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

The wide angle

What also ties the chapters together and makes a coherent narrative of six disparate stories is the widespread knowledge of and reliance on legal principles that had stood the test of time in the Dutch and Anglo-American worlds. In all of the chapters, the actors display an amazing grasp of law and an astonishing comprehension of their “rights.”

Given the proliferation of criminal and legal cases and the amount of time that early Americans spent in the courtroom, their knowledge of things legal should not have come as a surprise—but it does. And it is fortunate that this thread weaves through the chapters, because without it Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores would have been a book in search of a thesis.

In other words, each of these cases was a serendipitous find rather than the result of a deliberate search for specific material. The absorbing cases related in this book drew my attention unexpectedly at different times as I researched a previous one—Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.  Because they captured my interest, I put them aside for some future, undetermined use. It was only when I noticed how often legal principles were intertwined with daily life and how consistently legal savvy permeated each case that I decided to link them together in a book that gives people and law central billing.

The question that remains unanswered is how did early Americans—especially those who were not literate—become aware of what the law demanded of them? How did they know what personal rights they commanded under civil and common law? Comfort Taylor knew she should scream, report the alleged assault immediately, and exhibit her bruises in order to make a credible case. Where did she learn this?

Over the years I have given considerable thought to the way history is written and why readers become more easily immersed in fiction as opposed to non-fiction. It seems to me that the narrative form, concentration on one or only a few protagonists (as well as dialogue between them) enhances readability in ways that a bland historical analysis often reduces. Thus, I have come to believe that history is best told as a story, or in the case of Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores, as a series of stories.

Historians have given a name to this approach: microhistory. Microhistory looks intensely at a moment in time and concentrates on the people directly involved in an incident or episode. It investigates the same event from different angles, revealing the rich complexities and conundrums that more general studies overlook or ignore. Legal documents that offer witnesses, victims, plaintiffs and defendants opportunities to speak for themselves as well as to us are a wonderful basis from which to construct microhistorical accounts. Historians are, after all, storytellers—griots with computers.