TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

The wonderful world of Puritan insults, maladies, and enchanted ovens

One is often struck with the remarkable vividness of everyday Puritan language. Their voluminous court proceedings record disagreements and unacceptable behavior in colloquial terms that ring with life down the centuries. It’s only right to share a few of them here, if only to combat the persistent notion that Puritans of 1600s New England were dour and colorless. We hope to prove that listening to the Puritans speak is a constant source of pleasure and sometimes open laughter. There is a direct quality to the language that is somehow sympathetic, although the topics described are often unsympathetic, and even when the problem being described remains unclear, the language of the complaint stays with you. We are indebted for all our examples here to the critical, indispensable study Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Demos.

Insults: “You laughed and jeered at me, and I went crying away”

Rachel Clinton called one of her neighbors a “whoremasterly rogue”. She herself was accused by people in her church of “hunching them with her elbow” as they passed her in her pew. (One tries to imagine what exactly this was.) Hugh Parsons threatened someone who owed him money that if it was not repaid, the sum would become a liability; specifically, “as a moth in your clothes.” During a fight, Jane Collins called her husband a “girly-gutted devil”. Matthew Farrington told Thomas Wheeler that Wheeler “was the devil’s packhorse, to do the devil’s drudgery.” And when Goody Cole was asked by her neighbor why she was looking at the neighbor’s cattle, Goody Cole replied “What is it to you, sawsbox?” (We have to preserve the original spelling here, as “sawsbox” is a terrific version of “saucebox”, to describe a “saucy” or impertinent person.) Thus we can thank the Puritans for the evergreen retort “What’s it to you?”

Descriptions of illnesses: “It put her in a dropping sweat”

The Puritans often refer to the “bloody flux” (dysentery); like all of their names for diseases or illnesses, this one is disastrously literal, conjuring up an all-too-clear mental image of the problem. Some are more tantalizingly unclear: one woman complained of “a general smiting in the lower parts”. A minister in Barnstable noted with concern that “sundry of our poor flock underwent a smiting in their intellectuals, in a strange and unusual manner”. One could either suffer smiting in their intellectuals or become “bemoidered in their understanding”.

Descriptions of supernatural activities: “She bewitched my heifer”

There were the usual claims of someone causing humans or livestock to suddenly  experience fits and/or die, but sometimes people had more mystifying complaints: Thomas Burnham of Springfield claimed that he had heard about “strange doings”, including the “cutting of puddings in the night”. Another pudding “thought to be enchanted” was thrown in a fire to neutralize its evil doings. Witches were accused of enchanting a horse’s bridle, and a Goody Cole was said to have “enchanted our oven” so that the bread the oppressed family made in the oven “would stink and prove loathsome.”

Witches were believed to be able to take on many forms, animal and human and even furniture, and to appear and disappear—often appearing just long enough to insult someone: “a woman with a white cap passed by and struck me on the forehead”; “[the accused witch] came into the house on a moonshining night and took [the victim] by the hand and struck her face as she was in bed with her husband”.

Animal familiars: “I noticed on my right a great turtle that moved as fast as my [horse] rode”

What one realizes fairly quickly about the Puritans’ stories of dangerous animal familiars—witches or evil spirits or even the devil taking the form of animals—is that the stories are often about unfamiliar animals. The Puritans encountered many animals that were new to them in the woods of North America, and they were scared of them. Many Puritans related their experiences of walking home through the woods and encountering strange animals, and their first reaction was one of fear. They might justify that primal reaction later by saying the animal was clearly a witch (for example, if it appeared and disappeared or spoke to them), but it seems clear that fear of wild animals was the real problem.

Cats were familiar animals, but they had been persecuted as spirit familiars for centuries in Europe, so they were bad news if one ran into them in the gathering darkness. White cats, not black, were feared in particular: when Jonathan Woodman “met a white thing like a cat, which did play at my legs”, his reaction to this cute animal was “kicking it hard against a fence, where it stopped with a loud cry.” This childish fear of a white cat was justified on the basis of its connection to a woman suspected of witchcraft, but in general when a Puritan met a cat in the woods he didn’t have to ask himself if it was really a cat or an evil spirit: he knew it was an evil spirit.

Killing a cat is, of course, not charming or endearing, but one man’s hapless, panicky description of encountering a cat is: the unnamed man claimed that a “great white cat” one day “was a-coming up on my left side, and came between my legs, so I could not well go forward”. Anyone who has gotten tripped up by a cat will identify with the experience, if not the claims of witchcraft it provoked.

Furniture attacks: “I saw an andiron leap into the pot and dance and leap about”

Some people reported bewitching of furniture and household items. William Morse claimed that he went to write something, “while I was writing one ear of corn hit me in the face, and firesticks and stones were thrown at me”. Morse kept on, but when “my spectacles were thrown from the table almost into the fire [I]was forced to forebear writing any more for I was so disturbed with so many things constantly thrown at me.” —a superb example of understatement.

Animal afflictions: “There was a great alteration in my cattle”

Often witches were accused of interfering with livestock, most often cattle, hogs, or sheep. Henry Palmer testified that after a run-in with witch John Godfrey all of Palmer’s cattle “vanished quite away”. Mary Johnson claimed that when she was sent to drive hogs out of a field, “a devil would scour the hogs away” by “fazing” them. William Meaker sued for defamation when he was accused of bewitching Thomas Mullener’s hogs. Henry Robie “lost a cow and a sheep very strangely”—too strangely to risk describing. A  thirsty mare aroused suspicion: “Seeing a mare drinking a long time” John Long “swore, ‘by God, I think the devil is in that mare.”

We’ll leave the Puritans now to their restless complaints and nagging fears, and their wonderfully expressive language, with one last example which defies any single categorization: John Fosket’s insult/medical description/accusation of witchcraft against Goodwife Mousall: Fosket told her husband “that all that [Mousall] had was the devil’s for he stood by his bedside and caused his members to rise.”