Gerry B's Book Reviews

The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport

An agreeable balance of law and journalism

Publisher’s blurb: Diane Rapaport’s previous book was New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians, so it seems only right that she would share her own most exciting archival finds. As its title suggests, The Naked Quaker bares seldom-seen aspects of Colonial New England life. Representative chapter headings include “Witches & Wild Women,” “Coupling,” “Parents & Youth,” “Tavern Tales,” “Slaves & Servants,” and “Neighbor vs. Neighbor.” Glimpses into a vanished world. 

About the author: Diane Rapaport, a former trial lawyer, has made a new career as an author and speaker, bringing history to life with true stories from early New England court records.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

Note: This is not a GLBT book.

Being a former law professor and a rabid history buff, The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport [Commonwealth Editions, 2007] was right up my alley. It is a collection of cases gleaned from the archival court records of Puritan New England, c. 1620s to the latter part of that century. 

Although we think of the present as being a litigious time, and in some ways it is, it doesn’t hold a tallow candle to the inhabitants of 17-century Massachusetts. Moreover, many of the causes are remarkably familiar even today—i.e. drunkenness, unlicensed sale of liquor, unpaid debts, unwanted advances, and obstreperous youth, etc. Therefore, as Ms Rapaport points out, “Goin to law” was a common remedy for large and small issues. 

It was also a source of spectator entertainment that came around usually every quarter (Courts of Quarterly Session)—but more often as required—and people would gather from miles around to watch or partake. Lawyers were hardly ever retained, judges were sometimes commissioned from the ranks of the previously convicted, and the courtroom was generally a tavern. All of this Ms Rapaport reveals as part of her meticulous research. 

In fact, going through the pages of The Naked Quaker is like taking a front row seat at some of the sessions. For example we have Mrs. Elizabeth Goodman, a notoriously outspoken widow, who was accused of being a witch on the basis that she had an uncanny knowledge of her neighbours affairs, and that, after Mrs. Goodman admitted “some affection” for a certain gentleman, his new wife suffered “very strange fits” after the wedding. Nonetheless, the judges decided that the evidence was “not sufficient … take away her life,” and so she was set free.

Then we have a “lascivious meeting” of unmarried men and women in the fall of 1660. This group, including Harvard students and their young women friends, drank wine together at a tavern, and then moved on to Harvard Yard where they were witnessed holding hands.  One witness even described a girl sitting on a boy’s lap, and other amorous behaviour that shocked the sensibilities of proper Puritan judges, and so the participants were admonished to “avoid the like loose practices in the future.” 

On the other hand, a husband and wife were severely punished for playing and allowing to be played games of cards at their home. 

Outright religious intolerance was not only rife, particularly between Puritans and Quakers, it was legally sanctioned. For years the Massachusetts authorities had engaged in unrelenting persecution of Quakers—the General Court issued a series of laws penalizing the “accused sect of heretics”—and it was illegal for Quakers to meet together or to teach others about their beliefs.74 It was also unlawful (whether Quaker or not) not to attend church on the Sabbath, and Lydia Wardell and her husband had been fined for missing (Puritan) services on twenty consecutive Sundays. Consequently, Lydia did attend one Sunday in 1663—only she did it naked. 

Slavery was quite acceptable to Puritan society, and it frequently extended beyond people of colour–Africans and Native Americans–to include the Irish and Scots. For example, two boys (11 and perhaps 14) had been kidnapped from their beds and brought to Massachusetts as indentured “servants.”  They were sold to a magistrate to work on his estate, and some years later they appealed to the court (on which their master sat) for relief from their servitude. They lost.

Although this is a chronicle of digested court cases, the reader need have no concerns about it being a dry or dusty read. On the contrary, probably because of her experience as a speaker on the subject, Ms Rapaport has struck an agreeable balance between law and journalism. In addition, given the direct quotes in the arcane language of the day, and the grassroots insight into everyday life, it could also be a valuable resource for writers working on that era.

Highly recommended for his buffs like myself. Five stars. 

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Visitor count to Gerry B’s Book Review: 12,574

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This has been a busy month for me with the publication of an eBook version of Two Irish Lads, The paperback publication of Nor All Thy Tears: Journey to Big Sky,”  and completing the first draft of Coming of Age on the Trail. I am also happy to say that both Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears have received 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Therefore the count stands this way:

 Click on the individual images (except Coming of Age) to purchase.

August 14, 2011 - Posted by | Historical period, Non-fiction, non-GLBT

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