Thursday, 10 January 2013

Edwards's "Crazy" Grandmother Reconsidered

Marital drama, murder, and madness are often themes that permeate a good novel. Interestingly, they also relate to the non-fictional account of Jonathan Edwards's extended family. In Ava Chamberlain's new book, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards, she produces a groundbreaking microhistory that is inspiring in its meticulous research.

Elizabeth Tuttle was the paternal grandmother of Jonathan Edwards, historically remembered for her promiscuity and mental instability. Her husband Richard Edwards obtained a divorce from Tuttle in 1691, remarrying Mary Talcott, but not before he fathered several children with his first wife, including Timothy Edwards, the father of America's most famous theologian. Chamberlain seeks to rewrite the history of the Edwards family by giving proper attention to Tuttle and revising the unfavorable account given by her husband Richard Edwards. This is an extraordinarily well-researched microhistory that scholars and laypeople alike will no doubt enjoy.

After an introduction chapter, Chamberlain examines the Tuttle family and their emigration from the English Midlands. Prosperous middling landowners, the Tuttles lived in Northamptonshire, making a living by farming and raising cattle. After the death of the family's patriarch Simon Tuttle in 1630, his three sons and  their families emigrated to New England in the spring of 1635. The two older boys, Richard and John Tuttle, climbed the social ranks of society in Boston and nearby Ipswich while the youngest son William took longer to make his mark. At first living in Charlestown, outside of Boston, William relocated to New Haven where he benefited as one of the town's founding proprietors. He was one of sixty-three men to sign the "Fundamental Agreement" on June 4, 1639 which set in place the town's civic and religious order. Slowly, he built up his estate by purchasing land in the area. But importantly William was limited in the height that he could climb socially because he never became a member of the New Haven church, which suggests that he failed to provide a convincing conversion narrative to his strict pastor, John Davenport, and his congregation. Elizabeth Tuttle was the seventh child of William and Elizabeth Tuttle. Since her mother was a member of the church, young Elizabeth was able to be baptized at the New Haven church and later allowed to participate in communion. An important point that Chamberlain makes at the end of this chapter is that the so-called notorious Elizabeth Tuttle had no record of wrongdoings until her sex scandal that led to her marriage.

In chapter two, Chamberlain explores Richard Edwards's family and their migration from England to America. Richard was the second son of William Edwards and his wife Agnes, and the grandson of Richard Edwards and his wife Anne. The latter grew up in East Smithfield, later moving to the dingy parish of Whitechapel, outside of London. The daughter of a prosperous cooper, Anne married a university-educated man named Richard who had trained to be a clergyman, but made a living as a schoolmaster. The future looked bright for Anne and Richard until a devastating plague struck the area in 1625, killing more than 3,500 people including her husband and possibly some of her children. Within the family, only Anne and her son William survived. Anne quickly remarried a widower named James Cole who was a barrel maker like her stepfather. When Cole fell into debt, he fled the area, relocating at Warwick to escape prison while his wife and children endured the shame of his sins in London. In order to gain a fresh start, Cole and his family moved to Hartford, Connecticut in 1639 where coopers and other craftsmen were in high demand. Despite his meager status, young William managed to wed an affluent widow named Agnes Spencer who was much older than him. Tragically, William squandered his wife's inheritance and eventually relinquished control of his estate to his wife since he realized that he was ill-equipped to manage the family's financial affairs. A hot-tempered man, William brought many cases to court against his neighbors, but lost three times more cases than he won. William and Agnes produced Richard Edwards, the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards.

On November 19, 1667 Richard Edwards wed Elizabeth Tuttle. Chamberlain calls this an unlike match for Richard was young to marry (age 20) and below Elizabeth's social status, who came from a more prominent New England Family. Almost a year later, the couple was called before the Hartford magistrates and fined 5 pounds for a child named Mary born out of wedlock. Chamberlain informs her readers that "Although premarital sex was for puritan New Englanders a serious sin, it was a sin easily remedied. Public repentance and punishment allowed the couple to reenter the godly community without stigma, and a hasty marriage ensured both mother and child a means of financial support" (55). Here's where Chamberlain's story begins to heat up, for Richard denied paternity of Mary, claiming that another man had impregnated his wife. Nevertheless, the court ruled that Richard was the father and the couple was forced to uphold their marriage vows.

