Touching an “Authentic” Swastika

[7 minute read]

CW: Nazism, Neo-Nazism, Swastikas

I’m currently writing this blog post from a hotel room in Durham, N.C. I’m here over Spring Break to do some archival research at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers live here, and it is an overwhelming and expansive collection. The collection guide here shows a preview of the breadth and depth of the papers in the archive.

This is my first time doing archival research. It is amazing.

It is hard for me to put into words why I like it so much, but I want to share an experience I had while here at the archive.

(I am still learning about archival research, and I know that all the unpublished material in the collection is under the copyright of Dr. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I won’t be sharing anything too specific here, and of course won’t be sharing any photographs or scans of my work.)

I am looking at Folder 3 of Box 19, described on the finding guide as containing

Officials documents including a Polish citizenship document tracking movement between Germany and Poland; Anmelde-Buch (enrollment book) which lists several of Heschel’s professors at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems zu Berlin including Leo Baeck , Ismar Elbogen, and Julius Güttman; Arbeitsbuch, which lists Heschel’s professional training in Frankfurt am Main; Heschel’s Ausweiskarte (identification card) at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems; and a certificate (Zeugnis) for the Deutches Institut für Ausländer an der Universität Berlin which attests to Heschel’s satisfactory completion of requirement at Realgymnasium in Vilna.[1]

I have earbuds in my ears and am half-listening to a podcast episode I’ve listened to about a hundred times before as I carefully, and nervously, flip through the materials. I feel a bit like an imposter. I wonder if everyone else here has done plenty of archival research before. They probably have lots of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and may even have jobs. They are probably almost done with their dissertations, and even their first books.

I smile as I look through the materials surrounding Heschel’s early academic education in Berlin. I feel almost proud of Heschel for these early academic achievements, as if I knew him personally. I continue flipping through these materials. I flip another page over and look down and – freeze.

There is a small book, it looks about the size of a passport, staring up at me. It is an official document. Arbeitsbuch, it reads. In the center of it is a crest, an eagle perched atop a swastika.


I knew that Heschel fled Nazi Germany. I knew this. I suppose if I had been asked if Heschel had any official documentation from the Reich, I would have shrugged and said, “Well, probably.” But seeing this document – and seeing it nestled in a folder amongst more cheerful documents about Jewish Studies in Berlin made my stomach turn.

When I gingerly touched this document I thought to myself that this was the first “authentic swastika” I had ever touched. The first swastika was on a document made by The Third Reich.


In the days leading up to my trip to Durham, I restarted playing the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In it, the Nazis won WWII. You play a supersoldier with an artificially engineered body trying to start a revolution in the United States, which now operate as a colony of the Reich.

My husband was originally interested in the game after it generated some Internet buzz. Apparently, some White Nationalists were disturbed about a game centering on killing Nazis. Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, published an article entitled “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.”

Robertston writes:

“The saddest thing about Wolfenstein’s YouTube comments isn’t the offended white supremacists. It’s the fact that in 2017 you can write “I can’t wait to kill some Nazis in a video game” as though that’s a meaningful political stance — which is exactly what a lot of the most popular comments are about. The second saddest thing is that you’ll be proven right by someone named “Pepe Von Europa.”[2]

And it’s true that the game is very overt with its message that killing Nazis in order to overthrow their regime is moral. As Kallie Plagge writes in her review of the game:

“Above all else, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes a very hard stance on the righteousness of killing Nazis. It never falters, not once asking whether violent resistance is the wrong way to fight back against oppression – and the game is stronger for it.”[3]

And so, while playing the video game, I “killed” Nazis. A lot of them. And I saw a lot of swastikas. Some were on people I “killed,” others were on buildings I “crept” by, and still others were on “official” materials I “found” and “examined” in the game. Occasionally the swastikas even seem to shout out to you: all bold and startling against a bright white or black backdrop.

This swastika is different than the other swastikas in that game, I thought to myself when I saw the swastika on Heschel’s Arbeitsbuch. It’s more… subdued. The lines are thinner. It looks… ordinary. And it was ordinary, in a horrifying way. It was a piece of official documentation, and even though it had a swastika on it, it still looked like something bureaucratic, ordinary, and everyday.

And in all its ordinariness, in all its slight bizarre delicateness, it was terrifying. Much more terrifying and startling, somewhat paradoxically, that the swastikas that seem to bombard you as you play Wolfenstein II.

After I saw it, I needed to step out of the reading room and get a drink of water.

[1] Description of File 3, Box 19. Guide to the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers, 1880, 1919-1998 and undated.

[2] Robertson, Adi. “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.” The Verge. June 12, 2017. Accessed March 14 2018.

[3] Plagge, Kallie. “Rise: Review of Wolfenstein II: The New Collossus.” Gamespot. October 26, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018.


Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:


Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.


I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.

Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.


The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.


The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).


The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.


An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.


Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every quarter hour. I know I left it there because I spent my layover from Syracuse to Montréal in an airport-style seat bank, squished between my piles of luggage, reading Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are Alright.


