Category Archives: Books

Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post

I ordered a copy of Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post by Robert Graham Caldwell, published in 1947, when I learned that there was a movement afoot to remove the historic whipping post in Georgetown due to its alleged racist symbolism. Unfortunately, two-day shipping wasn’t fast enough to beat the mad dash to topple any Delaware monument with an alleged connection to racism, and the book arrived after the post had already been removed. On the day of its removal, nearly every newspaper in the country ran a gushing story about how Delaware was finally removing this relic of oppression. Reportedly, a crowd gathered and cheered.

I was surprised by the haste with which the state acted, and vaguely skeptical of the argument that there was something inherently racist about the presence of the whipping post as an educational display. This was more of a gut feeling than an informed opinion on my part. I’d never heard anyone complain about the post before. Surely it had been used to punish whites and blacks alike. But I didn’t have any facts at my disposal, so I bit my tongue and hoped that I’d find answers in the book.

Red Hannah is an unapologetically biased and opinionated book aimed at the abolition of public whipping as a form of punishment in Delaware, which was still legal (but rare) when it was written. The preface offers this radical suggestion: “What is needed is not the replacement of whipping with some other method of punishment, but the elimination of all methods of punishment not only in Delaware but everywhere in the United States, and the introduction of a system of scientific treatment…” So Caldwell makes it very clear from the start that he is opposed to punishing criminals, and considers whipping to be an especially barbaric punishment.

The book is well-researched and includes extensive endnotes. Caldwell begins by tracing the history of whipping in Delaware from the Dutch and Swedish settlements through the English colonial era. During this period, corporal punishment was common, and imprisonment was rare. Criminals convicted of a variety of offenses could expect to be pilloried and/or whipped in a public setting. The humiliation of being ridiculed by an audience was intended to be part of the punishment. In the nineteenth century, imprisonment became common, but Delaware continued to use the whipping post and the pillory, even as other states outlawed them. Caldwell and many of his sources repeatedly condemn whipping as brutal, barbaric, and ineffective. The other side argued that the punishment deterred crime.

This portion of the book, covering the 17th through 19th centuries, does not focus on race. Whipping was a punishment for specific crimes, and whites and blacks who were convicted of these crimes were whipped. In fact, the book lists two groups of men who were whipped in New Castle County in the late 19th century, and most of them were white. Although Caldwell provides many examples of criticism of the practice, the criticism is based on the supposed cruelty of the punishment. The historical illustrations in the book also depict both white and black criminals going under the lash. It seems to me that, in general and probably with some exceptions, whipping as a punishment was not deliberately aimed at black Delawareans during this period.

Delaware finally abolished the pillory in 1905, but clung to the whipping post despite continuing controversy. It is at this point that Caldwell is able to offer and analyze detailed statistics about the use of the whipping post in the 20th century. From 1900 to 1942, more than 7,000 prisoners were convicted of crimes punishable by whipping (and the racial breakdown was about half and half), but only 22% of them were whipped. Of this minority, 66% were black. From 1940 to 1942, 80% of the prisoners who were whipped (36 out of a total of 45) were black. These are the statistics that have been used in modern times to support the argument that the whipping post was employed in a discriminatory fashion against blacks. This seems like a reasonable conclusion on the surface; racist white judges were more likely to order black convicts to be whipped, right? However, Caldwell offers a different explanation, citing New Castle County statistics which indicate that repeat offenders were more likely to be whipped, and there was a higher percentage of black repeat offenders. So, despite Caldwell’s fierce opposition to whipping, he concludes that the court of the 1940s did not directly discriminate against blacks in ordering whippings, while admitting that other social factors, including discrimination, probably caused black criminals to become repeat offenders and therefore be more likely to be whipped.

By 1942, fewer than 7% of criminals convicted of a crime punishable by whipping actually got whipped. So the vast majority of black convicts were not whipped, a fact which challenges the portrayal of the whipping post as a tool of racism.