In the third chapter, Chamberlain tells the story of a brutal murder by Elizabeth's brother Benjamin who killed his sister Sarah in cold blood in 1676. Chamberlain argues that this event is crucial for understanding the subsequent unraveling of the Edwards family. From Chamberlain's research, she shows that Elizabeth was not the only Tuttle with a checkered past. Her siblings were indicted for attending "disorderly" meetings, drinking alcohol, smoking, foul language, and sexual sins. Thus, Chamberlain wants her readers to understand the context and normalcy of these kinds of behaviors among Puritan youths. What was not usual was the murder of Sarah Slauson by her brother Benjamin Tuttle on November 17, 1676 while her husband John Slauson was keeping watch for the town. Benjamin had been living with his sister's family because he was unmarried and required by law to be governed by an adult family. Apparently, Benjamin resented his sister's status and one night received a severe scolding. Storming out of the house in anger, Benjamin returned to the house with an ax and proceeded to savagely bash in the scull of his sister while her four children watched in horror. This was a rare murder for New England, and Benjamin paid the price of this crime with his life, being hanged at Hartford on June 13, 1677. After four years, John Slauson finally remarried and began rebuilding his fractured life. Important to her story, Chamberlain points to this murder as the impetus for further problems in the Tuttle family.

The bloodshed continues for the Tuttle family in chapter four. One of the Tuttle boys, David, is pronounced a lunatic by the courts and is required to live under the supervision of others. But more tragically, another shocking murder is performed by a Tuttle. This time it is Mercy who in 1691 brutally murdered her son Samuel, using the family weapon of choice, an ax. Mercy gave birth to four children by the age of thirty, but Chamberlain notes that she ceased having children after 1679, which was suspiciously close to the date of her sibling's deaths by murder and hanging. On the morning of June 23, 1691, Mercy performed her daily chores of starting a fire and letting the cows out for pasture and then proceeded to strike her seventeen-year-old son with an ax repeatedly until her husband managed to wrestle away the weapon from her grip. Through detailed research and analysis Chamberlain plausibly argues that Mercy had been traumatized by the death of her siblings years before and determined that the world looked bleak for her children, and thus wanted to spare them from growing up in such an environment. "At seventeen, he was at an age when the temptations of youth increased," Chamberlain writes, "and as he entered adulthood the young man would assume the responsibilities of an independent household head" (98). Thus, the murder was an altruistic filicide "committed out of love." In the spring of 1693, the courts determined that Mercy was not out sound mind and so she was not executed. No record exists of where she was kept, but presumably she remained incarcerated the rest of her life.

Chapter five forms the heart of the book since it centers on the divorce of Richard and Elizabeth, granted by the Connecticut General Assembly in October 1691. Chamberlain reminds her readers that Puritans, unlike Anglicans and Catholics, viewed marriage as a civil contract, and not as a sacrament, and so allowed divorces under certain circumstances (desertion or adultery). Richard Edwards first attempted to divorce his wife in 1689, after twenty years of marriage and raising five children, the oldest of which was twenty-one. For eight or nine years, the couple lived without any public disputes. But Chamberlain argues that Benjamin's murder of Sarah set a chain of events in motion that led to Elizabeth withholding sex from her husband, which reminded Richard of his wife's adulterous past. Unfortunately, only Richard's divorce petitions are extant; there is no record of any kind of defense by Elizabeth. Chamberlain cautions that Richard's petitions "must be read with suspicion... Because they provide our only window into the lived experience of this marriage, we must peer through it, ever mindful that the image it discloses of our unhappy couple is a fragmentary reflection of the husband's frustrations and desires" (116). Richard complained that his rebellious wife withheld sex, which would have been viewed by Puritans of this period as a violation of the marriage contract. Richard further claimed that his wife admitted to him that she had sex with another man before they were married. Siding with his father, Timothy Edwards testified that his mother withheld intimacy from his father. Adding spice to this already zesty story, there is evidence that Richard sought sexual satisfaction elsewhere rather than endure abstinence. He apparently had an adulterous affair with a woman named Mary Talcott, who he later married after his divorce. Eventually, Richard convinced the courts to grant him a divorce, perhaps because Mercy's murder occurred about a month before her brother resubmitted his domestic grievances. Chamberlain suggests that "Mercy's shocking murder of her son gave urgency to Edwards's professed fear that his wife's uncontrolled passions would drive her to kill" 135). At the end of the chapter, Chamberlain returns to her central thesis: "A brutal murder dealt a life-threatening blow to the flourishing Tuttle family. This sudden death was too much for some to bear. David and Mercy developed debilitating mental illnesses. Elizabeth withdrew from her marriage, apparently unwilling to bring more children into the world. The festering sexual crisis that afflicted this union from the outset reemerged with renewed force" (136-37).

