Feb 9, 2006

Swinging Parties: Capital Punishment in Colonial America

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Brown, Irene Quenzler and Brown, Richard D. The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler. A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Crane, Elaine Forman. Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002



Michel Foucault in his landmark Discipline and Punish helped pave the way for a new generation of historians to examine the role of judicial punishment to shape society. Brown and Brown’s The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler and Crane’s Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell continue in this historiographical tradition, and each book uses a microhistorical approach in its examination of colonial American judicial behavior.

Crane’s book considered the case of Rebecca Cornell, a 73-year old woman who died in a mysterious fire that, according to witnesses, burned her wool fibers but not cotton threads. Her son, Thomas Cornell, was tried and hung for the crime; seemingly unsatisfied with the original judicial results, members of the community later brought his wife Sarah and their Native American servant Wickhopash to trial for the same crime (they were acquitted).

The author employed a wide variety of cross-disciplinary techniques to this work; prominent among these were psychohistory, gender analysis, and postmodern rhetorical analysis. In addition, Crane examined the material culture of the Cornells and those in their community, and the reader learns a great deal about colonial Rhode Island through the inclusion of such ostensibly arcane details as the use of saffron dye in clothing. Most of all, the author displayed a prowess with knowledge and analysis of colonial American legal history in this book, and the information on the use of spectral evidence expands on the work done by John Demos.

While Killed Strangely has narrative elements more often associated with crime novels, readers seeking something akin to a Patricia Cornwell tale will leave this work dissatisfied. Not only does Crane dissect the case against Thomas Cornell, but the author also provides alternative scenarios that could have explained the death of Rebecca. This, of course, is thoughtful historical analysis based on the court records, rather than a neat Hollywood ending; undergraduates may be disappointed in the book’s lack of a definite resolution, but that is precisely the reason that instructors might want to make this a supplemental text in an undergraduate colonial America course.

Crane’s attempts to develop a genetic linkage between the ancestors and descendants of Thomas are the book’s weakest points. A genetic predisposition toward crime may exist in certain individuals with, for example, the XXY chromosome (this condition is known as Klinefelter’s syndrome), but genetic science is in its relative infancy and cannot be used as a predictive tool. The author’s attempts to suggest such a linkage border more on science fiction than solid analysis.

Brown and Brown examine the case of a father who was accused of raping his 10-year old daughter in The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler. The authors made little effort to minimize the stark ugliness of the crime, and yet manage to convey an image of Ephraim Wheeler that is human in spite of his monstrous crimes. Like Thomas Cornell, Wheeler was the guest of honor at a “swinging party,” but a crowd of five thousand spectators watched Wheeler twist in the wind.

The authors of Ephraim Wheeler used cross-disciplinary methods in their analysis of the crimes and punishment associated with the defendant. There is some excellent use of psychohistory in this text, particularly in the astute diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder in the 10-year old Betsy. At the risk of divulging personal experience on the topic, this reviewer finds very credible the conclusions that the authors have reached in their analysis of the evidence. In addition, the authors used race and class analysis in their understanding of the context in which the crime was committed and justice was meted out. This book avoids sensationalizing the crime itself, but rather uses the crime as an opportunity to understand the community in which the Wheelers lived.

Both books address issues of intergenerational conflict, and both use the gathered evidence to debunk cherished visions of an idyllic colonial America. In addition, both texts serve as conduits to the voices of people on the margins. Killed Strangely brings the words of women and children to modern readers, while Ephraim Wheeler adds those of the poor and persons of color.

Finally, these texts serve to remind students of history that modern Americans have more in common with colonial Americans than they might have previously thought possible. The current fascination with crime might lead one to believe that such abhorrent acts as matricide, rape, and incest are the province of a degenerate society on the verge of implosion. Killed Strangely and Ephraim Wheeler remind us that criminal behavior can occur even in societies dominated by pious-minded government officials with the ability to legislate morality.

6 comments:

Stephanie said...

And this is the "justice" that some people want to revert back to?

Stefan Schmidt said...

And this is the "justice" that some people want to revert back to?
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There was very little crime back then. Just look at the situation now.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

The situation now, indeed. We're at a 30-year low in violent crime.

The reason crime seemed low back then was because police were so rare, you just took care of it yourself instead of reporting it. Also, people who had trouble playing nice with others could head to the frontier, which we no longer really have.

Capital punishment today is something like 3-4 times more expensive than simply locking someone away for the rest of their lives. We can't afford to kill everyone we'd like to. :)

Stefan Schmidt said...

The situation now, indeed. We're at a 30-year low in violent crime.
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Only in regards to modern history (post 20th century).

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The reason crime seemed low back then was because police were so rare, you just took care of it yourself instead of reporting it. Also, people who had trouble playing nice with others could head to the frontier, which we no longer really have.
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Okay…. Measuring the crime rate in the 19th and especially 18th century is difficult but it still is no where near the levels present today.

Just look at the Third Reich. Hitler was unabashed about using the death penalty and not surprisingly crime was ‘unnaturally’ low (by today’s standard).

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Capital punishment today is something like 3-4 times more expensive than simply locking someone away for the rest of their lives. We can't afford to kill everyone we'd like to. :)
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This varies from state to state. The financial burden does not come from the actual execution but from the ‘appeals process.’

Hooda Thunkit said...

"We're at a 30-year low in violent crime."

I contend that we're at a 30-year low in accurately reporting violent crime, just the way that the (crooked) politicians want it to be...

Viagra Online Without prescription said...

I imagine that in the ancient times there were a wide variety of disciplinary techniques were harnessed to withdraw confessions or so, and also to punish someone for committing atrocities.