Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Puritan Maiden's Diary: The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't

As part of the requirements for the Plagues, Witches, and War historical fiction MOOC I've been participating in this fall, students were asked to complete an archival assignment.  We were to choose and describe a primary source new to us that we'd found in an online or bricks-and-mortar archive, then write a short descriptive essay about it – including, if we liked, details on how we might use it as the basis for a work of historical fiction.

The following essay isn't what I turned in for the class.  However, I found the background research for one archival item that I examined so startling and enlightening that I wanted to write it up for inclusion here anyway.  And so we have...

A Puritan Maiden's Diary:
The Early American Primary Source that Wasn't

The primary source I had initially selected for the assignment is entitled “A Puritan Maiden's Diary.” One of the education departments at Eastern Illinois University, where I work as a librarian, has a web page that links out to several online archives whose contents were judged useful for teaching purposes. One of them is the website of the Library of Congress, which has a section entitled Pages from Her Story that contains the text of women’s historical diaries, letters, and memoirs.

The first example in their list of resources, a diary written by a 15-year-old girl from Rhode Island in 1675-77, fit my interests perfectly. I’m originally from New England and especially enjoy reading about life in the colonial period. In addition, this particular diary called to mind Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, one of my favorite novels about the era. Both recount culture clashes in Puritan times from the viewpoint of an educated young woman.

When I read the text of the diary, hosted at the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project, I was fascinated by the illustrative details this unnamed girl recorded, as well as her eloquence. Here’s the first paragraph, dated December 5, 1675:

I am fifteen years old to-day, and while sitting with my stitchery in my hand, there came a man in all wet with the salt spray. He had just landed by the boat from Sandwich, which had difficulty landing because of the surf. I myself had been down to the shore and saw the great waves breaking, and the high tide running up as far as the hillocks of dead grass. The man, George, an Indian, brings word of much sickness in Boston, and great trouble with the Quakers and Baptists; that many of the children throughout the country be not baptized, and without that, religion comes to nothing. My mother has bid me this day put on a fresh kirtle and wimple, though it not be the Lord's day, and my Aunt Alice coming in did chide me and say that to pay attention to a birthday was putting myself with the world's people. It happens from this that my kirtle and wimple are no longer pleasing me, and what with this and the bad news from Boston my birthday has ended in sorrow. (Slicer, 1894, p. 20)

King Philip, as interpreted by a later artist

In particular, the girl was a keen observer of King Philip’s War (the bloody Native American uprising against the English colonists in 1675-78, named after the Wampanoag chief Metacomet, who was called “King Philip” by the English). In her journal, she documented her family’s reactions to her uncle Benjamin’s (“Captain Church”) involvement in the fighting; her internal struggle between observing proper Puritan behavior and her desire to enjoy life; repairs to her family’s house; day-to-day events like preparing meals; and the contrast between her humble life in Rhode Island and that in Boston, where she was sent for her safety.

An excerpt from her words on the latter:

Through all my life I have never seen such an array of fashion and splendor as I have seen here in Boston. Silken hoods, scarlet petticoats, with silver lace, white sarconett plaited gowns, bone lace and silken scarfs. The men with periwigs, ruffles and ribbons. (p. 24)

The diary is presented by Adeline E. H. Slicer, a 19th-century historian, who wrote that she came across it in her travels. She published the contents in New England Magazine in September 1894. (Cornell University has the scanned images of Slicer’s article in their Making of America journal archive.) In her article, Slicer added her own editorial commentary and clarifications on what the girl wrote so her contemporaries would understand the historical background. To my mind, this “Puritan maiden’s diary” perfectly exemplified one of the themes Geraldine Brooks spoke about in her MOOC course lecture: that although customs change, human nature remains constant despite the passage of time.

I was also thrilled to see that Slicer, in her historical asides, mentioned the name of a colonial-era relative of mine, the Rev. James Keith of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who felt sorry for the son of King Philip, a young boy who would likely be enslaved after his father was killed. (Rev. Keith was married to the sister of my direct ancestor, Samuel Edson of Bridgewater.) A search that began at my university’s website eventually ended at a resource that cited a member – albeit a distant one – of my family. How’s that for synchronicity? 

The Rev. James Keith Parsonage, West Bridgewater, Mass. 
When I worked at Bridgewater State College, I drove by this house all the time.

And yet... the diary somehow seemed too perfect. Over the next few hours, I began to have uneasy feelings about its provenance, even though its presence on the LoC website seemed to verify its authenticity. Basically, the girl helpfully noted so many things which later generations would likely want to know about that place and time, such as clothing, food and drink, religion, and larger events happening all around her but which she didn’t personally take part in. She seemed all too aware that she was writing for posterity.

