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Friday, July 03, 2020


GREG: How’s golf going?

MORT: Still a challenge. When I master it I’ll quit. Shot my age then shot Ron’s age the next day.

GREG: Haha. Can you master golf? I thought part of what was good about it is you can just get better forever?

MORT: Ben Hogan said he strove for perfection his whole life ... felt he hit one perfect shot, the rest (millions) imperfect.

GREG: That’s kind of beautiful
I just watched Ford v Ferrari recently and there’s a simile idea expressed there about a perfect lap

MORT: I think that is an attraction of sport. It is easy to measure against a standard & as a physical effort gives the illusion that you can achieve perfection. The more complex the sport the greater the challenge. I am suspicious of the Olympics gymnastics when they give a 10.

GREG: But there are also moments of almost greater than perfection. Think of some Michael Jordan plays or Roger Federer moments. Those moments are fleeting but they are somehow beyond what anyone imagined a human could even—

MORT: Greater than perfection? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

GREG: Well 10 is a score a person imagined. They set criteria based on their mental image of the best job someone could do. Sometimes for a brief moment people perform way above that level. They do something that no one imagined anyone could ever do.

MORT: True. That’s why I watch sports. To see that rarity live if possible. The legendary greatest come close in moments. Jordan, Woods, Serena ... a very few.

GREG: Exactly
You can think of it as “close to perfection” where “perfection” is some kind of platonic abstract ideal. Or you can think of it as “beyond perfection” if “perfection” is the best a human imagined it could be done

MORT: There’s a scene in “The Hustler” - he describes the feeling of total control over the table - the euphoria of knowing ... you can have that sense in more than games. I felt it in moments in court.

GREG: Yeah. Peak Performance. It’s a thing in any skill that involves synthesizing experience in a real time application. I’ve felt it in drawing: hey I just drew a thing that’s a lot better than the best I thought I could do

MORT: Those moments are shocking - a real high.

GREG: Yeah! Part of what game design is as a field is trying to specifically create an experience that reliably gives players that experience

MORT: Quite a challenge I bet

GREG: Yeah! You can’t do it reliably for any given player. But you can design systems that make it so that 1 of every 100 or 1000 or 10000 players has a shot at it

MORT: I think perfection can be subjective - ie in games, if you master the highest level you can, is that enough to be perfect?

GREG: I agree it’s subjective but I think it’s the feeling of suddenly performing a lot better than you thought you could

MORT: In golf a hole in one is the best you can do. But it isn’t really perfection-chance is involved in the 1 in 10,000 tries. You must hit it well but the difference between going into the hole and a near miss is luck. 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020



            After the Civil War, there was a chance to alter the course of racism in America. For a brief period, the idea of restructuring southern society by granting to the freed Negroes legal rights equal to whites prevailed in Washington. Along with the 13th Amendment that freed the slaves, the 14th Amendment demanded “equal protection,” due process, and equal access to all “privileges and immunities” of citizenship. The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 
            In many southern states, black majorities or pluralities elected blacks to local, state and even federal offices. Coalitions of blacks and enlightened whites began to work together to try to solve the problems of reconstruction after the war’s devastation. For the first time in the south, public schools were educating black children and freed slaves, who had been forbidden by racial laws to learn to read and write. Northern abolitionists came south to teach in schools. The freedman’s bureau, that Lincoln had first proposed, helped black families to reunify after slave owners had sold spouses and children for profits. 
            President Grant sent federal troops to chase down the KKK and succeeded in diminishing its grip, reducing voter intimidation, acts of terror and murder. 
            Congress passed a Civil Rights Act in 1875 that provided for enforcement of equal rights for blacks, including equal access to public accommodations, transportation, and jury panels.

            But the political pendulum slowed and began to reverse. The northern public turned its attention toward the economy. The industrial age and its hopes and fears now occupied the stage. The “radical” Republicans who had pushed for black equality now gave way to so-called “liberal” Republicans who wanted business to prevail. The concept of laissez-faire dominated political theory. Allow private enterprise to thrive without governmental interference and allow the states to settle their own problems as well.  
            Democrats attained majorities in the Congress for the first time in many years. In the presidential election of 1878, both candidates promised to end reconstruction, meaning removing federal support for civil rights. The Reconstruction Era was over. 
            Between 1878 and @1900, southern whites regained power, suppressed black voting, removed all blacks from any political office, and instituted Jim Crow laws that reduced blacks to a permanent subservient underclass. When the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, gave the wink to “separate but equal” education and accommodations, it held until 1954. 
            De facto segregation took hold out of the south as well. Northern and midwestern cities bulged with the “great migration” of blacks seeking jobs in the revolution that was transforming America into the greatest industrial power in the history of the world. Harlem in New York was one ghetto that was repeated in every city as housing restrictions limited movement. 

