Historians Who Look Too Much

One of my guiding assumptions has been that if I am going to get my ass kicked while acting in my capacity as a professor of literature, it will be by a student, rather than by a research subject: I study the eighteenth century, so my research subjects are all dead, whereas my students are alive and occasionally angry at me. This assumption turns out to be problematic, as I learned last summer when an irate man stopped his car on Colony Street in Meriden, Connecticut, blocking traffic, and got out to menace me with a weapon, all because he didn’t appreciate my research project.

Like most academics, I’ve encountered frosty and even hostile responses to my research, but I had never before been threatened with physical violence over it. I was in Connecticut to research a sex scandal that took place in the summer of 1788. According to what I had read in eighteenth-century newspapers, a certain Caleb Bull, from Meriden, had been arrested that year a hundred miles away for “having seduced and carried away a young woman” in southern New Hampshire. Bull entered a guilty plea and was jailed pending trial. I was interested in this case because stories of “seduction” played approximately the role in eighteenth-century America that romantic comedies do today; like rom-coms, seduction novels were highly formulaic narratives about love and sex that were always in demand, speaking to their audiences about aspirations and struggles and heartbreak. If the heroine in a seduction novel has sex with her seducer, she usually dies, her death to be redeemed by her readers’ tears. Yet despite the pervasive and highly moralized presence of fictional seduction, real-world criminal prosecutions for seduction were rare. That makes the occasional case of seduction that did make it to court particularly interesting, and I went to Connecticut to try to figure out who Caleb Bull had been, what he had done, and what had become of him.

——

Meriden lies halfway between Hartford and New Haven. If you took the four-day stagecoach trip from New York to Boston in the eighteenth century, you would have your midday meal on the second day in Meriden. The largest inn in town was a place called Robinson’s. After old man Robinson died in 1766, management of the inn passed to the husband of one of his granddaughters. It was Caleb Bull. Neither the inn nor its new proprietor seems to have prospered after that. Bull was in frequent need of liquid capital. In 1770, he sold one of the Robinsons’ slaves, a nine-year-old girl named Rose, to a man in Vermont. In 1776, as the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, Bull petitioned his local probate court to let him sell some of the Robinsons’ property to pay the inn’s expenses. A decade later, Bull unilaterally decided that his marriage was over: on January 15, 1786, after eighteen years of marriage, Bull moved out of his house, leaving behind his wife and six children. He had just turned 41. When his wife filed for divorce seven years later, she said that she had never heard from him since.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hotel is a good place to cheat on your spouse, and as I turned up these archival scraps of Caleb Bull’s life as a hotelier I began to imagine him as a bro somewhere on the spectrum between Joe Francis and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, keeping the fire burning late into the night, pouring another drink (on the house), and insisting on showing a guest personally to her room, as the staircase was dark, and the door could be a bit stiff, and he had, uh, just the right tool for opening it. Around 1809, a satirical ballad represented Meriden as a place where “we’ve one tavern in town, for vices renowned,” with a proprietor who waters down the drinks and steals from the guests. But that was decades later. Places change a lot.

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The old Robinson’s Inn property, shortly before it was torn down in 1876.

I was in Meriden to sift through the archives of the Meriden Historical Society, reading eighteenth-century letters and diaries and hoping someone had mentioned Caleb Bull. You have to be in the right state of mind to do this. The documents people saved rarely line up with what I want them to have saved. They often saved receipts and deeds. They did not often save — perhaps did not often produce — documents in which they reflected about their lives and experiences. You have to have a pretty robust concept of individualism before it seems worthwhile to expend ink and paper recording your thoughts and feelings about your unexceptional existence. This is one of the many impediments to understanding the lived experience of the past. The archive was driving me crazy that day and I needed to take a break and let my eyes focus on something other than eighteenth-century handwriting, so I drove my rented Kia over to the parcel of land where Robinson’s inn had once stood. The inn had been torn down in 1876, but an old town history indicated that the stones from its massive chimney had been used to lay the foundation of the next house that was built on the site. I thought I might touch a stone that Caleb Bull had once stubbed his toe on.

When I got there, it was a vacant lot in the shadow of a highway overpass, green with wild vines and sugar maples. Behind the tall weeds, I saw fiberglass insulation and wooden lath from some tear-down spilling out of trash bags into the underbrush. Plastic jugs of motor oil. Part of a sofa. And further back, I saw the remains of an old stone foundation, built of New England fieldstones the way they used to do it: no mortar, just gravity to hold it together. I climbed through prickly vines and over a small creek to stand next to Caleb Bull’s wall. I took some pictures. I tried to imagine how dark it would be here at night by candlelight, to feel how far away Hartford or Boston would feel without the swish-swishing of the Interstate behind me. I tried to remember that the person I was researching had not been a character in a seduction novel but a real person of flesh and blood who had walked the actual earth, served actual guests, deserted his actual family, cheated on his actual wife. I tried to imagine cheating on my wife in 1785, out here by the creek, hidden by the trees, and then one day packing up and leaving for good. A neighbor squatted down and peered at me through the leaves from fifteen yards away.