She also described many situations that would make it easy for modern, secular readers to relate to her. As in: she told of how she wanted to fall asleep during a lengthy church sermon one afternoon. Slicer listed the diarist's name as "Hetty Shepard" in passing at the very end of her article, but with no details on how she found this information. She also never indicated where and how she found the journal, its physical description, or where it was kept. I also began to wonder whether a teenage girl from Puritan America would have written a diary in the first place.

So I began googling around for more information… and found, alas, just what I was looking for.

A message on a history discussion list from Brigham Young University’s Jenny Hale Pulsipher (2003) expressed her doubts about the diary, despite finding it in an online primary source database. “I am convinced that it is a 19th century invention,” Pulsipher wrote. “It is riddled with anachronisms, one of the most glaring of which is the diarist’s exact quotation of Benjamin Church’s description of Philip (Metacom) years before Church's account was written or published… [but] the few mentions of it that showed up on a general internet search seem to accept it as genuine.”

However, conclusive proof of the diary’s fabrication came from Mary Beth Norton, Professor of American History at Cornell – an award-winning scholar, incidentally, whose In the Devil’s Snare has the most persuasive argument I’ve read for the reasons behind the Salem witchcraft accusations. In an article for the Journal of Women’s History (1998), Norton demonstrates that the “so-called Puritan Maiden’s Diary” is unquestionably a fake written by Adeline Slicer herself.

Little Compton, RI (formerly Saconet), the supposed residence of "Hetty Shepard"
(and where her real-life uncle, Captain Benjamin Church, is buried)

The evidence is considerable: lack of genealogical connections between the family members included in the diary; the unlikely possibility that clerics named in the journal would have traveled to “preach to a tiny congregation in the wilds of Plymouth Colony” (p. 147); the surprising insider knowledge about events not widely known at the time; and several anachronisms, “the clincher” being the diarist’s citing of the date of an infamous Indian massacre using the Gregorian-style calendar – which wasn’t in use in the British colonies until 1752 (p. 148). Therefore, per Norton, the diary must have been composed after that year.

What was presented to me as a primary source dating from the 1670s turned out to be a primary source of a different kind from the 1890s – and a very convincing piece of historical fiction at that! Works of historical fiction not only evoke the period they describe, but also the time at which they’re written, and, as Norton has uncovered (and others have suspected), this one betrayed many clues to its true late 19th-century origins.

In conclusion, although the class's archival assignment didn’t turn out at all as I intended, it was still an instructive and eye-opening exercise. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that researchers, historical fiction writers included, need to be skeptical of the historical sources they find. Rather than taking them at face value, we need to trust our gut if they seem suspicious and thoroughly investigate the circumstances behind their creation.

Note: The original version of this essay stated that Slicer didn't include the purported diarist's name.  In fact, she does mention a "Hetty Shepard" in her final two paragraphs, but because the name was mentioned there in passing and nowhere else, I didn't immediately catch that she was referring to the supposed diarist there.

References

Norton, M. B. (1998). Getting to the source: Hetty Shepard, Dorothy Dudley, and other fictional colonial women I have come to know altogether too well. Journal of Women’s History, 10, 141-54. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0311

Pulsipher, J. H. (2003, Oct. 14). “A Puritan Maiden's Diary” by Hety Shepard. Message posted to http://www.h-net.org/~ieahcweb/

Slicer, A. E. H. (1894). A Puritan maiden’s diary. The New England Magazine, 17, 20-25. Retrieved from http://digital.library.cornell.edu/n/newe/index.html

28 comments:

  1. That's an interesting description of an experience that often is more distressing than interesting -- the fabrication of a source -- or for those who teach -- the discovery that this student's excellent research paper is plagerized.

    Love, C.

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    1. So perhaps I should have seemed more disturbed by this finding, is what you're saying? :)

      It is very disappointing to me that the diary was faked in the first place, and also that it's still being promoted as an authentic piece of 17th-century writing on legitimate archive sites. (The LC is far from the only one; it's also been reprinted in at least one collection of early American writing.) That's misleading, to say the least. Norton has her own theory on why Slicer acted the way she did.

      At the same time, I was relieved that my instincts about this fraudulent piece were correct, and I found the process akin to solving a mystery - although in this case, another historian had already gotten the real proof. So for me, this exercise more than served its educational purpose. I ended up writing about a different source from Pages from Her Story for my actual assignment, one whose authenticity has been verified.

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  2. This is a wonderful essay, Sarah! What a journey you just took. After reading this, I truly hope someday you'll read my book, too. My new theory of the Salem Village "afflictions" might convince.