            To justify these actions, myths were created. The antebellum south was re-imagined as a society of gentility and honor, grace and high Christian culture. Slaves were depicted as illiterate, childlike subhumans who needed protection by white overseers, with occasional harsh punishment as children deserved. The Civil War was re-cast as the War Between the States, an effort by the Northern states to impose their values on the Southern states — that is, a fight for suppression of state’s rights. The war was lost — according to this legend — not because the South was in the wrong, but merely because of the iron boot of raw Northern power. 
            The myth of the nobility of “The Lost Cause” was a forerunner of the similar self-deception that afflicted Germany after World War I. 

            By the start of the 20th Century, the era was ripe for academic consideration. The generation that had fought the war was aging. There was enormous amount of documentation to draw from: diaries, memoirs, the Congressional Record. The old warriors and witnesses were willing to be interviewed and give recollections, rationales, and excuses, all colored by the passage of time. 

            As it happened, academia was ready with new ideas and tools. A new generation of historians were training in Europe, preparing themselves for the task. They had the chance to set the record straight — to shatter the myths and resurrect the hopes of civil rights and race relations for that and future generations. 
            They didn’t do that. Instead, they perpetuated the lies and insured that the myths of white supremacy and negative racial stereotypes would be entrenched in American society — from presidents to textbooks to politics to popular culture — up until our own day, more than a century later. 

            The most influential of these historians was named William Archibald Dunning. He was a professor of history at Columbia University in New York. He wrote a meticulously documented treatise that argued that the Reconstruction Era’s granting of power to Negroes was, in his words, a tragic blunder. The Negro race was not capable of competent governing, and the exclusion of whites who were superior in intelligence, education and experience, led to corruption and the delay in the re-integration of the southern states into the economy of the nation. 
            Dunning became mentor to a generation of historians. His research methods, which used primary sources — including interviews with living witnesses — was novel and exciting to academics who heretofore had spent their lives in libraries, poring over musty documents. He was able to support his ideas with first-hand evidence by those who had witnessed the events. 
            His methods became the standard for all serious historians and his students became influential in universities throughout the country as they attained positions on faculties, published, and taught succeeding generations of scholars. 
            These historians became known as “The Dunning School,” not just because of their methods, but particularly in their examination of the era encompassing the Civil War, Reconstruction, and entrenchment of Jim Crow laws. 

            Their reporting was so powerful that their influence went beyond academia. Dunning and other historians were called to testify as experts before Congressional committees considering voting laws and other acts involving civil rights for Negroes. The Supreme Court quoted their works in decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson that ratified the flawed notion of “separate but equal” in schools and accommodations.  

            Maybe even worse, they provided the intellectual support for the acceptance of white supremacy and Negro incapacity that pervades our culture. 

            They wanted to apply scientific reasoning to their study of politics; hence, the new academic field they pioneered: Political Science. The irony was that the academics who applied rigorous methodology to their papers began with fundamental flaws. But in being “scientific” they stumbled into a tragic blunder of their own. They attached themselves to the powerful misguided theory of “Social Darwinism.” 
            The lesson they derived from Darwin’s work was that of “survival of the fittest.” This notion justified the rigid class and racial power structure that put English speaking white protestant males at the top and reduced dark-skinned peoples to the bottom rung. They deduced that if man descended from apes, then Africans were closer to apes than fair-haired white people of Northern European ancestry. 
            The scholarly academics proceeded from the assumption that blacks were of inferior intellectual capacity. They denied that this was a matter of prejudice; instead, they “proved” it by statistics that showed clearly how few blacks had attained high intellectual standing compared to whites. These scholars failed to acknowledge the obvious fact that their reasoning was false: blacks were denied places in higher education, and so were unable to achieve the status that would, in scholarly minds, qualify as intellectual achievement. 

            Another reason for their flawed conclusions lies in their educational foundation.  
Some were born in the south and had been weaned on tales of the Lost Cause. For e.g., James Wilford Garner – born Mississippi, studied under Dunning, became a respected professor of Political Science at U. of Pennsylvania and U. of Illiinois. All but one was white. W.E.B. Dubois was a Dunning student. His researches and writing refuting much of the Dunning conclusions about the incapacity of Negroes to govern. 
            A bigger blunder was who Dunning and several of his students learned their methods from. Dunning was the first to study in Germany under Heinrich Gotthard Freiherr von Treitschke. Many American scholars followed to study under the pioneer of political science and modern history research. 
            Although a skillful researcher, von Treitschke was also an extreme German nationalist, a virulent anti-Semite, who believed in supremacy of the Aryan race.
            Treitschke argued for a strong military, colonial domination of weaker races, even genocide of “inferior peoples,” specifically Africans and those of African ancestry. 
            Historian Eric Foner points out the most egregious mistake the Dunning historians made. While they prided themselves on their method of using primary sources, they did not interview blacks from the period, only whites. Whites pictured themselves as victims, told lurid tales of excesses by freed blacks. They justified and minimized the role of white terror groups such as the Klan. The scholars swallowed their stories with glee. 

