January 19, 2015

The Proof Is In The Pudding - Proof of Satan!

Small things go wrong in my life all the time. My computer at work does something weird, the Facebook app on my phone stops working, my waffles come out burned, or I miss the bus. I just take these things for granted and don't usually read anything into them.

If I lived a couple centuries ago I wouldn't be so sanguine in the face of these minor misfortunes. Thing often went wrong for our New England ancestors. Butter wouldn't churn, cattle got sick, the loom malfunctioned while weaving, a blight killed the corn. Some people would just take these things for granted, but others would find a supernatural cause. Maybe it was God, but maybe it was Satan and his followers...

John Brown of Lynn, Massachusetts was one of those people. In the late summer of 1692 John got a hankering for Indian pudding.

He desired an Indian puding to be made, which was done, and the flour and suet were white and good when put into the pot, but when (it ) came out (it) was red like a blood pudding...

That's right! His Indian pudding, instead of coming out golden brown, came out blood red. John Brown almost immediately knew who was at fault. It was Sarah Cole, a woman he had argued with over religion (she said all church-goers were devils) and also over some hogs. He had gotten ill after their spat about church-goers, and after they argued about hogs his Indian pudding turned blood red. John was fed up, and accused Sarah of witchcraft. He even testified in front of the magistrates at Salem about the Indian pudding.

Some things we might consider minor inconveniences were actually a big deal for the early settlers. If butter didn't churn, you had no way to preserve your milk. If your cow got sick, you probably wouldn't even have milk. If the loom broke you might have to go naked, and if a blight killed your corn your family could starve. These were were major problems. I can understand how someone might have blamed a witch for these things, even if I disagree with their logic.

But a discolored Indian pudding doesn't seem that important to me, and I really love Indian pudding. Was it really worth blaming Satan and his minions?

Apparently in New England it was. Here is something from a 1722 edition of the New-England Courant:

We are at present amus'd with a very odd Story from Martha's Vineyard, which however is affirm'd for a Truth by some Persons lately come from thence, viz. That at a certain House in Edgar Town, a Plain Indian Pudding, being put into the Pot and boil'd the usual Time, it came out of a Blood-red Colour, to the great Surprise of the whole Family. The Cause of this great Alteration in the Pudding is not yet known, tho' it has been Matter of great Speculation in the Neighborhood.
And here is another story, from the May 25, 1767 issue of the Boston Evening-Post, provides a possible and specifically Satanic explanation for unusual puddings.
They write from Plymouth, that an extraordinary Event has lately happen'd in the Neighborhood, in which, some say, the Devil and the Man of the House are very much to blame. The Man, it seems would now and then in a Frolick call upon the Devil to come down the Chimney; and some little Time after the last Invitation, the good Wife's Pudding turn'd black in the boiling, which she attributed to the Devil's descending the Chimney, and getting into the Pot, upon her Husband's repeated Wishes for him. Great Numbers of Peoples have been to view the Pudding, and to enquire into the Circumstances; and most of them agree, that the sudden Change must be produc'd by a Preternatural Power. But some good Housewives of a Chymical Turn assign a Natural Cause for it...
Three years ago I actually wrote briefly about those two newspaper articles, but I thought the topic was worth revisiting after I found the story about John Brown.

I think these stories are entertaining and illuminating examples of how people try to make sense of the world, particularly misfortune. Why do bad things happen to good people - or good puddings? When is it acceptable to invoke a supernatural cause, like God, Satan, black magic, or Mercury retrograde? When is the cause considered natural?

I don't think most contemporary New Englanders would blame the Devil or a witch if their pudding came out an odd color. Like the "good Housewives of a Chymical Turn" we would find a natural cause. And as the two newspapers indicate, even in the 1700s people were divided over the line dividing the natural and the supernatural. Maybe most early New Englanders only blamed the supernatural for really bad things, like mysterious deaths or unexpected calamities such as famines or epidemics. Many modern people don't invoke supernatural causes at all, blaming bad things on a random mechanistic universe.

Happily for Sarah Cole, it seems like the magistrates in Salem didn't share John Brown's concerns over the Indian pudding. On February 1, 1693 she was found not guilty of witchcraft and set free.


Unknown said...

Very interesting post, Peter; I'm teaching "The Crucible" in my ENGL 1010 course this Spring + American Literature, & may be teaching History in the fall.

Your blog is fascinating! I initially came to it when I was looking up the Hancock story about his hand being cut off/ possibly stolen.


Peter Muise said...

Hi Jessica! I'm glad you like the blog. Maybe one of the students can cook up some Indian pudding for class?