My unglamorous road from Damascus

Oakes, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be giving the annual Borgognoni lecture on Monday, compiled this collection of first-hand narratives to represent the faith processes of those who belong to (as the subtitle describes) “A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.” The book finds its premise in the 2012 Pew report on American religion, which identified that over a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. Some are “nones” — spiritual but not religious, they might be seeking a religion where they feel at home, or they might not. Some are “dones” — spiritually burned by their previous religious affiliation, they seek no association with formal religion. Some have never had religious affiliation; some had it, but found themselves unable to believe anymore. Whatever their motivations, a large population of Americans do not identify with religion as an institution, or as we previously knew it.

Image2An updated version of the Pew Research Center’s findings from 2014.

With her book, Oakes looks beyond the numbers of the report to compile and showcase the stories of these “nones.” The pages are populated by lifelong nonbelievers, sudden converts to atheism, and exploratory practitioners of multiple faiths, as well as exiled divorcees, gay ex-Jesuits, and women scalded by institutional sexism. But as I sat in the chilly station, one story about a Jewish seminarian-turned-Jewish atheist almost seemed to be talking about me. This man had built his life and his career around institutional Judaism. But although he was able to negotiate a personal agreement whereby he would teach nontraditional classes in Hebrew school and observe Jewish holidays, after reflection, he discovered that he could not bring himself to worship a being in whose existence he could no longer believe.

TitleCoverKaya Oakes’s The Nones are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015)

Although I started my degree as a (technically) non-practicing Catholic and described myself to colleagues as more intellectually than spiritually interested in Catholicism, within a year I was fully embedded in my research on Early Modern Catholicism, both academically and personally. I felt like I’d finally embraced — with a few provisos and quid pro quos — the faith I’d grown up in for my own. I was a Catholic scholar writing about Catholicism with aspirations of tenure at a hippie Catholic college. Sometimes it all seemed a little excessive; the other Catholic scholars I interacted with (who weren’t Jesuits) led much more diverse lives. But I had a brand, a kind of a fandom, and the symmetry made so much sense.

Yet here I was, beneath the dingy fluorescent lights of the train station, where the phrase “agnostic Catholic” struck me with such a resonance that I felt as if the text had directly addressed me. I’d never been able to completely buy into large chunks of the catechism. In the meanwhile, I practiced. The rites and rituals, but also the leadership positions and committee work — I practiced and participated in these because they seemed meaningful, because I could, and because I should. I’d always just assumed, or hoped, that someday, someone would explain it all to me in a way that I could believe in. I realized now that I’d confused faith with trust: and the more I distrusted the systems of oppression embedded in the Church (or that the Church was in bed with), the less I could truly believe that it all was true. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And so I found myself in a little city, in a tiny Amtrak station, in a kind of long-distance communion with these “nones” — these people with whom I’d sympathized, but never empathized with before – now, my new fellow travelers.

I say I’ve misplaced my faith, because I wonder if it’s still around here somewhere. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh headband I’d misplaced as a child, that I had known must have been in my childhood bedroom somewhere, and which I’m still half-convinced is in one of the boxes my family never unpacked after our big move nineteen years ago. Maybe someday I’ll find that headband; maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like an imposter when I go to mass, or write for religious magazines.

newstationLet me know if you see my faith in the lost-and-found.

Schenectady tore down its Amtrak station a few weeks after I passed through. An artist’s rendering of the future new station depicted an elegant, white, modern building, ostensibly with computerized schedules and clean drinking water. Maybe I’ll find my faith still there when I next pass through. Maybe I’ll be a believer again. Or maybe I won’t: maybe I’ll always be a seeker. Or, maybe, I’ll be somewhere in between.

Kaya Oakes will be leading a discussion for graduate students about her work on Monday, October 9, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Hall of Languages 504, Syracuse University. RSVP to Ashley O’Mara ( for readings.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.


Coda: Converting Art — Literature During Political Repression

I went to the Early Modern Conversions Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library with a hypothesis about the role of conversion in some of my own research. In the process of reading for my qualifying exams, I’ve noticed that Mary Magdalene keeps showing up in Early Modern literature — especially poetry or devotional prose written by men who had experienced some kind of religious conversion in their lives. Before they wrote about Mary Magdalene, some — like Henry Constable — converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, while others — like the Protestant Henry Vaughan and the Catholic Robert Southwell, S.J. — underwent intra-denominational conversion, wherein they reformed their professional and literary aspirations in order to sharpen their focus on the divine.

On the face of things, Mary Magdalene’s recurrence throughout decades of English literature is not an unexpected fact: biblical subjects were popular ones in Early Modern poetry on both sides of the Reformation. What renders this a curious fact is the history of Mary Magdalene’s representation in earlier English literature. Before the English Reformation, Mary Magdalene was the star of the famous and often-produced Digby mystery play fittingly called Mary Magdalene.

As I wrote earlier, Elizabeth banned the production of any religious subjects on stage, let alone mystery plays, which once had been one of the most essential ways of communicating Catholic religious principles and traditions to a mass, generally illiterate, audience. It’s not surprising that Mary Magdalene’s story had been a popular one to stage: in a conflation of a few gospel narratives, Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who extravagantly repented of her sexual sins by washing Christ’s feet with her tears and hair and anointing him with expensive perfume; having transferred her love for sex to love for Christ, she appears as one of the women who remains with Christ at his crucifixion, and she weeps at the tomb when she sees that her beloved’s corpse has gone missing. Her narrative is highly visual, full of erotic tension, and contains just the right amount of inspiration porn to urge a religious audience to convert their hearts like Mary.

Domenico Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598, a painting depicting a half-naked woman praying amid reed mats, a skull, a crucifix, a book, and a bowl. Her brown curls are fabulous.]

“Thank you, God, for a good hair day today.”

Without the legal means to stage truly biblical conversion stories like these, Elizabethan and Jacobean literary artists necessarily had to find other media in which to work. A genre like poetry or devotional prose offered an interesting advantage over the essay or the sermon: they had connotations of intimacy, not publicity. Published collections, if they were published in the author’s lifetime, were often prefaced by long, exaggerated declamations of humility insisting that the author’s friends or a sense of duty had made them publish it against their own great reservations — not because they had designs on exposing the masses to a Catholic aesthetic. Even Southwell (who, as a Jesuit missionary, did have designs on converting the hearts of his audience) declared in the dedication of his devotional prose work “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” that he wished to “alter the object” of men’s “[p]assions … and loves” — a perfectly nondenominational desire to reform (sexual) desire.

Political restrictions on public expression also impacted how writers conceived of their private faith, shifting their attention to the interior experience of spiritual self-reformation over its external manifestation — no sackcloth and ashes here, but rather serious reflection on what it means to have conformed one’s heart to God’s will, a thought process often articulated in literary words. The Mary Magdalene depicted in these converts’ writing is not the same Mary Magdalene of the mystery plays. Yes, she converts herself from sex worker to saint, and her desire for Christ supplants her lust for flesh, but as a convert her personality doesn’t really change: her affection for Christ is still highly eroticized as she longs for his resurrected body, and she still has a predilection for the sensory and sensual. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s conversion is not dramatized precisely because, to these Early Modern converts concerned with what makes a convert, the elements of interest in her story do not reside in the spectacular outward gestures of her conversion — her tears and perfumes and kisses — but rather her interior motivation to make these gestures and to convert her soul.

Titian’s Noli me tangere, c. 1512, a painting depicting a bearded man, trying to hold his shroud on with one hand with a staff in his other, as a woman in red and white crawls toward him, her right hand raised; a village on a hill and farmland are in the background.]

But “Noli me tangere” brings new meaning to “No touch-y.”

Indeed, in contrast to the transfiguration fulfilled in the body of the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene undergoes an internal metamorphosis with no impact on her body. In his poem to her, Vaughan exclaims, “How art thou changed!”, before observing that “thy beauty doth still keep / Bloomy and fresh” (my emphasis). The idea that she can be changed, while still looking exactly the same, speaks to an understanding that profound conversions do not always have visible consequences. Instead, Mary Magdalene’s conversion changes her interiority: marveling at the profound effects that her love for Christ has on her character, Southwell asks, “Can it thus alter sex, change nature, and exceed all art?” — even the art of theatrical representation.

In a complex way, Early Modern political repression of certain artistic genres helped change not only which art was most useful to understanding one’s faith but also how artists used that art to understand their political and spiritual conditions. Elizabethan and Jacobean artists still did not have much choice about how they wrote, as not even poetry was completely safe: the Jesuit Henry Walpole was run out of England for writing a poem celebrating Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr, and the poem’s printer infamously had his ears cut off for publishing it. But even under repression, artists find ways to capture the changing world.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.


Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

On my last day at the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium — blissfully unaware that nazis were meeting just down the Washington Mall — I spent part of my lunch break with the Folger’s rare books and manuscript collections. I didn’t have long to submit my request the afternoon before, so I did a quick catalogue search and picked documents almost at random authored by the Surrey Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants, an organization I knew nothing about but whose name held promising keywords. Not until I sat down in the Paster Reading Room and pulled the manuscripts from their grey envelopes did I realize the history I was holding in my hands. These sixteenth-century documents contained lists of indicted recusants, sent to local and national English authorities for the purpose of tracking and condemning religious and political treason.

As the threat of “Muslim registries” continues to linger after American lawmakers announced their support for such a tracking database, a number of writers have traced the connection of this desire for legalized discrimination/preemptive criminalization to other moments in recent history: the Bush administration’s NSEERS program, the Japanese internment, and the Holocaust. Each of these campaigns relied heavily on information processing, especially the collection of personal data which the state then weaponized against a domestic population. Modern computerized data processing certainly facilitated repression in these cases, and still promise to in the case of “Muslim registries,” but the roots of counting and criminalizing a whole class of people stretch much further back in history.

The Post-Reformation English state expended a great deal of resources on identifying, harassing, and condemning those who had failed to convert to, or had converted from, the state religion — the Church of England. Attendance at Church of England services was mandatory, and tracking attendance was one of the chief means of tracking non-conformists, including Anabaptists, Arminianists, Familists, but chiefly Catholics. Failure to attend resulted in fines, and also raised suspicions (as did too-frequent refusal of communion). Other religious transgressions were considered high treason: harboring a priest, facilitating the celebration of mass, or simply being a priest within England’s borders. High treason carried the death penalty and the forfeiture of property which would have benefitted one’s living descendants. Authorities could conduct raids on a household at any time in search of priests, vestments, and nonconformist texts and paraphernalia; the household would have to pay the authorities for the cost of the search.

Because there was no difference between the English church and the English state, transgression against the Church of England was transgression against the whole nation. Catholics were vilified as devilish foreign agitators, automatic enemies of the English people determined to replace the English monarch with the Whore of Babylon (otherwise known as the pope); other non-conformists were similarly foreignized and othered, in spite of their being born in English territory.


Welshman who claimed he was Christ, tho.


The documents I looked at in the Folger’s collection show how the English state orchestrated the tracking and regulation of religious nonconformity at every level. In Surrey, the Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants recorded the indictments of local residents who failed to appear in church. One severely damaged handwritten document from 1572 describes the early days of the Commission, when it was formed at the express order of the Privy Council (Elizabeth’s inner circle, a kind of cabinet), and the bureaucratic tracking measures put in place in order to regulate and eliminate their impact on the security of the Protestant English state.

Image One.jpg

Another handwritten document (L.b. 241), on a sheet of parchment folded into its own envelope, was a 1581 arrest warrant for Jane Honyall, who had been a recusant for four years and was a suspected Catholic. This was one of a series of three documents pertaining to Hornyall; the other two (L.b. 199 and L.b. 208, respectively) concern the vicar and churchwardens of Egham, who were compelled to be witnesses to her years-long absence and also confirm that there were “no other recusants, massing priests or Jesuits in the parish” — lest the queen’s authorities suspect a cell of rebel Catholics was growing under the churchmen’s noses. Hornyall’s warrant includes three signed seals, quite literally officially sealing her fate.

Image Two.jpg

Later, in a 1582 document (L.b. 219), the fully-fledged Commission listed in handwritten columns of indictments who had been convicted or released through the intercession of the Privy Council, and who had been imprisoned or “conformed” (officially repented and returned to church).

Image Three.jpg

Other documents in the More Family of Losely Park, Surrey, collection — from which the above documents come — include official descriptions of the finances of different recusants and their ability to pay the fines levied against them.

That’s because this kind of tracking and regulating of minorities is never really about “domestic security” — hardly so. “Domestic security” uses an imaginary threat of foreign (or foreignized) “others” to mask policies that socially and financially benefit an elite few — usually, the financially and ethnically elite, although in England’s case religion came to operate as a kind of ethnic identity which conversion never truly erased. By inventing an overwhelmingly generalized set of policies, the elite secure the participation of the majority of the population in executing and sustaining those policies, even if only the elite continue to benefit from them. Before Nazi Germany legislatively stole property from Jews, the US from the First Nations and Japanese-Americans, and Israel from Palestinians, Elizabethan England systematically deprived English Catholics of their stake in England. Serial fines could slowly drain Catholic families of their financial resources, and a family member convicted of treason could deplete a family of everything all at once. John Gerard, an English Jesuit who survived to write about his mission work in England, described how many poor Catholics were dependent on the charity of the remaining property-owning Catholics who had so far escaped retribution. The property of persecuted Catholics of course would have gone back to the use of the Crown, not the people.

US Muslim-tracking policies — whether their targets are new immigrants who have to periodically check in with federal authorities or lifetime citizens covertly observed at their local university or place of worship — troublingly echo the technological and ideological systems of repression that supported the imprisonment, impoverishment, and death of minorities in our national and global history. Though the medium may have been different — handwriting instead of digital text, personal witness rather than metadata tracking — the method is nothing new.

Photos of manuscripts appear courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


“While the dearest of friends lays in the cold ground”: Epidemic Disease, Incarceration and Patriarchal Control; The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding

After Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was chained to the floor in his room in about 1812 by his minister father, he would never again live a life unfettered by his father’s religious and patriarchal control—a control which extended over the Spaulding family long after the Reverend’s death in 1823.

Oral history of Buckland tells the tale of Josiah’s early escape attempt: he rubbed his chains against the wooden floor in his bedroom for about a year, finally breaking them. This story is recorded in Neil Perry’s 1966 article for the Springfield Morning Union. While there is much sensationalism in any newspaper article written about Josiah, my trip to the Spaulding house in Buckland in 2012 led me to believe this had actually happened.

After some research, I managed to locate the owner of the former parsonage, built in the late 1700s, the home of Reverend Spaulding, Mary Williams and their children. There has been very little restoration or modernization done to the former Spaulding home. I was invited there by its owner at the time, Edward Purinton, whose family goes back two hundred years in the Buckland area. Ed grew up in Josiah’s room and his mother had been a local Spaulding researcher. She collected funds from the community to install a gravestone for Josiah in the churchyard cemetery alongside his family, for Josiah, who died at the Deerfield Poor Farm, was buried in an unmarked grave.

Ed told me that the room was very cold in the winter, and in the letters, Josiah’s sisters often expressed concern that he stayed warm enough. Josiah’s bedroom still had the original wide-plank floors, the type of which is no longer seen in the United States. Ed moved the bed out of the way, and there underneath were the chain grooves made by young Josiah, who had been chained in front of the fireplace.


The grooves in the floor where Josiah scraped his chains.

According to legend, Josiah managed to break his chains after he rubbed them into the wooden floor. He escaped from his bedroom out the back staircase, which was situated very close to his bedroom and would have been easily reached. The original hardware was still on the doors of the house, and Josiah’s bedroom only had a latch—typical hardware of the late 1700s in this region. The back staircase did indeed open to the kitchen, where the back door was about a foot away. The barn was also very close to the house; here, Josiah attempted to take the family horse and ride to freedom. According to oral history, a neighbor commandeered Josiah and brought him back to the Reverend. Next door to the Spaulding house is an early nineteenth century house that would have been there in 1812. Josiah’s sister Lydia is said to have alerted her father of his escape, and in the commotion, the neighbor came out to tackle Josiah.

The villagers of Buckland were all aware of what had happened to Josiah; they knew that he was “insane,” and that the Reverend was keeping him chained up. It may be hard to believe that the villagers did not think of it as abusive, but at this time, they did not view it that way. Instead, church records and biographies of Reverend Spaulding refer to his “affliction,” his punishment from God: his son, Josiah Jr. Just like epidemic disease in this era was not understood to be biological in nature, mental illness was believed also to be something that God put upon a family. These afflictions were not anyone’s business to interfere with, especially not if it was the family of the highly revered local minister. Reverend Spaulding spoke from the pulpit about what had happened with his son and his version of events is what everyone believed, although it is unclear exactly what he may have said. Whatever he said, it did not elicit sympathy for Josiah. The sympathy was for the Reverend.

After Josiah’s foiled escape-attempt, Reverend Spaulding knew he had to contain him in something much stronger and harder to escape, so he had an iron cage built by the local blacksmith. In this very small, rural village, the blacksmith and the villagers all would have known exactly for whom they built the cage. It was delivered to the Spaulding home, probably carried there, and strong men assisted the Reverend as they forced his son into it. Once Josiah was put into the cage, his relationship with his sisters and his friends effectively either ended completely or was greatly changed. Letters from Josiah’s friend Ezra Fisk were no longer sent to the Spaulding house and Josiah’s correspondence with his favorite sister, Mary, also ended. The horror and desperation Mary must have felt upon learning that her brother had been put into an iron cage one can only imagine. It most likely only compounded her own feelings of being trapped, isolated, incarcerated in the patriarchal world of the early 1800s in which she could not attend college, work, or be independent of men. There was absolutely nothing Mary could have done about her brother’s situation—and she knew it.

Shortly after Josiah was caged, Mary’s husband Isaac died at age thirty-three from what I suspect may have been cholera or dysentery, when Mary was pregnant with her second child. Their three-year-old daughter also died of disease around the same time. At this time, Mary wrote one of the most heartbreaking letters of the collection to her parents, in which she implored them to help. Mary was entirely alone in Southampton with her second child. Her handwriting was wild, and her tone was of arrant, devastated and hopeless emotion, the kind that occurs only after a remarkable tragedy like what she had experienced: she lost almost everyone important to her in a matter of a few years. Mary had little choice but to return home to Buckland to stay with her parents. Upon her return the family home, she was met with the reality that her brother was now in an iron cage, and that was where he was going to stay for the rest of his life. I do not think that Mary ever recovered from any of these events, and she died at age thirty-nine. None of the Spaulding women survived past the age of fifty.



The Spaulding Family graves

I often wonder if Mary talked to her brother after he was caged, or if he implored her to let him out. The Spaulding daughters and their mother, Mary Williams, were in charge of keeping Josiah clothed, fed and warm. They did his laundry, stoked the fireplace, and cared for him. Josiah was not at all a “raving maniac”; he was not a “lunatic”; and there is no evidence that he was ever “deranged”—whatever those words mean. He was guilty, as his father would have said, of great sin: for being different. He was guilty of running off to Southampton to have fun, of not sharing his father’s Calvinist beliefs, of what may have been possible homosexuality based on the letters that were sent to him by a seemingly infatuated Ezra Fisk. The possible outcome of all of this, as Reverend Spaulding knew, was a challenge to the indomitable religious, patriarchal hold the Reverend maintained over his family and the village. It was such an incredible hold, made stronger by its ultimate physical manifestation in the form of Josiah’s cage, that it continued to socially incarcerate the Spaulding family for decades after the Reverend died. Reverend Spaulding’s death in 1823 around the same time as his wife’s death, did not mean a release or reprieve for Josiah, who by then was in his forties. The next generation cared for him, in his cage, as Josiah was transported up the hill to his sister Lydia’s house after the death of his parents. He was taken from the cage, his limbs long atrophied, carried up the hill by villagers, some of whom also carried his cage, in a grim procession to his destination at the home of Lydia. They lived right across the street from the First Congregational Church of Buckland, where the Reverend had preached for twenty-eight years. In its shadow, Josiah would live out the second half of his adult life.

Disability history is imperative to the field of Disability Studies, especially when there is primary source material like Josiah’s letters. In this case, a researcher can analyze his life in a more direct fashion, and also can learn from the letters of his family. If we were to read only newspaper articles and biographies of Reverend Spaulding and Josiah, we might come to the conclusion that Josiah really was violent and deranged, and that his poor father had no other choice but to cage him. Understanding that people with psychiatric and other disabilities are often very intelligent, observant, caring and nonviolent people is imperative to creating and fostering a world where disabled people like Josiah are given the resources they need to achieve contribute to what Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson would call a biodiverse world. Diversity amongst humans and perspectives of those who think differently or experience the world differently are an important part of fostering intellectual development for all humans. Presuming the competence of those with disabilities, as former Syracuse University Dean of the School of Education, Douglas Bicklen, would say, is a great way to start the process of biodiverse societal inclusion. Josiah’s letters clearly disprove presumptions of derangement, being “lower than a brute” and “insensate.” However, portrayals of psychiatric disability from the nineteenth century and before have continued to create stigma and bias today. Understanding the history of these perceptions and biases and where they began is necessary to unravel them, and see—really see, without presumption —the lives and experiences of disabled people now and in the past.

The cover photo is the room where Josiah was kept.

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.



Only a Being of Senseless Existence: The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding, Jr.

Josiah Spaulding outlived almost everyone in his family by many years. He was about age 81 when he died, and at that time had been put on display at the Deerfield Poor Farm, where admission was charged to see him. Massachusetts journalists traveled to the area to view Josiah and write articles about him, but the reality was that no one really knew much about his early life. There was no one in his family left to ask, and the villagers probably had little idea of what had happened back in 1812 when Reverend Spaulding caged his son, as it was an event that occurred behind the closed doors of the parsonage. Popular perception and belief in 1866 was that psychiatrically disabled people were “lower than brutes,” were insensate, and of course, not at all intelligent. One reporter however, wrote that he was surprised upon viewing the elderly Josiah Spaulding, who by then had spent almost fifty seven years in the cage, due to the “sharp and quick mind” he saw before him. Evidently Josiah fixed his clear gray eyes upon the reporter in a steady gaze, but it does not seem as if he said anything. It was the look alone that rattled the reporter, and one can only imagine how it felt.

By 1808, Josiah Spaulding Jr. had gained a position as a teacher in nearby Plainfield. Newspaper articles written in 1866 state that Josiah was not accepted to college because he was a raving maniac. I am unsure if Josiah attended college, but my estimation due to research is that he may not have. By the time Josiah had reached young adulthood, Reverend Spaulding had found a place among the New England Divines, and had gained respect and influence in Western Massachusetts. A teaching job in Plainfield could have easily been procured for him through his father’s connections whether he had gone to college or not. Josiah’s education in Buckland also would have been enough to curate his intelligence, which, based on his letters, was ample, and could facilitate a teaching job.

Reverend Spaulding, in an 1808 letter to written to Josiah while he was away at his teaching job, addressed the epidemic disease so prevalent in Buckland during these years. The Reverened believed that the disease was God directly killing people:

 My dear Son,

            The Lord keeps us alive, We are all of us still alive and in a measure of good health, which is thro’ the tender mercies of our God. There appear to be a calamity upon us, and the hand of God out against us; which ought to be for our humiliation, and prayerful consideration. I think that you, nor any of us, ought to despair, or to doubt the mercy of God, we may be guilty of great sin in this way.[1]

During these years, the epidemic disease that absolutely ravaged Buckland, written about in the Reverend’s above letter, could not be explained by science, as the tools did not exist. Reverend Spaulding, and by extension, the villagers of Buckland, believed that God was angry and killing people. In the Reverend’s 1808 letter to his son, he implores Josiah to not anger God any further, and to “prayerfully consider” the reason that God was striking people down. Josiah’s belief that God was loving would not have functioned to explain the constant disease and death in the village in the eyes of his father. For Reverend Spaulding, his son’s doctrinal rebellion was not only disobedient to him, it was disobedient to God, and disobedience to God during this time would result in direct, fatal consequences.



The Spaulding Family’s Graves

Josiah’s response, dated June 15th, 1808:

 You think that I, or no one, ought to despair in the mercy of God, nor doubt his goodness…I think this is true, but all the impenitent ought to doubt, while they remain in sin, that they shall not be saved unless they repent…

According to Professor Philip Grevin of Rutgers University, who has written extensively on Puritan childrearing tradition, questioning the patriarch at all was gravely sinful and disobedient. Reverend Spaulding never relented even a little in his hardline Calvinist beliefs. Josiah and his friends, like the minister Ezra Fisk, wrote more about the loving nature of Christ and forgiveness. This was a doctrine different from Reverend Spaulding’s–and to differ even a little from Reverend Spaulding’s doctrine would be considered very rebellious in this era, especially by the Reverend himself.

More evidence of Josiah’s intelligent, caring nature appears in his 1806 letter to his sister Mary, written in gorgeous, flourishing, and artful script:

 Dear Sister. Whilst the morn arises and the sparkling sun shines around my habitation I converse a moment with a dear Absent sister, your letter I received with pleasure and happy would my state be if I truly considered those things which you wrote to me about…may Christ grant me and you a blessing that we may truly love him for he is worthy of all our love…I rejoice to hear of your health and all the rest of the family and that I in measure enjoy mine.[2]

Based on Josiah’s words to Mary in his above response to her, it seems as if she may have been gently giving him some kind of advice, which would be consistent with his un-Puritan behavior or his identity in the family as the different one. When he responded that he would be happier if he followed her advice, perhaps he meant that yes, he would be less stressed if he conformed to expectations.  Mary was very aware of the Reverend’s personality and role as patriarch, and what that meant–and therefore, she was likely worried about Josiah.

In 1810, Mary Spaulding married Isaac Pomeroy of Southampton, Massachusetts, and moved to that village, which was 30 miles south of Buckland. Josiah followed her move, and often joined Mary in Southampton–so much so that he kept clothing at Mary and Isaac’s house and possibly had his own room there. It does seem as if Josiah was struggling with mental illness of some kind, as his sisters wrote to each other out of concern for Josiah’s “lost reason,” and the “pills and drops” he was taking for it. Josiah was about 23 when these letters were written, the age that psychiatric disabilities like bipolar or schizophrenia often manifest.

Reverend Spaulding meanwhile, was busy crafting his three hundred-page book on the nature of hell and suffering, and seething over Josiah’s choices. In 1812, he would put a permanent stop to Josiah’s visits to Mary, sending youngest daughter Lydia there to collect him. When he returned home to Buckland, his father would forcibly chain Josiah to the floor of his bedroom in the beginning of his attempt to exert total control over his son.

[I will conclude my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   

The cover photo is Mary Lyon Church in Buckland, Massachusetts, originally called the First Congregational Church of Buckland. Reverend Spaulding was the minister therefor 28 years.

[1] Reverend Josiah Spaulding, letter to Josiah Spaulding, Jr., 21 May 1808, American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association Collection (copy), Sussana Cole Letters, 18080521 Rev Josiah Spaulding to Josiah Jr.(North Syracuse, New York).

[2] Josiah Spaulding Jr., letter to Mary Spaulding, 24 December 1806, American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association Collection (copy), Sussana Cole Letters, 18061224 Josiah Spaulding to Miss Mary Spaulding (North Syracuse, New York).

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.





Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era

My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the Spaulding family of Buckland, who kept their only son in a cage in the family home. Josiah Spaulding was said to be insane, and remained in the cage for fifty-seven years until his death. The letters were mostly written by his four sisters. I hope to tell some of their stories here.

What are the circumstances that would compel a family to imprison one of its members in an iron cage for the rest of his life? In the case of Josiah Spaulding Junior, born 1787, the answer given by his preacher father, Reverend Josiah Spaulding of Buckland, Massachusetts, was that his son had “lost his reason” and was a danger to the family. Later census records on the Spaulding family state that Josiah was insane. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. I uncovered this story during my time as an archival researcher for a private archive in North Syracuse, where we received one hundred and forty-four letters written by four generations of Spaulding family members. In researching this story, I have been unable to find evidence for violent mental illness, but I have found evidence of many other things. Josiah was kept in a cage by various family members in their homes for fifty-seven years. He was put into it when he was about 23 years old, and it is there that he died.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr., the son of a prominent reverend, was expected to follow a certain life path. He was the only surviving infant of a triplet birth, born to Mary Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts and Reverend Spaulding, originally of Plainfield, Connecticut. Josiah’s sister Mary, the firstborn child, had been born the year before. The two maintained a close friendship for many years. Both of Josiah’s parents were from respected lines of New England families who were among the first white settlers of the region, and their genealogies span to the early seventeenth century in America.

Reverend Spaulding was a staunch Calvinist, and obtained his Doctor of Divinity from Yale in 1778. He was ordained as a minister in 1782 and had gone to Uxbridge, Massachusetts to begin his career as the local minister. He was married there, as well. However, as would occur repeatedly until his arrival in Buckland, the reverend was dismissed from his position in part because of “unpopularity due to his Calvinist theology”, according to the Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, and the fact that he was thought to be eccentric. Hardline Calvinism, which had long been the established religion in New England, was slowly starting to fall out of vogue during this period. According to records, parishioners had a hard time believing that God “foreordained every thought, word and action” of human beings, as Calvinism and the Reverend taught. However, Reverend Spaulding deeply believed in the doctrine and would not renege even a little. As a result, he had to move around a few times until the family settled in Buckland, where he remained minister for twenty-eight years and was widely loved by the townspeople. Josiah was eight years old when the Spauldings arrived in Buckland. Daughters Nancy, Deborah, and Lydia had been added to the family, with Lydia being the youngest, born in 1799.

Letters between Josiah and his older sister, Mary, demonstrate a close relationship between the two. Mary’s 1801 letter to Josiah, written when she was sixteen and he around fourteen and away at a conference in Goshen, spoke heavily of religion and repentance but also of local gossip:

PS I will inform you of the death of Betsy Stinn, she died not long before thanksgiving  & it is expected that Lydia her sister is or will soon be married to the gentleman that courted Betsy. & What do you think of that, it has occasioned considerable talk here…

As a young woman of this era, Mary would not have been groomed for a career in the way that Reverend Spaulding was doing by bringing his son to a religious conference. Unlike her mother and namesake Mary Williams, Mary Spaulding was taught how to write and had beautiful penmanship. She and her sisters attended the local one-room schoolhouse in Buckland where a peer of theirs was Daniel Forbes, famous for his penmanship and friends with the Spaulding family. There is little doubt that the Spaulding children learned penmanship in some measure from Daniel, and in the Spaulding collection there are letters written by him to Mary. However, the Spaulding daughters’ education did not go much beyond their years at the local schoolhouse, as they were expected to excel instead in the domestic arts and get married.

Josiah, also expected to marry and raise a family and continue the Spaulding lineage, could attend college. Neil Perry’s 1966 article on Josiah for the Springfield Morning Union, based on Victorian era articles from one hundred years prior, states that Josiah was violent and rebellious in his youth, and was not accepted to college. These descriptions are from 1866, just before Josiah’s death. However, the language of articles like these is typical to language of the Victorian era when describing or reporting on mental illness, and Josiah is referred to as “deranged.”