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    1. Thanks, Suzy! This journey actually took just about half a day, and it was frustrating because it took me forever to pick out a source in the first place, and now I had to throw it out and start over! I debated using it anyway, describing and debunking it and reframing it as a 19th-century primary source, but with the 500-word limit for the assignment, I realized that that wouldn't easily work.

      I feel badly I haven't read your novel yet... most of what I read these days is for review assignment, and while that's turned me on to some wonderful novels (like Caleb's Crossing) I don't get a chance to read as many others as I'd like. I do hope to get to it at some point soon. Your mention of the new theory piques my curiosity!

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  3. Such an interesting study you were able to do! Thanks for the write-up!

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    1. It was certainly more interesting than I expected it to be!

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  4. What a fascinating account of your research. This is the most interesting research story I've ever read and thank you for sharing it. And kudos to your skills as a researcher. Have you notified the LofC that their historical source is really historical fiction?

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Alex! Yes - I sent a note to LC with a citation to Norton's article and hope it will eventually reach the right staff members. They don't list emails on their site but route everything through a general comment form. There are several schools and universities who link out to the "diary" on the LC site, so I hope the error will be fixed soon.

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  5. Fascinating post, Sarah! Thanks for the heads up. Sorting through fact and fiction in research is such a delicate and exacting exercise.

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    1. That's definitely true, Faith - and you never know what you're going to find!

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  6. I was thinking more on these lines, that your fraud detection whiskers tingled, and the tingles were proven correct. Meaning, perhaps, that for people who spend so much time examining in various ways and for various reason primary and source documents have well honed senses about what is authentic and what is not.

    That the LOC and others continue to keep the work in its lists of authentic sources is indeed distressing and disturbing.

    There are many works I have the same sense of distress about, including that fraudulent from start to finish juvenile work of fiction, Phoebe the Spy, the black daughter of Samuel Fraunces, tavern keeper, who saved George Washington from assassination by the British. It's entirely fiction, but the author says in an afterword that it is based on true events and people. There was never a Phoebe, Samuel Fraunces was not black, George Washington never hid in NYC, etc. etc. etc. Yet even fracking Simon Schama quotes this book as a factual source in his Rough Crossings, about the War of Independence and the African American population of the time. One is certain then that much else in his book is fraudulent as well (and it is -- I've read it). Shame on both these people, one a novelist and the other an admired historian!

    Love, C.

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    1. Interestingly, I read much more of historical fiction than primary source history, but that's likely why I picked up on it - because the diary fit the conventions of historical fiction so well!

      Thanks for mentioning Phoebe the Spy, since that children's novel was new to me. Authors of historical novels for children should be particularly careful in ensuring their facts are correct, since kids won't have the background knowledge to distinguish fact from fiction themselves, and because many of these works are used in schools. The author's stating that it's based on true events in the afterword is very misleading. That's odd about Schama's nonfiction history book citing a work of juvenile fiction. I tried looking for it via Google Books (as I'm not back in the library until next Monday), and unfortunately the search engine doesn't extend to the complete text... I was curious to see it for myself! Yikes, though. Why wouldn't he check things out further, rather than take the word of a children's book when there are resources that prove otherwise?

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  7. Schama has -- research assistants. Besides it was the companion book to the BBC - PBS television series he did.

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  8. The amount of trouble that woman's afterword to Phoebe has caused the Fraunces Tavern Museum cannot be quantified. I worked there for some time so I experienced it first hand.

    Everything from little girls bursting into tears, slapping us, calling us liars, because "my Phoebe isn't here!" The NAACP wanting to take us to court because we don't tell the world that SF is a black man and that the (contemporary) portraits of him hanging in the place are of a white man. We made special packets that include the NYC census records and other primary materials that show what's in the book is untrue. Even so.

    Part of the problem too is that Phoebe the Spy was geared specifically for 4th grade girls, which, in so many parts of the country is when American history is introduced to the curriculum. When it comes to the War of Independence there aren't many historic figures of note who are female to start with, and no little girls. So many teachers use or assign or suggest Phoebe the Spy to fourth graders for this very reason. Fourth graders are emotional too, so we have the makings of the perfect storm of hysteria.

    Love, C.

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    1. That's pretty disturbing. I see the book is still in print. Has anyone written to the publisher to alert them to the problems the author's afterword has been causing?

      What you say about "So many teachers use or assign or suggest Phoebe the Spy to fourth graders for this very reason" also holds true for the fake diary. There are no other diaries written by women during that period (and there's a reason for that), so when this document is promoted as authentic, of course teachers are going to be tempted to use it in the classroom because of the writer's (supposed) unique insight.

