The Devil of Great Island by Emerson W. Baker was released at the beginning of last month. I assume the book’s marketing team figured since they had a piece on witchcraft, a pre-Halloween release might boost initial sales. As the book is an excellent piece of historical research, my guess is some folks may have felt hoodwinked when, under a blanket with friends and a red light or candles, their spooky story session turned into a lecture on mass hysteria, property disputes, and the sectarian divisions in early New England. As a teacher I have no problem with tricking someone into learning something.
So it was no coincidence that as October rolled around and Baker’s efforts landed in an envelope upon my doorstep, I was well over half way through Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with my juniors. While not able to finish this excellent book on the Stone Throwing Devil in time to share much of it with my classes, I will be better prepared to do so next fall. You see, Prof. Baker has deepened and broadened my understanding of one of the more infamous events in American history by connecting it to another, lesser known, but seminal event. That is good history.
Baker appears to be an active academic and with his participation as an advisor to the PBS documentary Colonial House in addition to the publication of this book, he seems to be a rising star. The Devil of Great Island is appropriate for the professional academic and the amateur historian. By looking at this smaller hysteria, ten years before Salem, Baker has shed greater light on the more famous event, which is no mean task. The Trials of 1692 may be one of the most investigated and described non-military subjects in American history. Based on an inexhaustive personal search of the first few pages of Yahoo! search results, I would say Professor Baker’s book has filled an empty spot in the wall of Colonial American historical knowledge.
The prose is good and the narrative compelling, making for a broadly accessible work. Baker untangles the quite natural events and circumstances surrounding a series of phantom rock-throwings which occurred in the isolated communities in and around the mouth of the Piscataqua River in 1682. He then reweaves those events into the larger fabric of early colonial New England.
In the middle of the river, just on the New Hampshire side sits Great Island, known today as New Castle. In 1682, a planter named George Walton accused his neighbor of conjuring a spirit moved about his property throwing stones. Called “lithobolia” by the locals, the term survives as the title of a pamphlet printed by a witness named Richard Chamberlain in London in 1698. What follows the initial attacks is a portrait of early America that is deftly captured and interpreted by the author.
Baker’s understanding of the subtle and intricate causal flow of history shines bright. A favorite nugget from this book was his identification for the reader of nearby ancestors to Robert Frost and connecting the lithobolian incidents with New England themes found in Frost’s poetry. Again, this is good history from an academic whose focus is narrow, but his understanding broad.