            Thomas Dixon, Jr. was born in 1864 in North Carolina. His family were slave owners and founding members of the KKK. He hated the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction. Dixon was Scots / English on father’s side and German on mother’s side. German roots were ideological, too. German Aryan racial theories were deep in his heritage. 
            He dedicated his life to preaching, teaching, and writing novels, plays and screenplays that argued passionately for white supremacy and against the idea of black civil rights. 
            Dixon attended Johns Hopkins U., met and became lifelong friends with another student, Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian also raised with the romantic mythology of the Lost Cause.  
            In 1905, Dixon’s novel, “The Clansman,” was published. He adapted it for the stage, and with D.W. Griffith, co-wrote the scenario for the movie, now titled, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). 
            Wilson screened it in the White House and was quoted as giving it high praise. “Like writing history with lightning.”

            Except it was more like writing history with a poison pen. It was full of malicious distortions intended to inflame passions against Reconstruction. It had black Union soldiers raping white girls. It depicted black voters as illiterate. It showed black state representatives and congressmen as watermelon eating, barefoot, and corrupt. It represented the KKK as knights who rode to defend and avenge white women and families that were victimized by freed blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern turncoat scalawags. 
             The novel and play had been controversial and stimulated objections by blacks and supporters of Reconstruction. The movie was far more powerful. D. W. Griffith used all of his genius as a film maker to co-write, produce and direct the epic. His skill assured that it had enormous emotional punch. 
            It inspired protests by black activists wherever it played. But it also inspired a revival of the Klan, not just in the defeated South, but now all throughout the United States. By the 1920’s, the KKK was so strong that it was able to march on Washington D. C. in full regalia. 

            The stereotype of the illiterate Negro was fixed in popular culture. The most popular radio show of the 20’s and early 30’s was “Amos & Andy,” performed by two white actors. Blackface performances were common. Jewish performers Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, the “Mammy Singer,” became stars by performing in blackface. 
            Negroes in films were invariably portrayed as servants. Many, such as Lincoln Perry (Stepin Fetchit) and Mantan Morelan (“feet don’t fail me now”) played characters who were laughed at as lazy, shiftless, unreliable cowards. 
            “Gone With The Wind” was the most popular novel of the late 1930’s and the movie in 1939 was a sensation. It carried on the myth of the elegant southern way of life lost in the war to vicious Union soldiers. By depicting the heroism of the women who had been victimized by the North in the war and by northerners after the war, and by reinforcing the stereotype of Negro incompetence (Butterfly McQueen), it extended racist ideology all the way through World War II and beyond. 
            The solid white Democratic Party power in the south carried into the federal government. Because there was virtually a one-party system in the southern states, reelection was assured in The House and Senate. The seniority system assured these lawmakers committee chairs of strategic committees: Judiciary, Armed Services, Ways and Means, etc. They blocked any attempts at civil rights legislation. FDR, needing the southern votes to carry forward his New Deal, acquiesced to white opposition, even negating laws to end lynching. 
            The armed forces had always been attractive to southern whites, and by the 30’s, southern officers dominated all branches at command levels. Racial integration of the services was out of the question. 
            The State Department was another branch of the federal government that was attractive to southern gentlemen. As a result, the State Department was racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and against immigration from any but Scandanavian, Germanic, W.A.S.P. populated countries. It was a bastion of isolationists. 

            The institutions that were responsible for maintaining the virtual apartheid system that was firmly in place included the religious establishments—almost all denominations segregated congregations—as well as politics and popular entertainment. 
            Central to the system was a theoretical justification. That was provided by academic scholars who saw themselves as a new breed of social scientists. They applied scientific method to their social theories that included thorough data collection and analysis, with a goal of coming to rigid, objective conclusions that were supported by evidence. 
            Their pretentions to scholarship and scientific methods did inestimable damage to American society and we live with the consequences today.  

Thursday, May 21, 2020


       “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience” by Emerson W. Baker, Oxford University Press, 2015.  

         In 1692, in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, fourteen American women and five American men were hanged after jury trials in which they had been found guilty of being witches and having “afflicted” girls and some other members of their community, in league with the devil. Another man died while being “pressed” between boards because he stubbornly would not enter a plea. Many more died in jail of disease while awaiting their trials. 
         Hundreds more had been accused and sent to jail for indeterminate periods; some had been “cried out on” but not charged for various reasons, some having to do with bias of the judges or politicians. 
         At least fifty-five people confessed to being witches; almost all were spared execution; most named others as witches. The ones who were executed were the ones who proclaimed their innocence. 
         The episode dragged on until the next year, when the hysteria finally cooled. Eventually, there was the usual political backlash, an attempted cover-up, then a whitewash, and finally, an admission that it had all been a mistake. There was an apology and an attempt to provide restitution to the families of the innocent condemned victims. Substantial sums were paid out. 

