watched the movie Lincoln--and wondered whether our legilators had learned anything at all about making decisions!

    Those who do not read history...etc.

    Sounds like a terrific book.

  6. Sounds like a great book. I just pre-ordered the Kindle version and am looking forward to reading it.

    Cathy AJ

  7. OOh, passing this on to my friend who loves English historical mysteries. Of course, I may have to read it, too ... .

  8. Jack,

    I can't give you anywhere near a comprehensive answer, but many of the victims of the witch hysteria in New England were troublesome rather than troubled. In other words, people singled out for accusation tended to be those who had irritated their neighbors, brought suits against others in the community, etc.

    In England, women labels as witches were most often elderly outsiders without men to protect them. In fact, the surest defense against an accusation of witchcraft seems to have been money--the occasional wealthy person caught up in a witch hunt frenzy managed to get the charges dropped p.d.q. Several notable "witch hunters" were in fact discredited because they were impolitic enough to name a local worthy who had the power to squash an investigation.

    At the beginning of the 17th century, almost everyone believed in witches; by the end, almost no one did.

  9. Julia, thank you for bringing Sam Thomas here today!

    You won't believe it, probably, but this is one of my favorite areas of interest, as well. I hadn't even considered studying New England church history until I saw a certain course offering while I was in grad school. It was a seminar taught by David D. Hall and was called Radical Religion in England and America, 1550-1750.

    I needed something radical to study. I cornered professor Hall in the elevator and asked if I might be admitted to the seminar. He looked at me and said, "It may not be as radical as you think." I begged. He smiled. I was in.

    I took every course David Hall offered until I graduated, at which point he rejoiced, again in the elevator, "Graduating, finally. Who woulda thunk it?" His courses inspired me to travel to Oxford to study the history of the church radicals there. It took more than a few years for me to realize that my interest went well beyond church history and theology.

    When I found myself going back to Christ Church College to live for a couple of weeks in Henry VIII's Old Library - for more background and atmosphere - I knew that I had something bubbling up but didn't know where it would take me. By that time I was doing doctoral studies in human development and psychology and trying to justify this area for my research. Eventually I gave that up and find today that all I want to study is the history of that time in Salem, Massachusetts, the town where I was born.

    Through this interest I learned about my own family history that goes back to that very time in Salem -huge surprise - with many historic twists through the centuries. As I discovered this "new" ancestry, my academic interest became personal as I wondered how it could be that a portion of my Québec ancestors who had moved to Salem, had come from there a few generations previously, and did not know it.

    I had to investigate how this happened. The timing of my 6th great-grandfather's move to Québec, as a very young adult, follows his father's service as a jury forman for the witch trials. My sense is that these events are connected and form the foundation of my own writing at this time.

    I read everything I can find about puritanism from England to America and especially love fictionalized accounts.

    Sam, glorious best wishes with THE MIDWIFE'S TALE. Cannot wait to read it!

    Julia, thank you for this blog today... truly, truly, truly!

  10. Dr. Sam, thanks for a fascinating piece--although rather disheartening, to think we seem unable to learn from the mistakes of our pasts...

    Such an interesting period, and like Marianne, I loved Deb Harkness's depiction in Shadow of Night. (Now there's another academic turned successful novelist for you!)

    And Reine, I had no idea. I hope you'll tell us more one day.

  11. Thanks, Debs. My biggest writing this manuscript is focusing the topic. I am afraid it will be much too long when I am done with it. I will never be through. I will have to keep writing it forever. I would probably enjoy that, but no one else would.

  12. I suspect history repeats itself less because people don't remember it than that we continue to be homo sapiens rather than evolving into some other life form. As humans we think and act and react in certain predictable ways, and in groups we tend to commit the same follies.

    Not only was England's 17th century fascinating in its own right, but it continues to inform what the US and Canada are today. Much of our roots are based on the "great migration" from England to America.

    Our English ancestors came for religious reasons (to avoid or to promote depending on circumstances) and/or for economic reasons (a land of opportunity or as economic chattel). Why they came informed where they chose to settle, which affects our politics even today (New England vs. Middle Atlantic vs. South).

    As first Europeans in (or winners over the Dutch, French and Spanish, and of course the inhabitants already occupying the continent) their version of laws and behavior became the basis for our current structure. Later immigrant populations modified much, but the root stock is 17th century England with all her promise and problems.

