Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Margaret Rule Redux

with 7 comments

This is my big teaching day, so I really don’t have time to write a proper post.

I did want to respond to jd’s assertion that the story of Margaret Rule–that was the name of the teen-aged girl Increase and Cotton Mather had strip to below the waist so that they could rub her naked body in an attempt to “cure” her from being tormented by the spectral presence of a witch–anyway, that the story must have come from private documents.

In fact, it came from PUBLIC records.

This was, first, because the Mathers were not secretive about what they were doing.

They invited their neighbors in to watch the “treatment,” and the neighbors told the story all over town.

It was also reported in Robert Calef’s book castigating the Mathers about their part in what became known as “the witchcraft.”

The Mathers were shocked and outraged when the people of Boston and other towns simply assumed that they were rubbing the girl not to treat her, but to…well, to rub her.

The people of Puritan New England were considerably less prissy about this kind of thing than people would be a hundred years later. 

I think I said on the blog that Perry Miller did not report this incident.

When I went back to look over the text, I found that although he did not report it, he did allude to it, very obliquely, so that if you did not already know about it you wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

I then found that he alluded to an awful lot more that I wish I knew about.

Cotton Mather is said to have not as much control over his carnal appetites as he should have had. 

Exactly what that is supposed to mean is not made clear, but the implication is that  people who read Miller’s history at the time he wrote it–the early 1950s–would probably have already known.

Miller also says, without compromise, that Cotton Mather was “neurotic.”

I think we can give him that, even if the meaning of “neurotic” isn’t really clear.

I agree with Cheryl that a lot of the sex abuse trials in recent history have proceeded under what would normally be unConstitutional as ex post facto laws–but there’s been a lot of that going around.

And now, it being my big teaching day, I’d better go pack up.


Written by janeh

May 8th, 2013 at 6:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Margaret Rule Redux'

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  1. ok, I guessed wrong about the story. Perhaps my skepticism meter is set to low but I distrust “startling new discoveries” about something that has been studied for hundreds of years.

    Cheryl, if I remember correctly, the reason for statutes of limitation is the difficulty of getting reliable evidence for something that happened years ago. We are both talking about the same thing!


    8 May 13 at 5:01 pm

  2. Jane probably knows better, but my understanding of a statute of limitations is that the crime has to have been known, so it’s less the problem of flakey evidence–that’s what the trial is for–than ignoring something no one cared about for 20 years, then prosecuting someone because you’re annoyed at the perpetrator over something else.
    Say a kid steals a car and goes joy-riding. They get the car back, and no one files charges. The statute of limitations keeps the kid from being prosecuted 10 or 20 years later when he’s done something heinous but legal, like a messy divorce.


    8 May 13 at 7:19 pm

  3. The really nasty trend is even more apparent with the recent “outing” of Rolf Harris (presumably the person to whom JD obliquely refers). Harris, he of the famous “wobble board” with which, a generation or two ago, he accompanied himself to fame with “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” and who ruled as the most famous professional Australian abroad until replaced by Paul Hogan’s “Crocodile Dundee”, has been swept up in the Savile witch hunt in the UK.

    All sorts of old rockers, movie stars and the like must be quaking in their boots as little old ladies come out of the woodwork claiming to have been “abused” by this or that personality. Apparently, there is no suggestion that Harris was a paedophile, but the local media here in Oz is reporting that a British police have come to Australia to interview a woman has claimed to have seen Harris involved in “something nasty” in a restroom during a recording session in London. She was shocked, I tell you, shocked! So shocked that she waited some 20 or more years to tell anyone about it.

    In an era when under-aged groupies swarmed around musicians like flies on a carcass, there must be thousands of such stories waiting to be told.

    Spare us!


    8 May 13 at 8:22 pm

  4. That’s the sort of case I was thinking about. There truly are horrific historic sex abuse cases from the past – I could mention a few that were eventually proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. There was even evidence of the original cover-up. There weren’t merely competing verbal claims with no evidence either way, or claims that had suddenly appeared for the first time ever after 40 years or so.

    But sometimes you’re talking about allegations of less serious misconduct, groping and the like, and in cases in which there were no recorded allegations for all that time, and moreover, no one at the time who went on record as having seen anything. That doesn’t mean nothing happened – I knew someone once who was quite convincing to me anyway in her accusations of a long-ago sexual assault, so I think it probably happened even though she didn’t have enough evidence to make a claim stick in court. But it does make me wonder about the merits of all these cases, and concerned about the people who are damaged by accusations which by their very nature can’t be proven or disproven.

    In another case of the damage done by unprovable allegations – a Canadian teacher in Malaysia broke up with his girlfriend, who stole his computer and has been posting and (before he got back control of his email account) emailing people with allegations of child sexual abuse. He got a decision against her in a Malaysian court, which means nothing outside Malaysia. She’s disappeared – possibly to Australia – but keeping up her attack. He’s back in Canada, unable to find a school which will hire him.


    9 May 13 at 6:17 am

  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22459815

    If you read past the headline “Age of consent should be 13, says barrister” the barrister seems to have some sensible points, although she’s being demonized for the age of consent aspect – her the other points aren’t addressed as all as far as I can see.


    9 May 13 at 7:37 am

  6. This comes from the link Cheryl posted.

    She said that “touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt” are not crimes comparable to gang rapes and murders and “anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality”.

    Can someone explain what is happening to the law lately? Back in the ancient times when I was young, we were taught that crimes should be clearly defined and that evidence should be reliable. For example, a deliberate planned killing was murder but a barroom fight in which a man died after hitting his head while falling to the floor was manslaughter. And an eyewitness account of an event 20 years ago was not reliable.

    Now I don’t know what counts as sexual assault or sexual harassment and we get “fads” such as “repressed memory” or the child care sex cases or now the 50 year old sex assault cases.

    What has happened to the experience of 500 years of common law?


    9 May 13 at 6:27 pm

  7. Mique

    10 May 13 at 9:56 pm

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