         Today, we look back on the events in amazement, feeling superior to those ignorant superstitious people who abetted the killing, torture, and persecution of so many of their innocent neighbors. There were many causes for the “outbreak” of the witchcraft hysteria in Salem and nearby towns, a confluence of several phenomena that made it happen. It can happen again. 
         Although it is very unlikely that, in our enlightened age, we would fall into another spell of witchcraft mania, we certainly have and will again pursue the kind of passion that result in “witch hunts.” The tendency to seek scapegoats to blame and punish for the evils that befall us is an all too enduring human trait. A look back, therefore, may be worthwhile as lessons for us. 

         All of the trials were conducted lawfully—that is, according to the laws and customs of the time. The judges were respected and experienced jurists who were responsive and responsible to the political hierarchy, their consciences, and popular will. The community’s political leaders were democratically elected by “freemen” who also made up the juries. All these men were educated and civilized Englishmen. Although the judges weren’t trained as lawyers, they were familiar with English legal procedures and rules. 

THE BACKGROUND: Economy / Climate / Wars
         The settlers of the time were under great stress from all sides. After the landing at Plymouth in 1620, several settlements had been founded along the coast of Massachusetts. Each was authorized by royal charter. Unlike the Jamestown settlement, they survived and even prospered—by farming, fishing, and trade with Native tribes, with the other English colonies, and with their competitors, the French to the north in Quebec province, and as far south as the Caribbean islands. 
         But there were hard times, too. The climate in the 1600’s was part of what is now known as The Little Ice Age, that struck the Northern Hemisphere intermittently for three hundred years from the 1400’s. It meant bitter winters, dry summers, and consequently, as in the decade of the 1680’s, drought and famine. 
         There were also wars between English settlers and Natives who allied with the French to challenge the borders. Massachusetts claimed the Maine territory as part of its colony and settled it with families that migrated from Salem and its environs (Essex County). 
         By 1690, the French and Natives were winning the border battles, rolling back English settlements, sending the surviving families back to Salem. The remnants of those families, often widowed women and children, were impoverished and depressed, adding to the financial burden of the community. Their presence was resented by many. Some in those impoverished families soon became “afflicted” victims of witches; others were accused of being witches. 

INTERNAL DISPUTES: Land / Inheritance / Status 
         There were also land disputes that played a role. Greed is universal and eternal. (In the 1930’s and 40’s, Europeans turned on their Jewish neighbors and Californians turned on their Japanese friends, and in both cases, property and businesses became available at panic prices.) In Salem, some long-standing land claims were settled by accusations of witchcraft. 
         In the seventy odd years since the founding, some families became wealthy and prominent, spawning political and religious leaders and losers, leading to inevitable jealousies. There was a complicated weaving of intermarriage among these families. There were losers among these families, too. Disfavored sons who resented successful older siblings, who had inherited greater shares of property from parents. Some daughters had bad marriages. Some granddaughters would denounce their grandparents as witches. 

         Of course, the cause that seems most obvious is the religious element. The Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620 were Protestant fundamentalists who were called Puritans by their critics. Their sect was more extreme than other dissenters, demanding complete separation from, rather than merely reform of, the established Anglican Church, that they deemed to be corrupt. The Crown government was eager to get rid of them, and allowed them to emigrate to the New World, to establish a colony. 
         The government they set up was a theocracy, in which there was no separation between religious leaders and political government. Local laws defined violations of morals—as defined by the clergy as crimes, enforceable by punishments—from fines, to imprisonment, and death. Not only were the definitions and punishments dependent on religious interpretation, so were the rules of adjudication. 

         The witch trials were conducted in an open and formal way. Transcripts of most of them were preserved, so there is a record of the testimony of witnesses, the summations of prosecutors, and the rulings of judges. However, the English criminal law of the time did not give the accused the right to representation by a lawyer. 
         Great weight was given to confessions, and there were many, because the current practice permitted torture, and coercion by persuasion. Most persuasive was the promise that the accused witch would not be hanged if she (or he) repented by admitting guilt and naming other witches. 
         The strongest evidence against the accused was given by alleged victims who claimed to have been “afflicted” by the witch or the witch’s “specter.” The specter was believed to be a manifestation that a witch was able to project in order to be somewhere other than where her body was at any time. 
         The “affliction” might be “possession” but often it was vaguer than that. The victim, typically an adolescent girl, would seem to have inexplicable symptoms: shaking fits, sudden unconsciousness, whirling, speaking in gibberish, uncontrollable seizures. Doctors admitted they were stumped; the causes were beyond their knowledge or experience. 
         When in doubt about the cause of a strange phenomenon, the traditional response is to turn to God. If AIDS and Covid-19 can be ascribed to “God’s will” by many in the 21st Century, it should be no mystery why it was believed by a vast majority of Christian Europeans and their transplanted colonists in the 17th Century. 
         The Judeo-Christian Bible is full of references to witches as associated with Satan, devil worship, and pagan rituals. For those who believed that the words of scripture were sacred and literal truths, the existence of the devil and of witches was as real as the line between goodness and evil. 
         To reinforce the faith, learned ministers preached from the pulpit, using the devil and witches as more than mere metaphor for evil, but as concrete risks to those who would not follow the strict teachings of the Bible … and of course, the warnings of the Church … and its wise and saintly spokesman, the minister, himself. 
         In Salem, preachers warned that winter and war and drought and crop failure all were the work of the devil … or were warnings from God because of the failure of the flock to follow His laws. The Native tribesmen were called devils, and their hostility to the English settlers who had stolen their lands was considered to be the devil’s doing rather than justifiable anger.
         It so happened that Church attendance at this time was falling, partly due to an influx of non-Puritans. These included Baptists and Quakers, as well as some of the hated Catholics—influenced by the hated French. There were slaves from Haiti and other French colonies, who also practiced secret pagan rituals, such as making “poppets” or what we know as voodoo dolls. 
         The first woman accused of being a witch in Salem was named Tituba, a South American dark-skinned slave. To save herself, she named names—of mostly elderly Puritan women. The ones she fingered were eccentric, or different in some way. Some had been gossiped about for years as possibly being witches. 
         Imagine a homeless, possible mentally ill old woman living on the fringes of the community. She dresses in rags, smells rank, begs for alms, and curses those who refuse to help her. She mumbles and cackles inappropriately to herself. The children make fun of her and some are afraid of her. She is probably a widow, or a spinster, possibly one who has no relatives in the town. She has no one to defend her when the accusations fly. Perhaps she even relishes the attention she gets, admits that she hates and resents and curses others. 