    The NRA would perhaps be proud of the Pilgrims who went to church armed against the possibility of heathen attack, although its not one of the features of their daily life I'd like us to emulate.

    Looking forward to reading The Midwife's Tale and again immersing myself in the period.


  13. Thanks, Jack. Ideas of madness certainly existed among the Puritans - heck, it's what Enoch's friends said in his defense! Explanations could vary from melancholy, to madness to possession.

    Thanks Marianne! Years ago I was on a historical panel with Deb - she's fantastic. I can't wait to get to SHADOW. Nobody knows Tudor London like she does.

    Exactly, Julia! And thanks all for the great feedback!

    (For what it's worth, my third Midwife Mystery is tentatively titled THE WITCH-HUNTER'S TALE, and will deal with a lot of the issues you raise!)

  14. Please add me to the list of wannabe winners!

    kescah at comcast dot net

  15. I'm nearing the end of writing a biographical novel on William and Mary Barrett Dyer, who were involved in several of the dominant religious groups of the early and middle 17th century: Anglican, Puritan, Antinomian, and Quaker. Mary was a mentee of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, who was a midwife, and I suspect that Anne, and later Mary, used lying-in and childbirth parties to evangelize their religious beliefs. Although there was talk of their possible involvement, they escaped charges of witchcraft, but probably only because of their husbands' merchant-class income and social status. They both bore abnormal fetuses called monsters: for Mary an anencephalic stillbirth, and for Anne, hydatidiform moles; these were called proof of their heresy to Puritanism.

    Please include me in the drawing for Sam's new book.

  16. I've always wondered about murders in the past, and wondered about how serial killers got away with stuff, how psychos were hidden, and how women reacted when they realized they were married to sadists, etc. I don't believe that we've created these issues, or that we're responsible for them. Looking forward to reading your book, and seeing how the Puritans handled things. :)

  17. Absolutely fascinating, Sam! Like Julia, I've long been interested in this time period. As Jim notes, most of the legal and political foundations of our present system derive from the 17th century in England and America. I'm really going to look forward to reading THE MIDWIFE'S TALE.

  18. I'm another who has become interested in history as a result of Deb Harkness's All Souls Trilogy! So, I found your post to be very interesting, and I look forward to reading "The Midwife's Tale"!

    Thank you, Dr. Sam!

  19. I'm looking forward to reading The Midwife's Tale. Another mystery set in 17th century England is An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Religion, politics, sex, and murder, it's all there. I found it to be a rich, rewarding read.

    For history buffs interested in the Puritan settlers of New England, I highly recommend Albion's Seed by David Fischer, a study of the culture and folkways the Puritans brought with them from East Anglia.

  20. Everyone wants to explain murder, I guess -- and while emotions are high, people can be manipulated and points can be scored. Interesting to see the same thing happening 400 years ago. :)

  21. Good point, Lydia. I don't really think murder can be explained. It is too generic. People with a conscience can always justify killing when pressured, internally or externally; Killers with no conscience need no justification other than they want to do it.

  22. Murder and politics are a part of the human experience throughout history, as Sam's essay and book suggest. Maybe it's because the vast majority of us want that to no longer be true. We want to DO something to end these tragedies, to make them not happen anymore. And arguing about what to do -aka politics - is just in our nature. It would be nice if more politicians could keep this larger goal of harmony in mind more often, to listen to their better angels and probably not the drives that got them into politics to begin with. But alas, they, and we, are human. We will keep arguing whether we should or not. But even in doing so, we can all take a moment to realize that all throughout history and the present, we are in this life together! We share our ability to bicker! but also to love, to mourn, to think....And on that note, back to the book.

    Sam, your book sounds excellent and the excerpt on your site was fascinating! I'm a history junkie and it sounds like a great read. I love that you are featuring a kickass lady in a time that was unheard of. I also love that you have the real history on your site as well. Adding THE MIDWIFE'S TALE to my goodreads list now :-)

  23. I agree with Sam's reply about madness, of various kinds, being a readily available category in the 17th century, although the lack of graduate physicians made many diagnoses somewhat vague and old-fashioned in New England, drawing more on popular notions than learned treatises.

    However, it was not the witches whose mental competence was the issue for prosecutors. By definition, witches were willing accomplices of the Devil, at least initially. Had they not been, they could not be prosecuted.

