Over Thanksgiving, I was doing some thinking. In the midst of turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, hominy, cranberry sauce, football and pumpkin pie, I found myself preoccupied by Puritans. Puritans –those endearing folks who wandered over to the pleasant shores of New England to seek refuge from religious persecution — founded one of the most rigidly theocratic societies the Western world had ever seen. Yes, that’s right, the Puritans, founders of our country and the irony for which it stands.
This Thanksgiving I figured that I ought to do a bit of research on the Puritans, especially given the fact that I’m now — well, at least for the next four years — living in their historical footprint. So I sat down at my computer, brought up Google, and started searching. What I found astonished me, flabbergasted me — literally, I’m still laughing.
Before I let you in on the story, let me add a disclaimer for New Haven residents: I am not one of you, as you may have guessed. I’m from Texas, where we have our own historical idiosyncrasies to enjoy. I’m fairly certain that most of y’all (I forgot how much I miss that word) know the story I’m about to tell. In fact, I’ll even bet that most of y’all learnt about this in elementary school. And so to y’all I apologize, because most of the rest of this column y’all ‘ve already heard.
In any case, here’s the story. So, in the 1600s, the English get bored with the whole monarchy thing and decide it might be fun to have a revolution. Oliver Cromwell and his buddies in Parliament, being pissed at the reigning monarch Charles I for his opulence, his fondness for absolutism (and thereby for the France of Louis XIV), and probably most of all for his Catholicticiousness1, get together an army, overwhelm Charles’ forces and take him prisoner. For a bit of added fun, they decided to put the king on trial for treason. And to round off the afternoon, they beheaded him — the first time a European monarch had been deposed, tried and executed by his own subjects — but then the English always were precocious lads.
About 10 years later the English realize that they don’t look very good in black and that they miss the theatre, alcohol and fun that comes from having a royal family, so they Restore (with a capital R because they weren’t as good at spelling back then) the monarchy in the form of Charles II, son of Charles I. As one might expect, Chucky II (the one where the doll becomes King of England) is slightly miffed that the English killed his daddy. Fortunately for New Haven, the people who killed Charles I expected not only the miffedness but also the fact that Charles II would be Restored, and so they fled to New England (because they too were in a sequel frame of mind). Or at any rate, three of them did. The rest Charles probably had a jolly ol’ good time hacking to bits and jabbing on pikes to decorate his newly Regotten kingdom.
These three judges are the stars of our show: two of them, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, traveled to New Haven together in the winter of 1661. With a cameo appearance by Rev. John Davenport who gave them shelter, their story takes us to West Rock and a rock formation now known as Judges’ Cave, where they stayed for a month. I found lots of pictures of elementary schoolers on field trips to this site, and let me tell you, a month there would have been a Really, Really long time. Luckily for our two regicides, their stay was cut short when on the night of June 11th a panther frightened them away.
At this point, the story gets good2 (in case you though the panther appearing in the middle of what is now very much a city was the grand finale). First, let me backtrack to establish the Puritan superstar status of Whalley and Goffe: Upon arriving in Boston, the judges found a man on Boston Common challenging passersby to duels (and people say television is violent). One of the judges mounted the stage and with a great degree of falderal beat the pants off the guy, who yelled out something to the tune of “Ye must needs be Satan or one of the Judges!”
Fast forward a few years, after Whalley and Goffe seem to have ridden off into the sunset (or rather to Hadley, MA), to King Philip’s War — a very nasty, R-rated affair that involved much fighting, pillaging and dying by both Native Americans and the Puritans (probably a Jerry Bruckheimer production). A raiding party storms into the town, war drums beat and a dramatic soundtrack crescendos; the townspeople cower in fear, because they were only extras earning minimum wage, most of whom were really just there for the free buffet. And all of a sudden an old man dressed in white came in, took command in a very Ian McKellen sort of way, and saved the day — naturally, people thought he was an Angel. The old man was William Goffe; how a person manages to go from being likened to Satan to being reckoned an angel I don’t know, but I intend to try to do likewise. Either that or make a lot of money.
So, what’s the big deal? you ask. Why on earth do Whalley and Goffe matter? you say. Easy: think Whalley Avenue, Goffe Street and Dixwell Avenue. (Dixwell was the third judge who showed up in New Haven unannounced, then lived under an assumed name on the corner of Grove and College, then died revealing his identity on his deathbed. There’s also very little funny about Dixwell.) That’s right (here’s where New Haveners says “Duh” and begin making paper hats) — the Puritans loved these guys so much they named three streets after them. Oh boy!
Okay, so really, what’s the big deal? The big deal is this: you can find highly amusing (and educational!) stories in as pedantic a detail as a street sign. So, next time you’re bored, walk around town, find a weird street name, then go into to Sterling Memorial Library and spend six hours looking for random sources — bonus points if they actually pertain to the street — and then, you will not be bored.
You, too, can know random bits of trivia with which to entertain the masses — or at least you will know them; whether or not you can entertain with them depends on how funny your hat is.3 In the final analysis (i.e. concluding sentence) all that really matters is that not everything about New Haven history is dry, dusty, dull and radically theocratic; in fact, some of it is dry, dusty, radically theocratic and extremely funny. Or, at the very least, extremely amusing — especially if you have been, are, or will be cooped up in SML all week, cowering at the thought of braving the wind tunnels of Cross Campus, breathing the fumes of old, rotting paper and trying to find a source of natural light to get an idea of what time it is. In any event, good luck and happy holidays.
1 This is very different from “Catholic,” the main point of departure being the twelve additional letters.
2 Why so good right now? Because I’m about to tell you all the stories I found on the elementary school’s web site (www.coldspringschool.com/history/judge.html). And let me just say, history books would sell a LOT better if eight-year-olds wrote them.
3 If you don’t have a funny hat, then your life needs one. Very badly. Luckily, that’s what this column is really for.
Kevin B. Alexander is devoted to enlightenment, the nature of the universe, the making of paper hats and the whimsicality found in all facets thereof.
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