Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Soe Scandalous a Life


Or: The Evolution of a Novelist 
 
© 2017 Jo Ann Butler 

I’d like to share a bit about myself by way of introducing my latest book, The Golden Shore. It joins Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife in my Scandalous Life series, homage to Rhode Island’s diverse origins, and also to one of its most notorious rebels, Herodias Long.

I’ve been in love with colonial America for 45 years. The seeds of that love affair were planted by a 1961 National Geographic article about Pompeii. I was only 7, but I read that magazine to shreds. From that day on I longed to become an archeologist!

My first dig was not in the shadow of Vesuvius, but at an 18th century mill village Connecticut. That summer I was immersed in the durable minutiae of colonial life – stuff people threw away or lost – as I excavated a cellar dug in the mid-1700s, then filled with 18th century trash after the house burned.
Most of my finds were the stuff we leave behind at picnics today – bones, bottles, and food containers. Organic stuff – apple cores & such – decay quickly, but glass survives burial very well. I found scads of glass fragments, and a few intact bottles as well. Metal was precious, so they reused or reworked it, but pins, buttons, coins, nails, and children’s toys are easily lost, to be found by me.
Ceramics were the plastics of the colonial world. Clay is cheap, widely available, and more easily shaped than molten glass, but earthenware is also fragile, especially porcelain and fine tableware. I found shattered plates, mugs, and storage jars by the bucket load.

I went on to dig at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, site of a Revolutionary War victory over the British, and then at the burned-out home of Robert Livingston, a New York signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Do you see a trend here? I love colonial America, and can still guess the age of a ceramic chip by its glaze and design, a nail by its head and shank, and a bottle by tool marks on its neck and lip. I use that knowledge to set scenes and furnish Herodias Long’s home in my Scandalous Life series.

Then I tore up a knee, and had to quit archeology. It wasn’t long before Mom and I took up genealogy – more colonial America! Mom’s ancestry is top-heavy with Rhode Islanders, most of them younger sons with no chance to inherit the family farm. They were given their portions and told, in essence, “Go west, young man." 

Cast out, or trailblazing? My forefathers were Rhode Island’s founders, creating one town after another because, as one researcher quipped, nobody wanted to live with anybody else. In 1636 Roger Williams, champion of Rhode Island’s freedom of worship, was cast out of Salem, Mass., for heresy. Several families followed him, and they built Providence. A few years later, those who preferred Samuel Gorton’s firebrand preaching followed him south to build at Warwick.

The Puritans left England because they didn’t want to live with Anglicans. In 1637 Anne Hutchinson’s heresy spurred them to eject her and her numerous followers, and they created Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Two years later, yet another factional schism sent a large group, including George Gardner and the Dyer family, to the far end of the island, where they built Newport.

At the same time, John Hicks and his fourteen-year old wife Herodias arrived from Weymouth, MA, seeking new opportunities as described in Rebel Puritan. I am proud to claim Herodias and George Gardner as my most notorious ancestors. The child bride Herodias (Long) Hicks, or Herod, as I spell the shortened name she used, is the inspiration of my Scandalous Life series. 
Butler's trilogy, screenshot from Amazon.
The books are listed in reverse order.

The Gardners’ children, along with other second-generation Rhode Islanders, bought huge tracts of land from the Indians and built Kingstown on the western shore of Narragansett Bay. Their children prospered on that golden shore.

George Gardner never left Newport to live in Kingstown, but Herod did. Though he was near 60, John Porter also left his home – and his aged wife – for Kingstown. Why? I set forth my thoughts in The Golden Shore.

Genealogy led me to these intriguing persons, but when I work up a family line, I am never content with a list of names and birth dates. Why did a family leave a community – was it a shortage of land or a natural disaster? Were they exchanging one preacher for another? Were they seeking a fresh start or were they cast out? These are the sort of questions a novelist loves, and many are answered by town histories and colonial records.

Each leaf I painted on my family tree added to my knowledge of New England’s history, politics, and what misbehavior was considered worthy of punishment. As the title of my series hints, Herod Long’s contemporaries considered her scandalous. Early genealogists agreed. They described her as erratic, impulsive, and neurotic. Perhaps so, but Herod had good reasons to feel cranky.


In Rebel Puritan, Herod gave a petition to Rhode Island’s governor in December 1643, begging to be divorced from John Hicks. She preferred to subject herself to any misery than to live with his abuse. Even though Governor Coddington found ample evidence of Hicks’ inhumane and barbarous behavior and cruel blows on divers parts of her bodie, he persuaded them to try married life again.
Six months later Hicks had not reformed, as an order to pay a substantial bond to ensure his good behavior shows. Instead, he vanished, taking the couple’s young children with him. At the end of 1644 a letter surfaced from Hicks, now living on Long Island. He declared that he wanted nothing more to do with Herod, for the Knot of affecion on her part have been untied long since, and her whoredome have freed my conscience. Shortly thereafter, Herod was living with George Gardner, bore a son to him in 1645, and that is where Rebel Puritan ends.
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For a post about a land deed from 
William and Mary Dyer to
George Gardner in 1644, click HERE.
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A colonial soap opera, right? Yes, and no. I prefer a broader viewpoint, and include the tumultuous alliances and divisions of New England’s early history, largely forgotten these days.

