Elaine Forman Crane


On her book Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America

Cover Interview of January 22, 2012

In a nutshell

Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores combines people, history, and law. The book is composed of six stories about early Americans and how brushes with the law affected everyday life.

If the chapters are not exactly “ripped from the headlines,” they do focus on attention-grabbing criminal or civil conflicts and the way ordinary people stumbled through complicated legal tangles. We may not be able to hear their voices, but their actions are familiar. Indeed, they are remarkably like us.

The chapters range geographically from New England to New Amsterdam and from Maryland to Bermuda. Men and women, free and enslaved, humans and spirits rub elbows throughout the pages as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries collide with the early nineteenth.  Although social issues dominate the story lines, sex and money are integral to the narratives.

The first chapter explores slander in New Amsterdam and the creative use of scurrilous language by Dutch settlers. The word “whore” may allude to illicit sexuality in modern parlance, but in New Amsterdam it was a slur directed at unscrupulous women in the marketplace.

In chapter two, male and female witches command attention by instilling fear and generating havoc in Bermuda, while sexual overtones contribute to the accusations against them. Despite their best efforts, however, even the devil’s minions eventually succumb to the rule of law.

Domestic violence is the subject of chapter three, a narrative that analyzes the way abused women surrounded themselves with friends and neighbors as a protection against brutal husbands.

The plot of chapter four involves attempted rape, as an enslaved ferry captain defends himself in court against charges brought by an elite but, perhaps, conniving woman. The outcome of the case depends on whether the reader believes what “he said” rather than what “she said,” with only a Rashomon ending to fall back on.

The desperate financial travails of Samuel Banister serve as background to a murder story in chapter five, while chapter six demonstrates how the testimony of a ghost could determine the outcome of a trial and influence bastardy proceedings, property ownership, and national politics.