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


Early settlers created a legal culture that crossed boundaries and time. Shared values, embedded in traditions that migrated across the Atlantic and adapted to conditions on the North American continent, stabilized communities and unified immigrants. This evolving legal culture peaceably Americanized those within its reach—yet, paradoxically, within a context of conflict. Nevertheless, the disputes that brought individuals into the courtroom were generally restrained by the formalities of that venue.

Moreover, if legal contests were eventually fought in legal arenas, it is nothing less than remarkable how often such matters were initiated by ordinary people going about their business on an ordinary day. Samuel Banister fell behind in his rent, the sheriff came to evict him and Banister declined to leave the house. Instead, he shot and killed the sheriff’s assistant, a man Banister only meant to threaten. The implications of property ownership, debtor laws, tenant rights, and live-in servants all contributed to this tragic story.

The legal aspects of the tale may recede to the background in the interest of good storytelling, but they are integral to the narrative nonetheless. So too are the unknown players who move the story forward. By bringing them to the foreground, Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores addresses the role of common folk in early America.

Those debtors, tenants, and servants played as much of a part in the creation of a legal culture as did the legislators who wrote the laws. By obeying such laws, common folk legitimized the authority of those above them. By circumventing the system and seeking justice or punishment through private negotiations, common folk created common law.  I suspect they appreciated the empowerment that the legal process offered, even if they were unaware of how it came to be or that they would be the vehicles by which the rule of law would be Americanized and perpetuated.