It is important to note that during this period, all of the crimes punishable by whipping also carried a prison sentence. So, whether a criminal was whipped or not, he still went to prison. In my opinion, this is where Caldwell’s argument (as well as that of modern critics of the whipping post) falls apart: A whipping consisting of ten to twenty lashes, or rarely more, and lasting for only a few minutes, is considered to be cruel and unusual, but throwing the same criminal into prison for years of his life is not. I completely disagree. Personally, I think whipping is the lesser of the two punishments, by far. Even if Delaware judges were deliberately singling out black convicts for whippings during the first half of the 20th century, which is possible, the brief but painful whipping was a relatively minor add-on to a lengthy and life-shattering prison sentence, which was the true punishment.

Caldwell doubles down on his radical opposition to criminal punishment in the last chapter of the book, urging the adoption of experimental methods of “scientific treatment” of criminals which he does not explain. In the 1940s, this probably seemed like a progressive, enlightened position, full of promise. From my perspective in 2020, when the U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, beating even communist China, it seems arrogantly naïve.

Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post is an important slice of Delaware history, but it is primarily a work of opinion; its historical documentation serves to support the author’s opinion, and is secondary in importance. The central point of the book, written in 1947, is that Delaware should stop whipping prisoners. The author’s dream became reality in a couple of decades; the last whipping was carried out in the 1960s, and the practice was officially abolished in 1972. Therefore, much of the book feels obsolete from today’s perspective, but the historical sections are well-researched, and, overall, the book is a useful addition to our knowledge of Delaware history and a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

– Chris Slavens

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Now Available: The Roofed Graves of Delmarva

The Roofed Graves of Delmarva is now available at Books ordered there will come directly from me, so this is ideal for online orders, since I can sign books (if requested), or weed out printing defects, which is always a possibility with books ordered from online retailers like Amazon. I will also have plenty of copies at our official book launch event at Abbott’s on Broad Creek in downtown Laurel on Saturday, March 28th, at 2:00 p.m., hosted by the Laurel Historical Society.

There is a substantial discount for booksellers, historical societies, or anyone else wishing to buy multiple copies to re-sell.

– Chris Slavens

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March 2, 2020 · 6:21 am

Coming Soon: The Roofed Graves of Delmarva

Book cover photos courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

I’m pleased to announce that after three years of research, writing, and/or procrastination, my book The Roofed Graves of Delmarva is in production and will be available in the near future, probably mid-March. It’s about the little-known local tradition of building a wooden, shingled roof over a new grave in the mid- to late 1800s. No roofs are known to survive today, but old newspaper articles, photographs, and eyewitness accounts shed light on what was once a popular custom in Sussex and Wicomico counties. This book is my attempt to gather all of the available information about roofed graves, learn more about them, and investigate connections to Southern grave shelters and American Indian burial customs.

I’ve chosen to self-publish the book under the name Bald Cypress Books. This is a DIY effort, including interior and cover design (so it’s not perfect, but hopefully it doesn’t look too amateurish). I’m working with printing and distribution platform IngramSpark, so the book will be available through Amazon and other online retailers, and brick-and-mortar booksellers can order discounted copies, as they can from any other publisher. I’ll also be ordering a quantity to sell locally.  I’m also looking into organizing some kind of book launch event, so stay tuned.

– Chris Slavens

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Journal of the Rev. John Milton Purner, January – May 1860

Some time ago I came across this video about the history and restoration of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church, located on Wootten Road between Laurel and Gumboro, and was intrigued by the reference to the journal of a minister who preached there. Bethesda is special to me for a number of reasons: It is the closest church to my home, though it has never been open during my lifetime; as kids, my brother and I often rode our bikes to the church and poked around in the cemetery and fellowship hall; and later this year, I’ll be getting married in the church.

Hoping to learn more about Bethesda and its congregation, I searched and found that the journal in question is that of Rev. John M. Purner, and that it is in the possession of Barratt’s Chapel & Museum of Methodism in Frederica. I was delighted to learn that the museum has transcribed copies of the journal for sale for a mere $5, and stopped by during regular hours yesterday afternoon.

The journal was transcribed and edited by Barbara Duffin and Philip Lawton for The Commission on Archives and History of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2004, and opens with a two-page biography of Purner. Born in Cecil County in 1833, he was assigned to the Laurel circuit in 1859 as a Junior Preacher, and subsequently served several circuits on the peninsula before suffering a tragically early death in 1867. His journal covers the period between January and May of 1860, and consists of short, fragmented, poorly spelled entries, mostly covering the churches he preached at, his text, and the local families who welcomed him into their homes for meals and lodging. Without a home of his own, he stayed with a different family every single night.

The entry for Sunday, January 22, 1860, is typical:

St. Thomas, preach Eph. 3 ch 18 – 19 v  plenty of words but no liberty ~  small congregation ~ burbing [?] Ish 40 ch 8 v ~ midling time large congration   supper at Sister Danson ~ with Mr. Rusell the Bible Agent go Concord hear Chaplin tex “The Son of man goeth” very good sermon take sacrated good time, it had been 18 months since I had taken it before. return home with Sister Danson Mr. Rusel stay all Night

Purner preached at many local churches, including Jones, Bethesda, Hepburn (now King’s), St. Thomas, Old Zion (colored), and Sailor’s Bethel.

Several familiar names from the Bethesda neighborhood appear. For example, he spent the nights of January 29th and 30th with Hezekiah Matthews, then spent the following day with Matthews “wrighting out a sermon for Conf” (Conference).

Reading between the lines, one wonders at the amount of attention Purner seems to have received from young women, and how it might have affected him, a young man in his late twenties. Consider the entry from January 18th:

Leave for Br E. Hitches take dinner Miss Collins their visiting spend it after noon in righting ~ spend in eving ‘th the girles vey plesently ~ a day of dark temptation from the Devil.. Spend the even studing Watson~

A number of other entries mention visits from single women, often in groups of two or three — or more, as was the case on February 14th:

Studing Watson ~&c interrupted with visiters Miss E. Cannon, Miss E. Gordy Miss Mary Mathews, Mar Cannon Magge Collens, Kati Collens poor chance to study without a home ~ go to class good tim Reeceve a letter from Sister Marria heare of Rebecca illness ~~ all Night at Cap Lewes the girlle stay all Night to dark to go home.

Though Purner’s brief notes probably contain little of interest to those who aren’t familiar with the churches he preached at or the families he stayed with, they nonetheless offer a rare glimpse into the daily life of a young Methodist circuit rider in the Laurel area and the people who inhabited that life. The fact that he was only here for about a year, and died only seven years later at age 34, makes his journal all the more precious.

– Chris Slavens

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Filed under Books, Delaware, Delaware history, Laurel, Sussex County

Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware

Grab some popcorn, silence your cell phone, and enjoy the show.

In Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware, published by the History Press, film buff and writer Michael J. Nazarewycz invites readers to take a deep dive into the history of 150 movie theaters in the First State, from the Middletown Opera House—where attendees enjoyed viewing still photographs projected via Sciopticon in the early 1870s—to the multiplex cinemas of today. This is a cleverly cinema-themed book, with punny section titles including Opening Credits, Closing Credits, Fade In, Fade Out, and Moving Pictures, all referring to the life and times of various theaters. Rather than trace the history of individual theaters from beginning to end, Nazarewycz tackles the statewide scene in chronological order, one era at a time. Thus we learn in “Take” or chapter four that T. J. Waller built the first Waller Theatre in Laurel in 1913, but its disastrous burning in 1940 and subsequent replacement are mentioned three chapters later. The Waller (or New Waller) closed permanently after its ceiling collapsed in 1967.

Of the 150 theaters covered, only 22 are open today, a mere “14 of which are full-time movie theaters,” making Historic Movie Theaters of Delaware a valuable and important history of a vanishing part of Delaware’s past.

The Laurel Historical Society welcomes Michael J. Nazarewycz to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, March 16th, for a film-themed dinner, presentation, and book signing.

– Chris Slavens

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Book Review: ‘Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State’

In 2014, local author and journalist Tony Russo explored the history of brewing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Eastern Shore Beer: The Heady History of Chesapeake Brewing. Now he’s back with what is not so much a sequel as a companion volume, Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State, published by the History Press.

Outsiders might expect such a book to be all about Dogfish Head, the state’s largest and best-known brewery and the thirteenth largest craft brewery in the nation. But Delaware Beer is, instead, the story of brewing in Delaware, and Dogfish Head is only one (important!) part of that story.

Russo covers the colonial era in a few pages, briefly summarizing the activities of the Dutch and the Swedes along the Delaware River, and referring interested readers to the more in-depth Delaware Brewing by John Medkeff, Jr. Readers might chuckle over the written request of Johan Classon Risingh, governor of New Sweden, for a wife who could make malt and brew ale, in addition to keeping up with other chores. The first chapter covers the 19th and early 20th centuries as well, when there was far more homebrewing and cidermaking going on than commercial brewing, although Delaware’s very own Diamond State Brewery, located in Wilmington, had its roots in the Nebeker brewery founded in 1859, and produced beer of one kind or another (including so-called “near beer” during the Prohibition era) until it closed in 1955.Delaware Beer by Tony Russo

Delaware Beer – at least the part of the story that most readers are probably most interested in – begins in earnest with the founding of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s Brewing Company in 1995. Russo credits their founders, Sam Calagione and Al Stewart, respectively, with setting “the standard for the way beer would be done in Delaware right from the start.” By focusing on quality rather than quantity, and growing sustainably, both survived the craft beer bust of the late 90’s. In addition to crafting innovative beers, Calagione crafted legislation that chipped away at the remnants of Prohibition, and arguably paved the way for the numerous breweries that have sprung up during the last two decades, not only in Delaware, but throughout the nation.

Following a rather extensive examination of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s, focusing particularly on their roles as pioneers in Delaware craft brewing, Russo takes readers on a tour of the breweries currently operating throughout the state, most of which opened during the last decade. Iron Hill, Fordham and Dominion, Blue Earl, 16 Mile, 3rd Wave, Mispillion and others – all have unique stories, as well as unique strategies for succeeding in an increasingly crowded market. However, these stories are presented as parts of a greater story; the individual breweries are not so much separate subjects as they are characters interacting in a plot that continues to unfold.

Delaware Beer is an entertaining, informative read for craft beer fans, but it’s also an important chronicle of an emerging industry. It offers a rare look into the inner workings of numerous competitors (which, admirably, seem to regard themselves more as independent partners) as they evolve from shaky start-ups into stable, young companies. Whatever the future may hold for craft beer – whether the boom gives way to another bust, or the existing breweries continue to prosper – Tony Russo has performed a vital, valuable task in documenting the local movement’s early years.

– Chris Slavens

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Additions to the bookshelf, and a shout-out

A few days ago I received a surprise gift from my brother: Copies of A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware by C. A. Weslager, and History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity by Virginia Cullen, which he stumbled upon in an upstate antique shop.

The former is a 31-page pamphlet published for younger readers in 1953, but this is no vague, babyish text about wigwams. Even two decades after his death, Weslager remains the authority on the original Delawareans, and this early work not only paints a picture of their daily lives, but includes specifics about different tribes, including the locations of some of their villages.

A Brief Account of the Indians of Delaware, Weslager

The book about Lewes is a bit longer, 78 pages, and was published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1956. The format reminds me of another local history book, Folklore of Sussex County, Delaware by Dorothy Pepper, with sections of a few paragraphs or less featuring a particular era, individual, landmark, etc. The book includes local folklore, and concludes with a guided tour of the community with information about numerous historic buildings.

History of Lewes, Delaware, and Vicinity

Both are the sorts of books that one typically finds in noncirculating collections in local libraries. Many of Weslager’s books, in particular, can be very difficult to find, and are treasured by collectors.

While I’m at it, I’d like to give a brief shout-out to Mitsawokett, probably the best online source of information about Native Americans in Delaware from prehistoric times through the present. The site features information ranging from casual speculation to authoritative primary sources, and links to numerous other sites of interest. Someone recently added a couple of my articles about the Nanticoke Indians, causing Mitsawokett to become the top referrer of visitors to this blog (discounting search engines and social media), which I greatly appreciate.

– Chris Slavens

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