As for what drew me to Herod Long, I like kick-ass women, and her character shines over the 400 years and 11 generations that separate us. Also, looking at that big picture again, Rebel Puritan, The Reputed Wife, and now The Golden Shore let me explore the impact that our foremothers had on the formation of New England. 

What impact could colonial women have? After all, we’ve all heard that they lived humble lives. Married women couldn’t enter contracts, and very few were literate. Herod was typical when she signed documents with an X.

Paintings of the first Thanksgiving depict Pilgrim women serving food (I can set a colonial table with ease thanks to my archeology background), but that’s not all they did. They gardened, sewed and spun, and cared for livestock, but they also defended their homes if need arose.

With primitive forms of contraception deemed evil, women bore children one after another (with many births recorded only under the father’s name). Divorces due to abandonment, infidelity, or abuse were rare, but even an abusive man kept his children unless he didn’t want them. Herod lost her children when John Hicks abandoned her.


If a woman brought land to a marriage, it became her husband’s. Herod received an inheritance, but bitterly complained in a petition that John Hicks took it from her. Yes, he did, and it was completely legal.

Women weren’t allowed to vote, but the same was true of men who weren’t approved by the town. Puritan colonies took it even further – men who were not church members could not vote, and they would not be admitted to membership if their beliefs were unorthodox.

Women could be church members, but could not preach. When Anne Hutchinson critiqued Puritan sermons in her own home, Massachusetts’ government jailed and banished her, and her heretical soul was condemned to hell.

The Puritans came to regret their actions, for that strong-willed woman’s charisma was responsible for the existence of Rhode Island. Before Anne Hutchinson’s exile, no Englishmen lived near Narragansett Bay, apart from a few traders and Roger Williams’ fledgling Providence.

When Anne was cast out, some 80 families followed her, establishing towns on land they bought from the Narragansett Indians. The Puritan colonies – Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut – indignantly claimed the Narragansett Bay region, but King Charles I gave Rhode Island a charter anyway and validated its deeds.

Mary Dyer, prominent in The Reputed Wife, was one of many Quaker missionaries who preached in defiance of law. Many Rhode Islanders were receptive to the Quakers’ message, but when they preached in Puritan colonies, they were punished with increasing severity. Herod Gardner carried her infant daughter 60 miles through wilderness to protest the whippings and brandings, and was herself jailed and whipped. Two years later, Mary Dyer and several Quaker men were hanged in Boston for defying banishment.


English Quakers reported the barbarities to the newly-enthroned King Charles II, already no friend of Puritans (who had deposed and beheaded his father). Especially horrified by the abuse of women, including Mary Dyer and Herod Gardner, he ordered the hangings to cease. Charles praised Rhode Island’s liberty of conscience – freedom to worship as one chose without molestation, upheld Rhode Island’s charter and protected them from encroachment by Puritan colonies. 

These women truly influenced American history. Anne Hutchinson’s popularity with liberal-minded colonists led directly to the creation of Rhode Island. The sacrifices of Mary Dyer, Herodias, and the other Quakers, influenced a king to support Rhode Island’s freedom of worship – a concept enshrined a century later in the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, it took much longer for women to gain legal rights, but their struggles are a dominant theme in my books. In The Golden Shore, Herod again faces the loss of her children and property to her husband – actually her unwed domestic partner of two decades, as she reveals to the court. What will she do to retain her independence, and what will she surrender for love? As we saw in Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herod is capable of great sacrifice, and great strength.

Many women endured horrible marriages because they feared their abusive husbands’ revenge, but though she faced impoverishment and humiliation, Herod Long stood up and said, “I want out.”
In The Reputed Wife, Herod stood up to Massachusetts’ Puritan governor and said, “Torturing people for their beliefs is wrong.” Whether she acted from faith or pure humanity; Herod walked into harm’s way to defend them, knowing what would happen.

In The Golden Shore, Herod stands up again when a relationship goes sour. She seeks a second legal separation, but it’s clear that she learned a lesson from John Hicks. This time she asks for ownership of land she worked for, child custody, and support for her youngest daughter.

Genealogists are familiar with these details of Herod Long’s life, but I won’t reveal any more secrets here. However, in The Golden Shore I sought solutions that work for everyone, and leave my characters as friends – and more. Hopefully they will leave readers content as well.

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Jo Ann Butler is an archaeologist, musician, 17th-century researcher, and the author of three books and numerous articles on early-colonial America. She lives in Fulton, New York.  Her website is http://rebelpuritan.com/ and her Amazon author page is HERE.

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