         I am always interested in legal history and the witch trials had some interesting evidentiary quirks. 
         The issue for the judges to decide was not whether witches did exist. That was a given: they certainly did, the Bible said so. There had been ample precedent for hundreds of years in Europe. England and even in the American colonies in the recent past, of instances of witchcraft. 
         The issue for the legal system was how to know if the accused was, in fact, a witch. For this they had use of experts who had written detailed treatises describing the appearance of witches, their habits, their associations and their rituals. They also devised tests that they hoped would conclusively prove the point. 
         In other parts of Christian Europe, going back to the Middle Ages, suspects had been tested by being dumped into a body of water. If they floated, it meant they were rejected by good spirits that resided in water (water being a symbol of purity, as in baptismal rites). If they stayed under, they were innocent. A defect in this test was that some defendants drowned to prove their innocence.  
         The “touch test” was deemed to be a more humane and rational test. It presumed that a witch who had afflicted a victim had the power to lift the affliction merely by touching the victim. These tests were done in open court. The afflicted young woman would be brought in to face the accused. 
         The girl would often go into her trance—begin convulsions or other actions that showed she was possessed. The accused witch was then ordered to touch her. The symptoms ceased immediately, thus proving guilt. 
         Remember, there were no defense lawyers to challenge this evidence. However, one skeptical judge ordered an experiment. He had the victim brought into the court blindfolded. He had her touched by someone else. She had no convulsions. 
         The prosecutor scoffed. The experts explained that the power of the witch required use of her “evil eye” to afflict. If blindfolded the girl was immune to the evil eye.
         The judge then had another victim brought into court to face the accused. The convulsions began. Then the girl was blindfolded. She was touched by someone else. The convulsions stopped. 
         The prosecutor answered that obviously the girl was bewitched into believing that she had been touched by a witch. 
         The defendant was convicted and hanged. 
         The existence of witches was so ingrained in Christian culture that even one of the enlightened minds of the century was trapped by it. 
         Robert Boyle is considered to be the first modern chemist who championed the scientific method as a means to find the truth. He was also a theologian and spent much of his energy to try to use science to prove the existence of God. One of his efforts was to find a cure for the evil eye and the touch of witches. 
         He never succeeded but it shows how often faith stubbornly resists all evidence. (There are trained scientists today who stubbornly try to prove creationism and those who deny climate change.)
         Another courtroom example is interesting. The judges asserted that they wanted to weed out groundless charges, to distinguish between those alleged victims who really were afflicted and those who might be faking. 
         There was historical precedent for fakery in this area. 
         In one famous case, King James I had proved that a woman who was able to spew pins from her mouth, nose, and vagina was performing tricks. In other cases—some in England, others in the colonies—girls had recanted, admitting that they had “dissembled” in order to gain some advantage, to avoid punishment, or to avenge some perceived slight. 
         In Salem, Mary Warren was one of the accusers. Mary was an indentured servant to John Procter and his wife. She accused them of witchcraft. She then recanted after Procter whipped her for lying. He took her before the court, and she admitted that she had made up the story. 
         She then accused other girls in the court of lying as well. Lying under oath, bearing false witness, was as heinous a crime as witchcraft. The girls began to writhe, screaming that Mary was bewitched. 
         Mary then was arrested and put in jail as were the Procters. Now that she was safe from their beatings, Mary flipped again, now claiming that Procter had bewitched her into recanting. 
         The judges found Mary’s testimony to be credible despite all of this, found the Procters both guilty, and hanged them. 
         Mary had claimed that Procter’s “specter” had beaten her and attacked her while she was in bed. Other girls made similar claims about other men. 
         Historians now speculate that Procter, among other men in Salem, were abusive, beating their servants regularly. There is some evidence in diaries and other writings of sexual abuse as well. If true, it suggests motives for accusations against some of the men who were among the more powerful in the community: some ministers even. 

