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Witches, Wife Beaters & Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America by Elaine Forman Crane

 Item — Volume: 1 volume
Identifier: 2011-38

Scope and Contents

Book Description:

The early American legal system permeated the lives of colonists and reflected their sense of what was right and wrong, honorable and dishonorable, moral and immoral. In a compelling book full of the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, Elaine Forman Crane reveals the ways in which early Americans clashed with or conformed to the social norms established by the law. As trials throughout the country reveal, alleged malefactors such as witches, wife beaters, and whores, as well as debtors, rapists, and fornicators, were as much a part of the social landscape as farmers, merchants, and ministers. Ordinary people "made" law by establishing and enforcing informal rules of conduct. Codified by a handshake or over a mug of ale, such agreements became custom and custom became "law." Furthermore, by submitting to formal laws initiated from above, common folk legitimized a government that depended on popular consent to rule with authority.

In this book we meet Marretie Joris, a New Amsterdam entrepreneur who sues Gabriel de Haes for calling her a whore; peer cautiously at Christian Stevenson, a Bermudian witch as bad "as any in the world;" and learn that Hannah Dyre feared to be alone with her husband—and subsequently died after a beating. We travel with Comfort Taylor as she crosses Narragansett Bay with Cuff, an enslaved ferry captain, whom she accuses of attempted rape, and watch as Samuel Banister pulls the trigger of a gun that kills the sheriff's deputy who tried to evict Banister from his home. And finally, we consider the promiscuous Marylanders Thomas Harris and Ann Goldsborough, who parented four illegitimate children, ran afoul of inheritance laws, and resolved matters only with the assistance of a ghost. Through the six trials she skillfully reconstructs here, Crane offers a surprising new look at how early American society defined and punished aberrant behavior, even as it defined itself through its legal system.

Book Contents:

Introduction 1. In Dutch with the Neighbors: Slander "in a well regulated Burghery" 2. Bermuda Triangle: Witchcraft, Quakers, and Sexual Eclecticism 3. "Leave of [f ] or Else I Would Cry Out Murder": The Community Response to Family Violence in Early New England 4. Cold Comfort: Race and Rape in Rhode Island 5. He Would "Shoot him upon the Spott": The Eviction of Samuel Banister 6. A Ghost Story Epilogue Notes Index

272 pages, 12 illustrations.

Publisher: Cornell University Press


  • Creation: 2011


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

No special restrictions unless otherwise specified.

Conditions Governing Use

© Elaine Forman Crane 2011. We reserve the right to restrict reproduction of materials due to preservation concerns.


.02 Cubic Feet (1 volume) : 1 volume; 6.1 x 9.3 in.


Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America by Elaine Forman Crane


No accruals are anticipated at this time.

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Repository Details

Part of the Rhode Island State Archives Repository

33 Broad Street
Providence RI 02903 USA