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.


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. 


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


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 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 | Leave a comment

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan, Michael Walsh

The ‘lost slaves’ of history brought to the fore by two distinguished journalists. A truly fascinating read.


white cargo - coverStory blurb: White Cargo is the forgotten story of the thousands of Britons who lived and died in bondage in Britain’s American colonies.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Urchins were swept up from London’s streets to labor in the tobacco fields, where life expectancy was no more than two years. Brothels were raided to provide “breeders” for Virginia. Hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock.

Drawing on letters crying for help, diaries, and court and government archives, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh demonstrate that the brutalities usually associated with black slavery alone were perpetrated on whites throughout British rule. The trade ended with American independence, but the British still tried to sell convicts in their former colonies, which prompted one of the most audacious plots in Anglo-American history.

This is a saga of exploration and cruelty spanning 170 years that has been submerged under the overwhelming memory of black slavery. White Cargo brings the brutal, uncomfortable story to the surface.


Review by Gerry Burnie

Yes, I know, today is St. Patrick’s Day: a day when we celebrate an Irish saint who was born in Rome, who wore blue (not green), and who didn’t really drive all the snakes out of Ireland because there weren’t any to begin with. However, green beer and silliness aside, the history of Ireland and its people has been (unfortunately) far from celebratory, and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh (two distinguished journalists) have brought yet another dark chapter to light in their  extensively-researched book, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America [NYU Press, March 8, 2008].

white cargo - prisonersI first became aware of “white slavery” when I was reviewing The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport, and in it she cited the case of two Irish lads (11 and perhaps 14) who were 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.

Thereafter, I mentioned this case to several people who were utterly shocked that such a thing could happen.

But happen it did, and in great numbers. It began when James I sold 30,000 prisoners to the American colonies as slaves, and in 1625 he proclaimed that Irish political prisoners were to be transported to the West Indies. Therefore, by the mid 1600s Irish slaves amounted to 70% of the population of Montserrat. Moreover, in the early days of slavery in the New England colonies, the majority of slaves were actually white.

white cargo - slave adIreland was the main source. In the decade following the failed Irish Rebellion of 1641, it is estimated that 300,000 Irish rebels were sold as slaves, and thereafter 100,000 children between the ages of 10 to 14 were taken from their parents, 52,000 (mostly women and children) were sold, and 32,000 men and boys went to the highest bidder in slave market from the West Indies, to Virginia and New England.

The African slave trade was just beginning during this period, and African slaves were therefore more expensive, i.e. £50 sterling (compared to £5 sterling), and so white slaves were often treated more harshly than the other. Moreover, it was quite legal for Blacks and Indians to own white slaves. In fact, the practice became so prevalent that the Virginia Assembly passed a law prohibiting it, i.e. “It is enacted that noe negro or Indian though baptized and enjoyned their owne freedome shall be capable of any such purchase of christians…” ~ Statutes of the Virginia Assembly, Vol. 2, pp. 280-81.

This is a fascinating read with enough research to make it reliable, but written in a journalist’s easy-to-read fashion. Highly recommended. Five bees.


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Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.`

 It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post: Today’s history curriculum is “bound for boredom” ~ Bill Bigelow


two irish lads st copy

If you would like to learn more about my other books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.



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March 17, 2014 Posted by | American History, Historical period, Non-fiction, non-GLBT | Leave a comment


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