Was the Barnstable church lady a bootlegger?

2017 story image

There was a loose end left over from last year’s Hallowe’en story (click on its image at left). Records attest that Elizabeth Lewis Blachford (1712-1790) of Barnstable Massachusetts, lived a virtuous life centered on her farm, family and church. However, some writers claim that in 1773 she was fined for selling distilled liquor without a license. Had she really?

It turns out that it isn’t easy after all these years to say one way or the other whether the alter ego of the folktale witch Liza Tower Hill was a convicted petty criminal. But if Mrs. Blachford was fined, then her neighbors – the same neighbors who delighted in telling nasty tales about her – helped her pay.

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The many makeovers of Boston’s best known ghost

Pirate Anne Bonney helping to shape the spirit’s spirit

The tragedy of the Lady in Black who haunts the fortress on George’s Island in Boston harbor is so closely linked with New England’s celebrated popular historian Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982) that some people think he invented the story himself. Here’s how Snow told it for a Boston television show in 1970 (video link).

The Lady in Black is perhaps New England’s most unusual ghost story. It all began in the Civil War in 1861 when a young Confederate captain, [was] captured and taken to Fort Warren, where he was lodged in the Corridor of Dungeons.

His wife found out, landed at this fort on a rainy night, came up, whistled to him, he answered and a rope was lowered and she was taken into the fort at one of the long musketry embrasures here.

They met. They planned not to escape from the fort, but to capture the fort, turn the guns of the fort against Bos[ton, to change] the entire course of the war. But it was not to be, because they were detected, and in the battle which followed, her husband was mortally wounded.

After his funeral, she was told that she must be executed as a spy. And they gave her a final request, and she asked that she be given a lady’s dress to wear. They gave her the lady’s dress, and wearing it, she was swung out into eternity.

And after that, after she was buried by the side of her husband, seven weeks went by, and then the first ghost-like [ events] came. A group of officers, after a fresh snow storm, were crossing the beautiful parade grounds. They got about halfway across, and the leader, looking down into the snow, noticed tracks of a lady’s slipper, going nowhere.

Cue some ominous music. We can be sure that that version of the story is made up. How?

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Real news and fake news about the God letter

It is better this time, but …

In its previous story about the upcoming auction of Einstein’s 1954 letter to Eric Gutkind, the Uncertaintist opined that compared with coverage of earlier auctions of the item, “press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote.” This improvement was attributed to the auctioneer, Christie’s, having based its pre-sale publicity on reliable transcriptions of Einstein’s handwritten, first-draft German.

To see whether those assessments are justifiable, your ob’d correspondent performed a small experiment, looking at about a dozen prominent reputable news providers’ stories that turn up in the first few pages in simple Google searches. This is not an exhaustive study, and not a statistical estimation of accuracy among press outlets, but just a check whether or not some major media are being truthful about Einstein’s writing, on matters where an accurate transcription would help.

The results were mixed.

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Einstein’s “God” letter up for auction again

On December 4th, Christie’s will be auctioning the famous thank you note Albert Einstein wrote to Eric Gutkind (link), in which Einstein comments on his differences with Gutkind’s conceptions of God, the Jewish Bible and Judaism. The letter will be available for viewing in San Francisco from October 25 through November 1 and in New York City from November 30 through the day of the sale. Christie’s has also exhibited the letter in Shanghai during September.

Compared with the two earlier highly publicized sales (in the UK in 2008 and on E-bay in 2012), press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote. This improvement is partly attributable to the auctioneer using a reliable transcription of the handwritten German original, as was confirmed in the Uncertaintist’s recent phone interview with Peter Klatner, who’s overseeing the sale for Christie’s. Unless some press outlet resurrects the comically flawed Guardian translation-wannabe from 2008, we won’t hear again about Einstein calling Bible stories “childish.”

Selective quotation remains a problem, however. For example, Newsweek (link) claims that Einstein called God the product of human weakness, while Einstein writes that of the word God; in context, the word God as Gutkind uses it throughout his book expressing a particular religious concept. Newsweek also claims that Einstein calls Judaism “an incarnation of primitive superstition.” Einstein calls a form of Judaism that, the “unadulterated” form, a reference to Gutkind’s preferred variety of Judaism, which Gutkind, writing in American English, contrasted with “watered down” Judaism.

For the Uncertaintist’s complete coverage of this issue, follow this link. For a gentler, but not contradicting, handwritten comment about the Bible written by Einstein, see link. For a sampling from Einstein’s many published comments on God and religion, visit the Unlinks page (link) and download “Einstein (ir)religion sources.” The Unlinks page is where you’ll also find a complete German-language transcript of the Einstein-Gutkind letter, with an English translation and excerpts from Gutkind’s book, the subject of the letter.

Update: The sale was held in New York on the afternoon of December 4, 2018. The sale total, including buyer’s premium, was US$ 2,892,500.

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Another Jesus for Josephus’ James

Godard's Destruction of Jerusalem

Jerusalem with Jesus ben Ananus, upper right

In Book 20 of his Antiquities, Josephus briefly mentions a man named James who was unlawfully condemned to death in 62 CE, about eight years before the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Josephus says that this James’ brother was named Jesus. In all extant source manuscripts of the Antiquities, that Jesus is said to be “called Christ.” If Josephus wrote that description, then he’d have left us compelling evidence that a historical Jesus of Galilee really existed.

Modern scholars generally accept that Josephus did describe James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ,” largely because Origen wrote that that’s what he’d read in Antiquities. Origen also remembers reading a lot more about this James there, about his character and about God’s pay-back to Jerusalem for the injustice of his death. In fact, however, Josephus tells us almost nothing else about James, not even whether his death sentence was actually carried out, much less claiming divine retribution for it.

Given that Origen misrecalls so much so vividly, what weight should be placed on his recollection of the few words which allegedly identified James’ brother? Two other Jesuses appear in the story that includes the trial incident, a story which makes perfect sense if James’ brother were either of those Jesuses (link).

This post recalls still another Jesus who appeared in Josephus’ first book, The Jewish War. This Jesus is familiar to many because of remarkable parallels between his story and the Gospels’ passion. Let us first consider the merits of his candidacy to be the brother of Antiquities’ James. If it turns out that he wasn’t James’ brother, the tragedy of Jesus ben Ananus still contributes to our understanding of how Origen’s memory so badly scrambled and improved what Josephus wrote about James and his trial.

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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