• Lydia Craig

Anecdotes without an ending

Textual research into old records such as Early American newspapers is like falling down the rabbit hole and landing in a room of various rabbit holes. You can chase the white rabbit, or you can chase a black, brown, grey, spotted, rainbow rabbit that pops up out of nowhere. Or a purple hare. Or get hopelessly lost, and reach for a bottle that says "DRINK ME", and start over the next day with a pounding head.

Over the past few years, I've been researching A LOT of newspapers recently in connection with several eighteenth century projects. I'll find what I need...and then my eye strays down and I find a much more interesting story, one that I may never have the time to research or discover. Though I sometimes don't follow these leads, here are a few that have stuck in my mind and made me think:

The Boston News-Letter, Aug 29-Sept 5th, Issue 860.

Did Jethro, "well-fed", but with a "scar" on his lip get dragged back to his Master in chains for the reward and "all reafonable Charges"? Or did he use what little English he knew to find employment, starting out with just the clothes on his back and the desire for freedom? At what point did he wash his face in the morning and stare at the reflection of that healed scar, the twisted, permanent reminder that he was another man's bought slave, nothing and no one? When did he decide to risk his life to change all that? His name is Jethro, Biblically the father-in-law of Moses, who set the Israelites ironic that in a so-called "Christian" colony masters had the insufferable cheek to give their slaves such names.

This delightful story could be the basis of an early American horror film: The Dotchet Spectre (too Victorian?), The Dotchet Horror? (too obvious), Let Me Out? (too modern) Or..."Ever Fo Frighted"? We have a winner. Basically, a gang of brats locked a little boy in a room "with a dead Corpfe," and when he was let out after an unspecified time, he was insane from fear. The writer is pleased to call the incident "a melancholy Accident," instead of "a Cruel, most Cowardly Perfecution"; I suppose he knew the fathers of these bullies and didn't want to risk the usual repercussions that arise from calling a spade a spade in the press. You know - tarring and feathering, the stocks, fines, brandings, etc. The boys probably went on to live long and respected lives and behaved themselves like model citizens thereafter...but that's not how I'm going to re-imagine this story. Oh no...not at all.

Sometimes, women cross-dressed in the good auld days. Read Middleton's delightful Jacobean comedy The Roaring Girl (1611) to get an idea of how society responded to such "lewdness." Nearly two centuries later, a young lady "more merry than wise" dressed in man's clothes, considered an abomination by the religious. She apparently wanted to ride her horse to a "frolic," and so came in disguise. Unfortunately, her horse seems to have thrown her and she drowned in a pond. From the tone of the article, the editor apparently feels this is a Cautionary Tale to all like-minded ladies.

A poor Indian woman who was living as a servant/slave gave birth to a baby and tried to keep anyone from finding out about the infant. Eventually, someone noticed "the Guilty Mother's" frequent trips to her Master's barn, and found the child inside. Apparently, from the moral outrage this inspires in the Esteemed Editor, Native American women are capable of asexual conception...wonder how "furprized" ALL the members of that Household really were.

If you have access to the Early American Newspapers database at your institution, or through your local library, consider doing some research projects to discover what became of such mysterious individuals!

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