         Although clearly, fakery played a role in the testimony, there are other explanations that historians and modern science have explored. 
         Some have surmised that the rye that was used to make bread might have been infested with a spore that is known to have hallucinogenic side effects. However, the evidence for this is weak, considering that everyone in the settlement ate the bread and only certain people showed symptoms, some of which were inconsistent with that poison. 
         Others point to the fact that most of the accusers were girls and young women who had little or no power in the male dominated and repressive society. They were doomed to be servants or drudges. Many were orphans or children of widows, without dowries, and therefore with little hope of marriages that might improve their status. 
         Two of the first accusers were daughters of a prominent minister, who was famous for fire and brimstone sermons, warning that the devil was rampant in the town. He was not popular, and attendance in his church was falling—and thus his salary. His daughters were facing a bleak, frightening future. Their father encouraged their revelations, publicizing them to prove he was right. 
         Another man, Thomas Putnam, Jr., was responsible for accusations against thirty-five people. His wife, daughter, and a servant all claimed to be afflicted. Putnam testified on their behalf, per the law’s provision that men appeared in court to represent their women.
         Putnam also had a job in the court. He transcribed many witness depositions that were read to the court in order to obtain indictments. Historians who examined them note that the wording in most of these statements is almost identical. Also, some paragraphs use different inks, suggesting they were written at a later time. The passages often embellish the claims made in the early paragraphs, suggesting that Putnam was biased and creative. 
         When these sorts of discrepancies are found in modern statements, such as police arrest reports, it casts substantial doubt on the veracity of the documents. The Salem courts had no trouble with any of these evidentiary problems. Perhaps allowing lawyers to intercede for the defendants might have helped.   

         Why did so many people show similar symptoms? Were they all faking? The symptoms of many of the victims seemed to be real enough. Were they all great actors? 
         Modern thought looks to other examples for medical or psychiatric explanations. For instance, in 2011, in the small upstate New York town of Le Roy, some teenage girls began showing similar bizarre symptoms: fits, tics, and other strange behavior. Although some of the girls and their families attributed the illnesses to environmental causes—nearby toxic dumps and other causes of pollution—testing eliminated those causes, partly because it only struck a few of the six hundred students at the school. 
         Instead, mental health experts called it “Conversion Disorder,” an ailment that had first been described in the 19th Century by pioneering psychiatrists, including Freud. The term refers to the mind’s process of dealing with mental stresses by converting them into physical ailments. 
         It turns out that there were many of the same stresses in 2011 Le Roy, NY, that afflicted 1692 Salem. The town was in financial trouble due to lost industry. The future for these high schoolers was cloudy. Some were from troubled homes where parents were unemployed and depressed, divorced, or on the brink of homelessness. 
         The ailment strikes a small percentage of the population with severe symptoms, but it is also susceptible to the power of suggestion among peer groups. This used to be called “mass hysteria,” but that is a dated term. 
         Now it is called “Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI).” Some event exposes symptoms in one person, perhaps an epileptic or psychotic episode. Another person, similarly situated, begins to break down and it spreads. Although they are a susceptible group due to the stresses involved and the nature of peer pressure, MPI isn’t limited to adolescents.
         In 2004, a Canadian bus driver saw a Middle Eastern appearing man enter his bus. He stared at the man through the mirror as he drove. The driver became nauseous. The man apparently resented the attention. He left the bus, making a nasty remark, that the bus driver heard as: “It is going to be a bad day.” 
         The driver began to vomit. Passengers, including a paramedic, came to his aid. He told them what happened and what was said. They too became sick, vomiting and sweating. 
         The bus was examined thoroughly for evidence of “bioterrorism,” the press calling it “the toxic bus.” But none was found; rather, it was another example of MPI. 

         The stresses for the girls and others in Salem were immense. In that culture, children were powerless, and females especially had little to hope for improving their lot. Many of those involved had been traumatized by the wars that caused deaths of fathers. They had been terrorized by fear of Native attacks. They had heard tales of horrible atrocities by the pagans. 
         These children were imbued with a visceral terror of the devil and their parents and ministers had told them that the devil was on the loose, that he wanted their souls. But there were conflicting values at the time. 
         The fervor of the original settlers had diminished with the next generation. Trade and prosperity showed the power of materialism. Some of the stories the girls told included witches’ promises of wealth and fashionable clothes. They had weird dreams of Natives kidnapping them, stealing their clothes, enslaving them. 

