Cotton Mather... pulp writer?
"He was ripened for the gallows"
—Cotton Mather's Puritan True Crime narratives
Cotton Mather wrote prolifically and, having a capacious intellect, he wrote everything from scientific treatises to hagiographies and poetry to medical manuals. Amidst his massive output, he produced a curious work that some historians see as possibly the first instance of True Crime writing published in the Americas. Titled Pillars of Salt and published in 1699, the non-fiction prose work compiles twelve true stories of shocking crimes committed in colonial New England. Odd as it may seem that a pious and lofty man like Cotton Mather may hold the distinction of being America's first True Crime writer, as with all of his writings, Mather wrote Pillars of Salt with a righteous purpose in mind: to guide the reader away from sin.
Pillars of Salt grew out of sermons that Mather wrote on the occasion of public executions. In Puritan New England the local minister gave a sermon related to the crime committed prior to a public execution. For a number of hangings that occurred in Boston during his tenure as pastor at the Second Church, Cotton Mather gave the pre-execution sermon and ministered to the accused, before he/she was led to the Boston Common for the public hanging.
In 1699, Mather created a new work based upon these sermons and his experiences ministering to condemned criminals. This work, which he would give the Biblical title Pillars of Salt, consists of twelve chapters, each pertaining to a different executed criminal and his/her crime. While some chapters offer accounts of notable crimes from around New England to which Mather had no connection (some occurring before his birth), the rest were drawn from his own experiences in talking with accused criminals in Boston prior to their deaths. These latter chapters include a reproduction of a confessional note from the criminal or a dialogue in which the accused reveals his/her guilt to Mather (who refers to himself only as "Minister"). Mather likely heavily edited or possibly even invented part of these confessions, judging from their contrite tone and religious content.
Regardless of its possible lack of journalistic integrity, Pillars of Salt provides fascinating insights into crime and punishment in Puritan New England. The crimes enumerated include murders of spouses, infanticides, homicides committed in drunken passion, and various sexual transgressions. The people described in Pillars of Salt certainly do not match the penitent churchgoers that the Puritans are sometimes caricatured as. Instead, the image of Puritan society that Mather paints is a complex one, not lacking for violence, tragedy, and desperation.
Cotton Mather reveals the main objective of the book, once he begins to explore the pathology of each criminal he profiles. In the biography of each criminal, Mather finds a noted regression towards an increasingly sinful life. By giving in to smaller sins and moral lapses, each criminal grew vulnerable to the influence of more wicked inclinations. A history of drunkenness, skipping church, neglecting obligations to pray, disobeying parents and elders, and cursing unite all of the criminals. In this exegesis of sin and crime, Mather makes clear that had the criminals been more astute in correcting minor faults, they would not have eventually fallen into committing more extreme malefactions.
In almost all of the chapters the criminals themselves reach the same conclusion and express regret for their past moral lapses. One reprobates herself by admitting, "I am a miserable Sinner; and I have justly provoked the Holy God to leave me unto that folly of my own Heart, for which I am now Condemned to Dy…He hath Fulfilled upon me, that Word of His, Evil pursueth Sinners." Another criminal more dramatically proclaims, "Oh! 'Tis my Drunkenness, 'Tis my Drunkenness, that hath brought me to this Lamentable End!"
Although the crimes described in Pillars of Salt may excite the macabre or lurid fascination of the reader, the clear message of the book is contained in the laments of the criminals. If Mather held concerns that such a book would memorializes the most sinful, scurrilous, and debauched of society, those fears were allayed by the fact that the criminals that he presents express remorse for the crimes and immoral lives, as well as a fear of facing the wrath of God in death, and a desire to atone for their behavior. As horrible as the recounts of the crimes may be in Pillars of Salt, clearly Mather hopes that the anguished internal suffering of the criminals will affect the reader even more profoundly than the shock of their crimes.
If you'd like to read Cotton Mather's accounts of crime and punishment in early New England (a perfect preparation for Halloween), you can find it in a number of anthologies, in which it is included in various edited and truncated forms. These include:
- Schechter, Harold. 2008. True crime: an American anthology. New York: Library of America.
- Williams, Daniel E. 1993. Pillars of salt: an anthology of early American criminal narratives. Madison, Wis: Madison House.
- Baym, Nina, Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. 2007. The Norton anthology of American literature. Volume A, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Learn more about the grittier side of Cotton Mather's world at our upcoming symposium Mather Redux. Space is limited, so register today.
illustration of the execution of Ann Hibbins on Boston Common in 1656 by Frank Thayer Merrill, originally published in Lynn and Surroundings, by Clarence. W. Hobbs, Lynn, Mass.: Lewis & Winship Publishers, 1886.: 52., and found via Wikimedia Commons