    It was the critics, from the outset of prosecutions in Elizabeth's reign, who argued that those who confessed were deluded by the Devil's exploitation of the melancholy of impoverished old widows. They saw the Devil's accomplices elsewhere -- radicals looking at traditional learned magicians and Puritans at magical healers.

    Paradoxically, it was the critics who created "the English stereotype," propagated in popular print, which distorted even the cases reported in the pamphlets. The visual images that we associate with English trials are part of this creation, but they by no means depict accurately the varios kinds of people accused, or even those put on trial.

    Although the mental state of confessing witches always had to be considered, prosecutors and judges were more usually concerned with the mental state of the alleged victims. Medical practitioners and clergymen, as well as friends and neighbours, would be consulted. At trial, witnesses might well disagree fundamentally on such questions.

    Was their illness really unnatural, rather than the product of fraud or ordinary disease? If it was unnatural, were they possessed by the Devil directly, rather than afflicted through the agency of witches? In either case, their testimony might well be invalid. Debate over this issue became a turning point at Salem.

  24. I would disagree with Sam over his characterization of the mid-century conflicts as Puritans versus moderate churchmen.

    Firstly, the conflict between Parliament and the King had many aspects, including religious changes imposed by Archbishop Laud but also taxation without representation and many other political and constitutional issues. Moreover, "moderate" opinion might well regard the Laudian ecclesiatical regime's actions as immoderate and unconstitutional.

    Secondly, religious opinion fragmented several ways, both before and after the outbreak of civil war and the collapse of the Church of England's authority. Individuals, families and communities chose sides, and changed sides, for various reasons. Both Parliament and the King had claims on people's loyalty.

    Thirdly, defining Parliament as supported by religious extremists and the King by moderates is not only inaccurate but also an inappropriate retrospective taking of sides.

    Would contemporaries regard the bishops, some of whom were highly intolerant of religious dissent, as more "moderate" than the highly tolerant Oliver Cromwell, who had no interest in beliefs but only in rebellious acts? They might, but that would depend on their views on ecclesiastical order, not ours. On the Parliamentarian side, it was the "moderate" Presbyterians and episcopalians who wanted tighter church discipline.

    Fourthly, "Puritans" is not a very useful category in England, as it describes only the more zealous adherents of Calvinist theology, which had been the majority position among churchmen and the educated laity at the beginning of the 17th century. "Puritans" were those who sought more rapid progress in the unfinished Reformation project.

    There were Calvinists, and even some "Puritans", on the Royalist side. Most of those on the Parliamentarian side were not Puritans by any means, although the Puritans and the radicals made the most noise.

  25. I would question Julia's remark, "At the beginning of the 17th century, almost everyone believed in witches; by the end, almost no one did."

    At neither end of the century is it easy to find people who did not believe in the existence of witches. After all, the Bible refers to witches.

    There were two questions that were troublesome. Were the people who were accused of being witches really the sort of people who were involved in voluntary pacts? Was the evidence produced in court sufficient to distinguish between actual witches and innocent people?

    The first question kept being raised, during the Elizabethan heyday, during the rapid decline under James I and Charles I, during the brief resurgence when there was little central control over the courts, and agin during the subsequent decline after the Restoration. No satisfactory conclusion could be reached.

    The question of evidence was far more pertinent. Already at the beginning of the 17th century, judges, doctors, and bishops were expressing concern about the evidence. James I, together with his bishops and physicians, enquired into specific cases of alleged bewitchment and claims of demonic possession.

    Later in the century, judges and magistrates openly ridiculed some of the traditional signs that were exhibited by accusers.

    However, this did not mean that any of these people thought that there were no witches, but rather that they could not trust the evidence in order to reach a satisfactory verdict. This was a crime with no direct witnesses.

    Popular accusations did not disappear, even after the crime was struck from the statutes. Although urbanization and population mobility lessened the fear of secret evil, which normally took years of contact to mature into a formal complaint, the belief system did not evaporate, even during the 19th century, and violent attacks came to the attention of the courts in Britain and the United States.

    Belief in the dangerous power of specific witches, and the need for counter-magic, has been found in some European countries, especially in rural areas. It may be that researchers have not looked hard enough in other developed countries. Occasional examples can be found anywhere, but believers are reluctant to acknowledge the belief, as they know that they will be mocked.

  26. David, if you are the David Hartley of Oxford, I would love to debate this with you.

  27. Sorry-- David Harley... trouble with my speech-to-text.