Bermuda’s ‘witch trials’ play an important role in new book about early British settlement of North America

  • The cover of ?Witches, Wife Beaters and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America? by Elaine Forman Crane.

    The cover of ?Witches, Wife Beaters and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America? by Elaine Forman Crane.
    (Photo by Glenn Tucker)


With much of history traditionally about the rich and famous, momentous battles and grand, sweeping developments, it has been a common complaint that ordinary folk rarely get a mention.

It’s often because much of what they said and thought was never recorded.

In her latest work, Elaine Foreman Crane helps to redress that imbalance.

‘Witches, Wife Beaters and Whores’, subtitled, ‘Common Law and Common Folk in Early America’, uses the testimony of ordinary people to examine the nature of early American life and in particular, the role of the law in managing the social and commercial interactions of daily life.

Of interest to Bermudian historians in particular is her inclusion of Bermuda in the context of ‘Early America’ and a close examination of the Bermuda witchcraft trials of the mid-1600s within that context.

In explaining the term micro-history in her introduction, Ms Foreman Crane notes, “small stories contain a potential to reveal aspects of the larger culture” and at the same time “reinforces and humanises traditional studies written on a grander scale”.

Her purpose, which she achieves competently, is “to illustrate … the ways in which legal culture and the routine of daily life were knotted together in early America”.

Her fascinating studies of particular court cases span centuries and cross borders, and yet she demonstrates a common faith in the law to right wrongs and manage affairs.

She begins by examining how words matter in New Amsterdam and through slander cases looks at how societies define permissible boundaries of speech, drawing parallels with modern prohibitions such as hate speech and ethnic slurs.

The witchcraft trials of 17th century Bermuda, while examining deviant behaviour, also show how the law gave power to the powerless.

It gave equal weight to the testimony of both rich and poor and allowed people on the margins of society, servants and slaves, to accuse owners and masters.

A further chapter explores family violence through close examination of cases in which women were abused by their husbands in 18th century Rhode Island and particularly the trials of men accused of murdering their wives.

Despite the challenges inherent in the terseness of the legal documents, Ms Foreman Crane is able to piece together the steps desperate women might take to protect themselves and their children.

She examines what protection the law afforded them, however meagre, and the steps a community was willing, or not, to take to intervene before the situation became a legal matter usually at the wife’s death.

A fourth chapter looks at race and rape in Rhode Island, a well-to-do white woman’s accusation of a black slave’s assault on her person.

Not only did the case bring up the issue of the difference between attempted rape and consummated rape, but also the status of a slave.

As someone seeking dress for assault or battery, the plaintiff deemed the slave “a person”, but in order to receive the proceeds of the monetary judgement in her civil suit, it became necessary for her to transform the slave into “property”.

As Crane concludes, “what began as an incident involving two people metastasised into a colony-wide affair that fed on and propagated a legal culture based on long-standing ideas about race and rape.”

Then there is the debtor’s tale of Samuel Banister, born into an affluent and respectable Boston merchant family, facing eviction for debt.

His family threatened with being turned out into the cold, Banister shoots one of the sheriff’s party who had come to enforce the rights of the property’s new owner unfortunate accident or premeditated murder?

The case also explores the notion that debts should be repaid, the length of time a person should be given to repay that debt and the responsibility a family member has to meet the obligations of a wayward relative.

Her work ends with a ghost story, that of an 18th century apparition in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland that also involves illegitimacy, the obligations of executors of a will and the efforts of a restless spirit to ensure his heirs received their proper inheritance.

In an epilogue Ms Foreman Crane explores the question “how do the six chapters in this book foreshadow the post revolutionary United States?” She concludes: “The themes … when extended forward trace a continuum of small changes that nudge early Americans into the 19th century.”

Though of primary interest to scholars of early American history, there is relevance to Bermuda, particularly in the chapter on witchcraft, as the Island colony’s social and economic development was closely intertwined with that of its sister colonies on the mainland.

A scholarly work, ‘Witches, Wife Beaters and Whores’ is nevertheless accessible to the general reader interested in learning more about the social interaction of ordinary folk creating a society in a new land.

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Published Feb 22, 2012 at 7:42 am (Updated Feb 22, 2012 at 7:41 am)

Bermuda’s ‘witch trials’ play an important role in new book about early British settlement of North America

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