Chapter six is relatively brief, disclosing Richard Edwards's final wishes before his death in 1718. He had become a prominent lawyer by this time (in addition to being a cooper), having married into an affluent family and using his wife's connections to amass an estate valued at 1,100 pounds upon his death. Intriguingly, he left "Mary, the Eldest Child of my first wife," two shillings, a curious amount considering the sizable money and land he left to his confirmed children. Chamberlain argues that the pittance of two shillings was purposely designated for Mary so that she could not contest Richard's will at a later time.  The small inheritance also demonstrates that Richard continued to insist that he was not Mary's father. By comparison to Richard, Elizabeth Tuttle disappeared into obscurity after her divorce. There are no more records of her whereabouts, but would certainly not have been free to remarry. For his part, Timothy Edwards choose sides with his father, lionizing him in a memorial as a near-perfect father who overcame a "very Great and sore tryal" (the only hint that Richard Edwards had any not succeeded in living an exemplary life) to become a prominent man in New England society. Timothy went on to marry Esther Stoddard in 1694, the daughter of the legendary pastor Solomon Stoddard.

In the final chapter, Chamberlain shows how in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the eugenics movement reawakened an interest in Elizabeth Tuttle. For years, Jonathan Edwards's early biographers, including Samuel Hopkins and Sereno Edwards Dwight, either knew nothing of Elizabeth Tuttle's notorious role in the Edwards family or ignored her entirely. Many of Edwards's early biographers believed that Richard Edwards had married Mary Talcott when his first wife had passed away. But in 1930, with the publication of Henry Bamford Parkes's Jonathan Edwards: The Fiery Puritan, Elizabeth Tuttle resurfaced once again as a central figure in the Edwards family drama. Key to this renewed interest in Tuttle, Chamberlain argues, is the organization and availability of Connecticut state records. Yet despite the availability of these records, Edwards's biographers, including Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Perry Miller, and even George Marsden, continued to perpetuate the myth of Edwards's crazy grandmother without properly considering her side of the story.

I absolutely loved this book, although I must say that the title is a bit misleading as only one chapter is devoted to Elizabeth Tuttle. It would be more appropriate to highlight the veracity of the subtitle, which directs readers to some of the controversial elements that haunts Jonathan Edwards's family. Among the strengths of this book is the extraordinary research so obviously performed by Chamberlain. The many helpful footnotes of primary and secondary sources provide substantial evidence from which Chamberlain accomplishes what many scholars would consider an impossible task: to write a story of a woman who left behind no manuscript sources. Because Chamberlain does not have all the pieces to this intricate puzzle, she must fill in some substantial holes in the narrative of Elizabeth Tuttle. Yet Chamberlain's points, although at times speculative, are at least plausible given the detailed court records from which she constructs her narrative. Chamberlain's book is inspiring. At the very least, her monograph should be appreciated as a foil to the plentiful trade books that roll off the presses each year which show little or no interaction with manuscripts and primary sources, and simply repackage the same stories in a different style of prose.

No comments: