Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Fate of Early American Blasphemers, or Those Who Challenged God!

A few years ago, while standing at a bus stop, during a blustery, cloudy, dark and misty morning, one of four other individuals waiting with me, suddenly raised both fists in the air and exclaimed in a loud voice: "Come on Lord, come on you @*$!, Send your lightnin'! I don't care. Let's have it out!" Then he laughed maniacally.

On that day, as far as I know, nothing happened to the young man who challenged Deity. However, in early American history, there are numerous accounts of similar individuals, who blasphemed God, only to receive immediate punishment in a number of ways. One may choose to believe or disbelieve these renditions. I only offer them as another example of the diversity of material that is available here at the Society, as well as a window into the public mind, at a time when such incidences were recorded quite frequently in both public and private narratives.

Some of the earliest American accounts, can be found in the writings of the famed New England author and theologian, Cotton Mather, who within the Sixth book of his work on the 'History of New England,' entitled, Thaumaturgus, published at London in 1702, gives among other stories, that of a "sailor in a Boat," who wanted to light his tobacco pipe, but was warned by his shipmates that if he did so, it might possibly ignite "a Barrel of Powder aboard." 

Dismissing their concerns, the above sailor replied: 'I will take it {meaning he would smoke his pipe}, though the Devil carry me away alive!' Soon after 'lighting up,' his pipe, the boat did indeed 'catch-fire,' which "tore the Boat in pieces, and lost all the goods that were in it," though all on board were preserved; all that is, excepting the sailor above, "whom they long after found in the Woods, with his Body torn to pieces. Who carried him away, think you?" asked Mather.

Such accounts would also enter the literary realm, as witnessed by the famed work of writer, William Austin, a story entitled, "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man," published in the New England Galaxy, on September 10, 1824, which next to William Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle,' is often considered to be one of the most imaginative American stories ever composed, prior to the works of Poe and Hawthorne.

The Peter Rugg fictional story relates how in 1770, during a terrible tempest, while driving his daughter home towards Boston in a carriage, he refused to heed warnings to stop and take refuge, or possibly die in the storm. Replying with a terrible oath, he emphatically declared, "Let the storm increase! I will see home tonight, in spite of the last tempest, or may I never see home!" Purportedly, he never did make it home, though the ghostly image of a man in his carriage pulled by his horses would continue to be seen for many years afterwards, hopelessly attempting to find its way home.

Interestingly, Philadelphia and other Delaware Valley newspapers carried an account, published in 1787, of a "young Indian warrior of the Seneca nation," residing along the Alleghany River, who had miraculously escaped contracting the dreaded smallpox, though many members of his tribe had already succumbed to the disease. According to the famous Seneca Indian Chief, Guyasuta or Guia Sutho, the following incident transpired, as he related it to Joseph Nicholson, an individual employed as an 'interpreter' for the Pennsylvania colony on a number of occasions to the Indian nations. Guyasutha purportedly present at the time, told the tale of the above warrior, who was angry at God and declared:

That if the Great Man above dared to give him the small-pox he would tomahawk him as he would a stump, which he pointed at, and to shew {show} how he would act, began cutting the stump in a most furious manner. In a few minutes he was struck entirely blind, and his head swelled to so great a degree, that his eyeballs burst from their sockets, and he expired in a few hours." (See for example, The Pennsylvania Herald, Philadelphia, August 1st, 1787).

The Pennsylvania Mercury & Universal Advertiser, for August 24, 1790, related an event said to have occurred in Gloucestershire, England, during the month of June. Daniel Mundy of the Parish of North Nibley, had descended into a one hundred foot deep well. A friend nearby admonished him to go no deeper, since the well had on the previous day partially collapsed. Mundy exclaimed:
    "G--d  d--n my soul to H--ll, if I don't venture, let what will {be} the consequence!"
The above account continues, adding that, the "words were hardly uttered, when ten feet of the top of the well fell in on the unhappy wretch, and carried him to the bottom!" Interestingly, according to the narrative, Mr. Mundy had two years previously, while imprisoned, let forth a string of "vile execrations," and "was in an instant struck dumb, and could not speak for several hours. A locked jaw had deprived him of utterance." For several months after this event, he was said to have essentially exhibited an "exemplary" character, but soon slipped back into his old "habits of vice," eventually resulting in his death within the aforementioned well.

As stated, such accounts as those above, are not rare, but occur frequently in early American-British newspapers and publications. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusion as to their veracity or examples of fakelore.