Pillars of Salt

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Tuesday 9/3 - Pillars of Salt

True Crime In the News

PostSecret submission sets off search for body in a Chicago area park http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/us/postsecret-police-search

Background on Cotton Mather

"Cotton Mather." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 330-332. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 1 Sept. 2013. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2DPSqKLS_g7NncxV3hCcHk1VEE/edit?usp=sharing

"Mather, Cotton." Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. London: Continuum, 2005. Credo Reference. Web. 01 September 2013. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2DPSqKLS_g7ZWg2SDluRDBGdVU/edit?usp=sharing

Cotton Mather as cultural icon most brilliantly evidenced as his appearance as a Marvel Supervillian in the 1970s Team-up comics series: http://bavatuesdays.com/cotton-mather-marvel-supervillian/


Historical background of the Colonial Period (17th Century)

Colonial American Timeline http://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/timelines/timeline3.htm

United States History: Timeline: 1700 - 1800 http://faculty.washington.edu/qtaylor/a_us_history/1700_1800_timeline.htm

Timeline of Colonial America http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Colonial_America

War, riots, rebellion, upheaval - seem practically constant over the time period covered by Pillars of Salt (1699-1796)

Michael V. Wells, (2002) "Public administration in early America: sex and the law in Puritan Massachusetts", Management Decision, Vol. 40 Iss: 6, pp.596 - 602 https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2DPSqKLS_g7Q2pDb2lrV00zTm8/edit?usp=sharing

Puritans left England because they saw it as Sodom and Gomorrah. They thought English courts were too lenient in punishment. Typically followed Mosaic law and punishment, such as the rule to kill animals involved in beastiality, although imposed harsher penalties for rape. Thomas Granger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Granger) was the first individual hanged in Massachusettes Bay Colony. Here is an excerpt about his crimes of “buggery” reported in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation http://faculty.tamu-commerce.edu/kroggenkamp/ThomasGranger.htm

On another note, the first person hanged in New England was John Billington (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Billington).

Cultural/Literary Context for the Period

Several works, including Errand into the Wilderness, by scholar Perry Miller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Miller) argues the unique roots of the American mind in the distinctly Puritan establishment of a kind of cultural psyche. One of the early cultural/literary histories of the colonial moment.

Another dominant and related popular narrative form in this era is the captivity narrative. Interesting in that it has a lot in common with the broadsides, sermons, and crime narrative. One striking example from the time is Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative which takes place against the backdrop of King Philip’s War (1675-1678) ---arguably ”the single greatest calamity” for Puritan New England.

Pillars of Salt Anthology Intro

Why the preponderance of New England in Daniel E. Williams Pillars of Salt anthology? Where are the narratives from the South? Williams notes there is only two crime narratives he has located in the South: The Confession and Declaration of George Burns (1766) and The Vain prodigal and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier. Why so few crime narrative in the South might be a larger question to consider.

The anthology title interests me. I'm hardly a biblical scholar, but I know about Lot's wife, who got turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back on Sodom and Gomorrah as her family was leaving to escape the destruction. I was once told this happened because she wanted to go back. I suppose that meant she deserved punishment like the rest of them. But it could also be interpreted as a punishment for disobedience: They were specifically told not to look back. Reading Mather's sermon may clarify things for me.

In this time frame: 1689 Boston revolt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1689_Boston_revolt) which the Mathers helped lead, the Glorious Revolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glorious_Revolution) in England which had a religious basis.

Revolt is a kind of disobedience. The Boston Tea Party seems like a refutation of "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Isn't there a bit of spin doctoring going on? We see it with William Fly, who refused to the kind of example Mather wanted (Sec. III, pg. 10).

Section I

pgs 1-3 James Morgan as “Celebrity in death” (pg 1). The ideas of public execution as participatory, “collective death,” and a means to reinforce the collective social identity.

Sec II

pg 5 Idea of shared guilt, what role does the community play in the crime. Also, capital criminals as “monuments of divine justice”

Miracle of Grace, reform, rehabilitation, and grace. What good is reform in the face of death?


pg 8 From criminal to martyr? How does this work?

Revolt is a kind of disobedience. The Boston Tea Party seems like a refutation of "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Isn't there a bit of spin doctoring going on?

pg 10 William Fly refuses the kind of example Mather wanted.

Sec IV

pg 11 talks about hanging - violent entertainment - as social control. Is it the same today? Steven Pinker argud perception of violence today is out of whack with the reality. But who creates & reinforces that perception?

“Ruling elite"? What do they mean? Who is the ruling elite in colonial America?

Gallows as symbol of power/contact zone with existing power structure

pgs 12-13 Commodities shaping the consumer and the role of the spectator in public executions alluding to Foucault

The stories shift from redemption & salvation to stories of crime, from education to entertainment

Sec V

The possibility for subversion of a monolithic form of Puritan power when religious depravity is not the only answer to why crimes were committed

Sec. VI

The multiple narratives in Levi Ames narrative could make a person question how true any one of them are. Is the truth of true crime always questionable? All stories are framed & edited, all have points of view Also, what happens when the accused is no longer simply an example of God’s grace but a figure of potential empathy and ambiguity?

Sec. VII

Spooner Murder--Bathsheba - nice. An author could not have chosen a better name for a woman at the center of a lust/greed murder tale. And the last name reinforces that even more :) Spooner!

pg 39 - Barrick “I was as honest as the times would allow”

pg 40 American Bloody Register and one of the earliest cliff hangers in American literature


Joseph Mountain early narrative of organized crime (like the Pirates). Worked as part of an underground that had its own rules, mores, language, etc. Also, the place of the criminal as the other (seen with both African-Americans and Irish). “Deliver or I’ll cool your porridge”

Sec. IX

pg 57 - Powers goes through his usual routine after his crime - like people say of psychos & serial killers: "he seemed so normal." Yeah, he was even “playing” with the children. Conflation of race and mental/moral depravity becomes a huge issue in the late 18th century.

Sec. X

pg 61 about Samuel Frost - "his mind was evidently not formed like those of other persons." I wonder what they knew of the mind, psychology, brain damage, back then. It sounds like an early reference to the psychopath. pg 62 - Frost & patricide - Is there a parallel here to the Revolution? Foucault seems to say so down the page.

Cotton Mather's Pillars of Salt


There’s a theme in Mather - not going to church leads to worse sin. Disobedience leads to damnation. Could that be driven by self-interest? Consciously or not?

And it goes along with the idea of crime narrative as social control.

I’m having visions of Carpenter here: 3-They-Live-OBEY-1988.jpg

Correct and Reform

According to Mather Narratives are to ”Correct and Reform” ---> How is that different than narratives now?

Breakdown of Crimes in Mather's Pillars of Salt

  • I Infanticide Mary Martin? -->What’s all this about the blood of the child?
  • II Adultery
  • III Bestiality
  • IV Piracy
  • V Murder of their Master
  • VI Rape (upon seeing death)
  • VII Murder (Discourse) Forgive your judges
  • VIII Hugh Stone → The horror of uncertainty! Conversations on way to pulpit (the particularly harrowing example of Hugh Stone)
  • IX Infanticide
  • X Zachary/Indian
  • XI Infanticide
  • XII Infanticide

Fiery language of the sermons, filled with forms, fire, and eternal damnation!