      I just flipped through the book via Amazon. The illustrations add to the incorrect impression.

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  9. O yes indeed the publishers and the author have been alerted many times from many directions. They. Don't. Care.

    At one point they did sort the author's declaration this is a true story to words of the effect, "this story is based on events and people of the time."

    Shame.

    Love, C.

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    1. I'd figured as much, but had to ask...

      Sigh.

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  10. Fascinating, Sarah- a remarkable piece of detective work!
    Your story puts me in mind of "De Situ Britanniae", that ubiquitous primary source for all things Dark Age Britain which was not seriously questioned until the late 19th century. It turned out to be a total fraud, put together by an 18th century antiquarian called Charles Bertram. I came across it a few years ago when trying to track down something mentioned in a novel. Amazingly, even though it's been thoroughly debunked, bits of it still pop up around the internet as a reference and not many people seem to be aware of it. Makes you wonder just how many of these spurious bits of primary material are lying about various archives!

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    1. What's interesting is that an abstract of Norton's article (at Project Muse, with the full article available to subscribers) is now coming up on the first page of search results for "Puritan maiden's diary" - maybe because I'd linked to it? However it happened, good! It deserves to be prominently listed. It took me more digging to discover it; it didn't come up in searches until I started looking for other mentions of "Hetty Shepard."

      I wasn't familiar with "De Situ Britanniae" before but am now - thanks for the information! It is very difficult to get the word out everywhere about these fraudulent bits of historical information. And if it's been over a century since Bertram's was questioned/debunked, and it's still being listed as legit in some places... yikes.

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    2. One problem (and this may well occurred with your Diary too) is that over the years Bertram's work has become incorporated within other scholarly works like those of Gibbons.

      The 1911 edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica", for example, still quoted as fact that the Romans had a naval station at Dumbarton, of which no actual proof, archaeological or documentary has ever been found.This purported naval station started my quest which ended with Bertam - Rosemary Sutcliff used it as a setting in her novel "Mark of the Horse Lord" and in the book's preface mentions its existence as being well known. When I couldn't find any confirmable evidence for it, I became suspicious.

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    3. Oh, yep, I can see how that makes things really complicated and thorny. Historians trust previous historians' sources, not knowing they're problematic, and therefore their own sources become equally problematic...

      Hetty Shepard's words have been taken as fact and incorporated into later scholarly works on topics such as women's history and men's fashions in late 17th-century Boston. But just as worrisome is their presence in many, many school curricula. There are students all over the US, from secondary school through college, who were asked to read the diary for an assignment and report back on what they learned from it. For example, I found a blog put together by a history prof in which his students wrote up their thoughts on it. And - get this - the last entry by a student begins, "Was this diary real or fiction? These writings seem very complex for a 15 year old. In any case..." and then he continued with his opinion. Wow. He was right on the money.

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    4. Also, I'm not saying it's the fault of the teachers for putting the diary and other fraudulent items in their lesson plans, or of Sutcliff for using the naval station as a setting. They and others trusted what they thought were reputable sources. The Encyclopedia Britannica is normally thorough, and in the case of the diary, there's an anthology for schools where it was republished. If not for that, the diary would have remained a rather obscure text. But this is what happens when the mistakes aren't found somewhere further up the line. Good for you for checking out that tidbit more thoroughly!

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    5. It's as Foxessa says - when you've done quite a bit of research over the years, some things just set your fraud detection whiskers twitching!

      And yes, no blame attached to novelists like Sutcliff who use material taken in good faith from reputable sources.

      The constant reiteration of false information until it becomes received wisdom is a major problem in non-fiction histories. Elizabeth Chadwick recently went back to the beginning and came across an interesting example - see Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Brother who never was

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    6. Thanks for posting that link, Annis. That's such a great example showing how researchers need to question and re-interpret original sources. An excellent piece of detective work on EC's part.

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  11. Not only is this post extremely interesting, it made me curious about Slicer and generated a plot/character idea for someone who did the same. So glad I found your blog. Added to my feeder. :)

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    1. I'm glad you liked the post! Thanks for following along with the blog, too. :) There isn't much info about Slicer out there, although in her article Mary Beth Norton managed to uncover details on some aspects of her life.

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  12. An update, 2/22/14: I've just heard back from the Library of Congress. Their women's history specialist has investigated the diary and will be removing info about it from their mini-site (Pages from Her Story).

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  13. Another update, 5/5/15 - the item has been de-linked from the LoC at last, sometime in the past month or so.

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