         There is no perfect answer that explains all of the known facts of the cases. Part of the problem is that historians are dependent on the written contemporary records. That record is lengthy, including depositions, trial transcripts, diaries, articles, copies of sermons and speeches. But there are many gaps in the record. And it was long, long ago. 
         Any finding of fact that is based on someone’s writing depends on who did the writing. As in the case of Mr. Putnam, was he impartial, or was he biased? In recounting testimony of witnesses, the transcripts are seldom verbatim. Instead they report statements or summaries of statements made by witnesses in court. 
         A few question and answer transcripts show clearly that leading questions were asked, of witnesses, and in interrogation of defendants. For example:
Q: Sarah Good what evil spirit have you familiarity with? 
GOOD: None. 
Q: Have you made no contract with the devil? 
GOOD: No. 
Q: Why do you hurt these children? 
GOOD: I do not hurt them. I scorn it. 
Q: Who do you employ then to do it? 
GOOD: I employ no body. 
Q: What creature do you employ then? 
GOOD: No creature but I am falsely accused. 
Q: Sarah Good do you not see now what you have done why do you not tell us the truth, why do you thus torment these poor children? Good: “I do not torment them.” 

         Witnesses weren’t separated during testimony to preclude parroting answers. The evidence is replete with instances where one “victim’s” writhing triggered another to imitate the action, and then the others followed. 
         One of the most ardent proponents for the trials was Reverend Samuel Parris, who pressed for indictments against women accused of bewitching his wife and daughters. Parris had a strong motive to force the issue. His church had been failing, partly due to his refusal to agree to allow “halfway covenants,” which allowed people to be members of the church without fully committing themselves. 
         For months he had been preaching that the devil was rampant in the town and that God would punish Salem for its loss of religious purity. In the legal system of the time, men were authorized to testify for their wives and children. The trials vindicated his ministry. Certainly, his bias was so obvious that his questions to the females and his reporting of their responses to the court should have been doubted, if not held inadmissible.
         The trials went on for many months. There were skeptics from the start, but they were in the minority. A few judges quit, in distaste for what they were experiencing. A few politicians began to sense that it had gone too far. 
         Some of the religious leaders began to question the doctrinal practice of relying on “spectral testimony” and then even doubted the use of “evil eye” and “touch test.” 
         Eventually, this kind of evidence was ruled inadmissible in witch trials. More people then were acquitted. Eventually, ministers began to preach that it had all been a terrible mistake. In fact, the devil had caused the guilty verdicts and hangings. Apologies were issued; restitution in the form of money was granted to families of the innocent who were hanged or died in custody. 

         The Pilgrims, we were taught in school, fled Europe to avoid religious persecution. In the New World, they found freedom to worship as they wished. This is part of our proud heritage. 

         History tells us that one of the 1620 Mayflower passengers, John Alden, married another, Priscilla Mullins. 
         In 1858, H.W. Longfellow imagined a romantic triangle involving them and a soldier named Miles Standish. 
         In reality, the Aldens had ten children. One was John Alden, Jr., who, in 1692, was one of those convicted of witchcraft. 

         Bathsheba Pope was a Quaker who lived among the Puritans in Salem. Bathsheba and her husband Joseph had been persecuted by the Puritans for their religious differences. To spite them, the Popes claimed to have been “afflicted” by the specters of three Puritans, including John Procter. 

         In 1953, Arthur Miller used Procter as a character in his drama, “The Crucible,” which he saw as a parable about the McCarthy Era red-baiting. In 1996, Daniel Day-Lewis played him in the movie. In reality, all three of those accused by the Mr. and Mrs. Pope were hanged.)  

         In another historical irony, Bathsheba’s sister, Abiah, became Benjamin Franklin’s mother. Ben, born 1706, sixteen years after the witch trials ended, became known as a leader of the American Enlightenment in the 18th Century.
         Thus, only one generation separated an aunt and uncle who condemned witches from their nephew who became the next century’s vocal proponent of reason, law, and science.  


Saturday, September 14, 2019


I have written about Abraham Lincoln’s career as a criminal defense lawyer. When he became president there were many occasions when he had to exercise his skills and training for that profession. His approach to problems as reflected in his speeches and writings was “lawyerly.” First, he articulated the issues, and then he fairly stated the evidence and arguments from each side of the case. Finally he would eloquently give his point of view, and support his decision, often citing precedent, but always relying on the force of the evidence that persuaded him.

            As president, he had to decide whether to pardon individuals who were condemned to death. The Constitution (Art. II, Sec. 2) gives the President plenary power to grant a pardon for federal offenses. There is no appeal from his final decision. He is the court of last resort. This power was granted to the executive by the Founding Fathers despite its historical association with monarchs, and its obvious anti-democratic implication. (Hamilton, in Federalist Papers, No. 74, explains that the severity of the criminal law (which at the time provided for death for many offenses) needed to be mitigated. The “Chief Magistrate” as a “man of prudence and good sense” is in the best position to determine whether mitigation exists; his judgment should not be fettered by fears of being overturned.

