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

A close-up

Having sorted this out in my own mind, I admit that I play favorites with the various chapters.

If the name-calling Dutch in chapter one are the most amusing characters, and the violent abusers in chapter three the most disturbing, the most captivating stories are those where we revel in the intimate details of people’s lives.

Thus, even though I remain ambivalent about whether Cuff actually attempted to rape Comfort Taylor, the details of the case allow us to envision not only what-might-have-been but to appreciate the nuances of life in eighteenth-century Newport, Rhode Island.

The opening pages remind us of a slower time when water and horseback were the basic modes of transportation. Meeting the young widowed Comfort for the first time we wonder if women usually traveled alone across long distances and whether she had any misgivings boarding the ferry late in the day with only an enslaved ferry captain for company.  As darkness enveloped Narragansett Bay, men on shore heard her shout for help and rushed to her rescue. Back at the ferry house, Comfort showed her bruises and claimed Cuff assaulted her. Cuff denied everything, and his owner, Thomas Borden, offered Comfort compensation to make the incident go away. Comfort chose to sue Cuff, and the jury’s verdict along with subsequent events shows how microhistorical narratives have the ability to nuance and complicate stories. In this case, the nuances leave us wondering whether Comfort was a victim or a scheming predator, and the fact that Cuff—a slave—was afforded all the legal rights of a free white male complicates the subject of slavery. The ending? Surprises to be sure, but ones not to be revealed here.