The family letters indicate otherwise. Josiah was an articulate and intelligent young man who worked as a teacher, and had the most beautiful penmanship in the family. The story of Josiah will continue in a three part series on this blog. Perhaps he did have some mental illness, and he did seem to be rebellious for the era. It is my estimation that his aversion to Puritan based norms and expectations and his conflicting ideology from his father’s was the real reason that he was caged, along with what does seem to be some kind of possible psychiatric issue. However the description of him as violent and deranged was sensationalized, and is not an accurate description of those with psychiatric disabilities on the whole. There has long been, and continues to be a disparity in power between those who are considered to be able bodied and minded, and those who aren’t. The Spaulding family was absolutely dominated, as most Puritan lines were, by the patriarch. It is not Josiah that should necessarily be looked to as defining derangement, but his Calvinist father, who not only was the patriarch of the family, but of the entire village of Buckland and much of western Massachusetts.

[I will continue my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.


The Greatest Show on Earth!: The Historico-Biblical Epic, Excess, and the Sublime Historical Experience

A few weeks ago, when I published my post on Game of Thrones and its theory of history, one of my colleagues asked me about the nature of excess–of violence, of sex, of things (clothes, sets, technologies)–that typically stand as one of the hallmarks of the epic genre. At what point, she asked, does excess simply overwhelm the viewer, force them into a state of suspension, of sensory/sensual overload that causes them to disengage? I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the function of excess in terms of historical representation. I’ve come to believe that the genre of the epic, perhaps more than any other type of historical film or television series, allows for an experience of the strangeness and otherness of the world of antiquity. Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that the historical epic provides contemporary spectators with an experience of the past that exceeds questions of accuracy, and allows them to know (or to attempt to know) the past in a way that exceeds language and disrupts the discipline imposed by traditional historical discourse.

In the post-war period, and increasingly in our own, the epic has sought out religious subjects in its articulation of what the antiquity looked like and how it worked. In the historical world produced in the epic film, religion is  intricately tied to the body and sexual desire. Conversion is a key site for this intersection between bodies, sex, and religion. The act of conversion takes many forms: moving from pagan to Christian; or, in the case of pre-Christian figures such as Samson, from sexual desire to union with God; from the world of the flesh to that of the transcendent spirit. These transcendent conversions are paradoxically predicated on leaving behind one form of sexual desire while inhabiting another: for example, as men are led to abandon the licentious women of Rome for the allegedly chaster women of Christianity. Such a transition, however, carries with it its own danger:  the process of conversion involves a measure of jouissance, a perilous pleasure that reminds us of the body even as it seeks to transcend it. Indeed, the very essence of religious conversion often manifests in these films as a form of excess, often of emotion, as in the case of Richard Burton’s almost hysterical performance as a converted centurion in The Robe, or as in the excesses of fleshly, sublime agony of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  Religion intersects with history here to allow us to encounter the terrifying too-muchness of the past, to confront a world terrifying in its overwhelming scale.

In the epic, spectacle always bears with it a double valence. On the one hand, epic spectacle inundates us with the pleasures of the visual:  Nero’s Technicolor robe in Quo Vadis, the digitized Colosseum of Gladiator, the truly breathtaking long shots of Exodus. On the other hand, epic spectacle challenges us by asking to suspend our attention to narrative and to fixate ourselves on the pleasures of the visual.  These objects call to us, ask us to encounter a world that provides a means by which we can escape the poverty and the banality of our everyday lived experience through the history’s epic visuality and sensuousness. What is more, they also ask us to abandon our current subjectivity, to inhabit that previous, precious moment–if only for the time that we watch the text. Again, these are elements of the past that cannot be contained within words or within narrative, either in the films themselves or in the academic study of history. That extra-linguistic, extra-narrative element of the epic is the source of the power they have and the experience they provide of a past-ness (even if, again, the politics associated with that past-ness are not to our liking).

For all that narrative attempts to control the excess it utilizes to bring the world of antiquity to life, it also creates for modern spectators a sense of the past as a place just beyond the realm of linguistic representation. Epic film proposes a different way of engaging with the world of antiquity, one that does not rely upon words or closure to bring us an experience of that world. As Robert Rosenstone so memorably puts it, historical film “forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world—a world in which we cannot control or contain our past with words; cannot tame its full meanings within the discipline of a discourse because the meanings themselves—encoded as images as well as words—ultimately elude words.” What he refers to as the unruly meanings of the past trouble us even as they excite and pleasure us.

At the same time, this world of plenitude and excess, this past that holds so much visual/visceral appeal to the contemporary modern spectator, must also eventually be disavowed for us to enable to function as modern subjects. This simultaneous attraction and rejection produces what historian Frank Ankersmit has termed a sublime historical experience. In order to know that world, in order to make sense of the impossibly distant and fragmented world of antiquity, we must return it to the realm of language, to our historical understandings that underpin so much of our relationship to the past. And yet, paradoxically, some measure of that excess always remains, haunting our collective imagination, a perpetual reminder of what has been given up in order for us to become who we are today.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.