November 8, 2007

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The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport (Commonwealth Editions, 2007, 145 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

Former trial lawyer Diane Rapaport writes the “Tales from the Courthouse” column for New England Ancestors magazine. This book includes some tales already published there as well as some new ones.

In the title story, a Quaker woman and her husband are fined for missing church 20 times in a row in Puritan Massachusetts (religious freedom, my ass) so she shows up one morning at church and strips naked. Her name was Lydia Wardell and according to court records, this really happened, in 1663. Apparently it was a somewhat common method by which Quakers protested evangelical churches’ spiritual “nakedness.” Lydia was sentenced to a whipping.

None of the 25 cases in The Naked Quaker by themselves had any major effects on broader society, and many have no record of a satisfying resolution — there’s no knowing how the participants’ lives went after the given incident.

They’re still fun, and informative, to read.

The real achievement is in Rapaport’s way of bringing us into the situation. Without going beyond the scant available evidence and some reasonable assumptions, she sets a visible scene: “One Sunday morning … the residents … took their assigned seats in the local meetinghouse ….” She offers wider context too: “Sunday services lasted six or seven hours, with only a noontime break….” The effect is a bringing-to-life of the seventeenth century.

But, although the blurbs try to paint this as a titillating collection of colonial shockers, many of these stories have little life beyond what Rapaport valiantly breathes into them. Or, to be more accurate, they have plenty of life, mundane as ever, but little excitement. Philip Chesley, for instance, of Durham, N.H., amounts to an uninteresting joe who got into scrapes wherever he went. Sometimes truth is just duller than fiction.

And sometimes it’s nice to know the truth all the same. Especially when it’s your own, or your forebears’. The book’s opening stories about women suspected of witchcraft — one gets the definite impression that “witch” meant “scapegoat” — are especially intriguing, from a safe distance of 350 years. And how about the story of Roger Kelly, a man of “combative spirit” convicted of selling wine without a license and sentenced to serve one year as constable for the Isles of Shoals — it was that thankless a job. The Isles, like most offshore islands at the time, were “a semilawless realm that mainlanders never quite managed to control.” Kelly continued “suing and being sued” over various disputes, but also continued serving in government, as selectman, assemblyman and magistrate.

A set of quick reads, some fun, some eh, this is maybe not all we wish it were (no Court TV in those days), but Rapaport has admirably made the most of it. BLisa Parsons