            During the Civil War, Lincoln almost invariably pardoned soldiers who were condemned to death by military courts martial. He was susceptible to appeals from family members, especially women pleading for their sons, husbands, or brothers, and even for friends and acquaintances.  Most generals opposed as harmful to military discipline his grants of mercy to soldiers condemned to death for violations of military rules. Desertion was the most egregious offense to the militarists, but Lincoln found mitigation in most cases. He cited the “soldier boy’s” youth, inexperience or some other human defect to justify his order to reduce a sentence.
            In the first year of the war, a soldier who slept while on guard duty was sentenced to die as an example to other volunteers about the discipline of military life. Lincoln first sought the expertise of military advisors, learning about the traditional harshness of such rules. Then he received a letter from a woman on behalf of the soldier, a fellow Vermonter. She cited as mitigation several factors, including his youth, his unfamiliarity with the rigors of army life, his recent illness that had weakened him, and his fatigue resulting from his exposure to the enervating heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., so different from his native Vermont. Her most persuasive argument was that, contrary the notion that his execution would deter other soldiers, pardoning him would be praised by the other raw volunteers, encouraging them to greater loyalty.
            Lincoln, at this early time in his presidency, was eager to follow military protocol. He asked General McClellan if he might review the case and issue the pardon. This plea from the president tickled McClellan’s ego and he did it.
            The story of this soldier was widely reported. When in 1863, he died in battle, a poem dramatizing the events was published, inspiring a legend that added to Lincoln’s saintly image.
            But Lincoln was no saint. There were times when he denied pardons and let executions go on. Some soldiers deserted multiple times, re-inlisting over and over so that they could profit by the money paid new recruits. He allowed sentences to stand for those who committed egregious crimes, such as rape.
            And then there were the cases relating to crimes committed by civilians. Adding to enormous burden of his role as commander-in-chief during the war, he had to deal with these cases as well.
            In one case, a slave trader was caught with slaves chained below deck in miserable conditions. By then the slave trade had been illegal for many years. The law said it was punishable by death. BUT by 1861, no slave trader had ever been caught, tried and executed in the United States.
            Just as he did in all other such cases, Lincoln ordered the trial transcript, read it and all the letters and pleas from the man’s lawyers and family, and gave a reprieve of one week for the condemned to make his peace with God before his execution. That was the extent of the mercy he granted in that case.
            In another case, a resident in Norfolk, Virginia, watched “colored” Union troops marching in the street near his home. He vocally protested their presence as “a provocation.”  A white officer ordered his arrest. He then drew a pistol and shot the officer two times, not intending, he later claimed, to kill him. One bullet nicked an artery and the officer died.
            In his trial before the military tribunal, he was represented by counsel who called witnesses in his defense. However, the judges refused to allow them to argue “temporary insanity.” (In a recent notorious case, Dan Sickles, a New York congressman, had shot his wife’s lover and had been acquitted on the argument that “the unwritten law” permitted revenge for the outrage to his “property,” i.e., his wife, and that the provocation caused his temporary insanity.)   
            After the plea was rejected, the defense lawyers withdrew and the defendant gave the closing argument himself. As often the case, this was a bad idea; in this case it was a disaster for him. After denying any intent to kill, he explained his behavior: the colored troops were walking on his sidewalk in broad daylight. Just a year ago, one or more of them might have been in his “N----- yard.” Now, he was expected to bow before them? And when he protested and was arrested, the officer ordered two of “them N-----s” to take him to jail. What was he to do? What would any “man of honor” (!) do?
            Lincoln thoroughly examined the trial transcript. He rejected all arguments, but was troubled by the possibility that a viable defense might have been denied. He hired an “alienist,” the term then used for a mental illness expert. The doctor examined the prisoner and gave his opinion that he was sane, both at the time of the crime, and now. Lincoln then denied the pardon, but as in the other case, granted a week’s reprieve to permit him to “prepare himself.”

            In another infamous case, Lincoln permitted the execution of 38 Native Americans, an act that damages his image for many modern critics. The case is complicated. In Minnesota, a number of young braves rebelled against white authority, protesting the corruption of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had long been guilty of denying promised food and support to the tribes, and had treated them miserably in many intolerable ways.  Fed up, the young men went on a rampage. Others joined them. Some attacked whites. Three hundred fifty (350) whites were killed and a few white women were raped. Hundreds of the young men were captured, and 303 were sentenced to be hanged for “killing and other outrages” (meaning rapes). 
        Lincoln reviewed every trial — most of which barely met minimal due process standards. He narrowed the list of condemned men down to 38, eliminating 275 names from the list. Even though most of the braves who were spared still had to suffer imprisonment under very harsh conditions, his action still enraged the white population of Minnesota. Lincoln was under extreme political pressure to reverse himself. In fact, he nearly lost the state in his re-election campaign of 1864. When told about it, Lincoln said: “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

[Miller, William Lee (2008). President Lincoln, The Duty of a Statesman.”]