Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
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Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

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Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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Historic Buildings of Coventry, CT

Fellow museum guide, interpreter, and teacher Dan Sterner travels all throughout Connecticut photographing the thousands of 18th and 19th century buildings that remain in our 163 towns. He posts the pictures with descriptions and historical information on his web site, town by town. Dan recently put up some pages about what’s to be found in Coventry, which was founded in 1712 and still has more than 400 old places, many in fine condition,  along its roads and byways. He generously agreed to permit me to link up to that page here on You’re History. I’m including the Coventry index here, but there’s a complete index of all the places he’s visited on Historic Buildings of Connecticut .

Thanks, Dan, great work!

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Buildings Index

Boston Turnpike
12 Brigham’s Tavern (1778)
1064 Nathaniel Root House (1809)
1630 Coventry Grange Hall (1834)
1746 Second Congregational Church (1847)
1747 Loomis-Pomeroy House (1833)
1804 Pomeroy Tavern (1801)

Bread & Milk Street
21 Jacob Wilson Tavern (1735)

Main Street
1129 Capron-Philips House (1864)
1134 Booth & Dimock Memorial Library (1913)
1141 Former Methodist Church (1867)
1171 First Congregational Church (1849)
1195 Coventry Visitors’ Center (1876)
1220 Bidwell Hotel (1822)
2011 Daniel Rust House (1731)

North River Road
290 John Turner House (1814)
941 Charles Hanover House (1825)

South Street
2187 Elias Sprague House (1821)
2299 Nathan Hale Homestead (1776)
2382 Strong-Porter House (1730)

CT and MA Early Fieldstone Grave Markers

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Eastham Cove Cemetery, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

BENNET PAINE         
DYED MAY YE 30
1716 AGED 45
Y’s.

Eastham Cove is an ancient burying ground that contains the graves of three Mayflower passengers. The earliest burial dates from 1660.  It also has more than 16 fieldstone markers, most of which are no longer legible and therefore unidentifiable.

Bennet was the daughter of Major John Freeman (1719) and his wife Marcy (Prence) Freeman (1711). Eastham vital records indicate Bennet was the wife of John Paine. He died in 1731 at age 70. He is buried in the old section of Orleans Cemetery. Researchers indicate that John and Bennet Paine had 12 children.

image

 Captain Nathan Hale Cemetery, Coventry, Connecticut

HERE
LYETH THE BO
DY OF HANNAH
BUELL WHO W
AS THE WIFE O
F PETER BUELL
DECEASED FEB
20 1718

Hannah Wells Buell, born November 22, 1689, was the wife of one of the original settlers of Coventry, Peter Buell, whose name also appears on this stone. This is the oldest legible stone in the graveyard. Crudely shaped into a semicircle, it is the only example in town of the work of the Norwich Ovoid Carver, an early craftsman whose name remains unknown. Note how the words, “OF” and “WAS” are divided. Peter lived to the age of 89 and is buried nearby.

 

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Essex River View Cemetery, Essex, CT

PRATT

This undated stone bears only the single name, Pratt. There is a footstone several feet behind it with the same lettering. This is believed to be the burial place of Lt. William Pratt, one of the founders of Saybrook, CT, of which Essex was once a part. Lt. Pratt was born in England in 1609, and died in 1678.

Esther Williams Meacham: The Redeemed Captive


On the bitter cold night of Feb. 29, 1704, the little town of Deerfield, MA, an English outpost on the western fringes of the Bay Colony, once again found itself in the cross-hairs of the imperial feud being waged between France and Great Britain for the dominance of the North American continent. The armed conflicts of the 18th century between the English colonies in North America and the French settlements that stretched into Canada were fought with the support of Native American allies.

In 1704, Mohawk Indians, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, allied with the French settlers in Canada, attacked the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, killing 50 of the very young and old and kidnapping 112 more. They then marched the prisoners to Canada, killing 20 more women and several children along the way as acts of mercy, including the wife and infant son of John Williams, a Puritan minister and a prize hostage. While he and his surviving sons were ultimately released, his daughter, Eunice, who was seven at the time of her capture, remained with her captors, converted to Catholicism, and at the age of 16 married an Indian, with whose people she chose to spend the rest of her life. A fuller account of Eunice’s saga can be found here:

Raid

The opinions expressed in the linked article are not necessarily my own.

The gravestone pictured above is located in the Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT, and it marks the burial site of the sister of Eunice Williams. Esther Williams Meacham was one of the Deerfield captives who was released and returned to her life among the Puritans. Esther married a minister and relocated from Mass. to Connecticut, and local accounts tell of Eunice’s infrequent visits to her sister’s household, during which she refused to stay inside the house, preferring to pitch her own shelter on the village green.

Esther Meacham’s gravestone contains a summary of her ordeal among the Mohawk:

Here lies what was Mortal of

Mrs. Esther Meacham ye Pru

dent Pious & virtuous

Consort of ye Revd Joseph

Meacham she was ye Daugh

of ye Venerable John Will

iams of Deerfield & was

Carried Capture to Canada

with her Father & his Family

was wonderfully preserved

& Redeemed & lived an

Eminent Example of what

was amiable in a wife a

Mother a Friend & a Christian

Slept in Jesus March 12th

1751 in ye 60th Year of her Age.

Esther’s marker was carved by a local Coventry craftsman, Gershom Bartlett. Follow up to Eunice’s story:
link

 

 

Biography: Captive Histories

by Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney

 

haefeli_sweeney_300In 1704, a French and Indian coalition raided the frontier village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, destroying property, killing 50 of the inhabitants, and kidnapping 112. Forced to march in the dead of winter to Canada, many of the captives died along the way. Many survived, however, and later printed narratives of their ordeals. The most famous victims of this raid were members of the Williams family, and much has been written about them in subsequent centuries. In Captive Histories, Sweeney and Haefeli have gathered primary documents pertaining to the Williams survivors and those less famous. The difference in this book is the inclusion of multiple perspectives, including the Abenaki and Mohawk stories that have been passed from generation to generation via oral tradition. Letters, military reports, oral narratives,and memoirs are collated and evaluated in such a way as to compare and contrast the English, French, and Native American points of view, and to assess belief systems, traditions, the the reliability of the evidence. Captive Histories does not read like a historical novel; it is an important and valuable piece of research and socio/political/cultural commentary on one of colonial New England’s most notorious events.