Remnant of Caleb Bull's chimney?

Remnant of Caleb Bull’s chimney?

“Can I help you?” she yelled. “No,” I shouted back, “I’m just—” (here I confronted the difficulty of explaining what I was doing) “—looking.”

If I had been more articulate, I might have said that I was waiting to feel something, waiting to make contact. I waited another minute and then walked back toward my car. On the road, a dark SUV slowed down near me. I looked inside and made accidental eye contact with a heavyset man staring at me from the passenger seat. And I knew the driver from somewhere. She was the neighbor who had spotted me in the bushes, who was now saying “that’s him.”

“What? Sorry,” I offered politely.
“No, that’s okay,” said the man, clenching his teeth at me; “I know what you look like
now.”

Obviously, there had been some sort of misunderstanding. I called after the now-passing car that perhaps they might pull over so we could talk about it and I might explain. This incensed the passenger, who shouted “Yeah, I’ll pull over. We can talk about it,” and opened the door of the moving car. The driver slammed on the brakes. Cars honked. “I was gonna just drive by,” said my new enemy, exasperated and exiting the car, leaving the door open; “I was gonna leave it alone, but you, you wanna talk about it.” He reached into his pants pocket and, time slowing down as it does in these situations, I churned through a few mental revolutions pondering whether it would be a gun. His hand returned to view with something else. “Oh good,” I thought, “it’s just a book weight.” Levenger makes a nice one. You use it to hold your book open on a desk. Striding toward me at a good clip, my enemy continued: “This ain’t a good place to come challenging people.” I started to suspect that his book weight might actually be some sort of weapon.

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 6.46.37 PM

Left: Levenger book weight. Right: sap.

Later, trying to make sense of what had just happened to me, I would discover that it is a thing called a “sap” or slapjack, a lead weight attached to a flexible metal bar, the whole encased in leather. It works on the principle of a sock full of pennies: when you hit someone with it, centrifugal force concentrates your swing into the small area of the lead weight. Police used to use them for riot control, but they have mostly stopped because of too many broken bones and lawsuits. One slap to the head will often render a person unconscious. Saps are illegal in Connecticut.

I raised my arms in a gesture of peace, backing away. The words that came out of my mouth were, “Sir, I’m a historian. I’m a college professor.” If you’ve ever wondered how effective being “a historian…a college professor” turns out to be in terms of being perceived as nonthreatening, the answer is: very effective. My assailant slowed. He stopped. “Oh, you’re a historian? You’re a college professor? You wanna challenge?” I shook my head as he moved toward his conclusion. “Next time you gonna get a challenge. You’ll get real challenged.” Still shouting, he got back in his car. His partner made a U-turn and as they passed me for the last time he pointed at me and insisted: “Remember my face.”

I said, “I will.”

——

People get angry when you violate their privacy. Your wife or your girlfriend tells you that a strange man is prowling around behind the house. You put your sap in your pants pocket, get in the car, and drive around the block until you find me in order to scare the shit out of me, which you do.

I’m doing much worse things to Caleb Bull than I did to Caleb Bull’s latter-day neighbor. This is what historians do. I’m a historian; I’m a college professor. If my research subjects could beat me with a weapon, they would. I target the secrets and lives of ordinary people and expose them. When you do that to living people, you get your ass kicked. When you do that to dead people, you get tenure. I would hardly be the first researcher to feel queasy about this, but the truth is that I don’t feel queasy. “You dig up the past,” warns a character played wonderfully by Tim Blake Nelson in Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, “all you get is dirty.” But it’s not always true. Even when I tried, I couldn’t feel the dirtiness of digging up Caleb Bull’s past. It was the present that was dirty.

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The Silver City, circa 1900.

I ought to have dreamed that night that I was fleeing from Caleb Bull, who had found out I was sleeping with his wife and was brandishing a sap at me. But I didn’t. I’m a researcher, so I address anxiety by doing research. I wanted to know who was chasing me away from Caleb Bull’s secrets. I looked up the property records for the house behind the stone wall, an enormous run-down Victorian that was converted into apartments decades ago. The city’s most recent economic development plan calls for tearing that house down in order to build a large road that will improve access to a nearby shopping mall. I wondered if I had looked like a surveyor, an assessor — some agent of the state preparing an eminent domain or foreclosure action. Outsiders have been showing up on other people’s land in Connecticut acting like they owned the place since the seventeenth century. Here I was, looking hungrily at something that wasn’t mine.

Meriden is filled with mansions converted to tenements, casualties of the economic catastrophe that washed over the small cities in America’s rust belt in the twentieth century. Today, the state classifies Meriden as a “distressed” municipality, but in its late-Victorian glory, Meriden was the center of the American silver industry. It was called The Silver City. After the factories closed, the city has tried one strategy after another, trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, as a commercial center, as a green community. In the Meriden Record-Journal, I read successive generations of city boosters repeating the same predictions of economic renewal as decades came and went: “Meriden is building for brighter tomorrow” (1965), “Chamber sees rebirth of downtown Meriden” (1974), “tremendous increase in economic activity” (1999), and so on. I thought about the couple who had chased me away from their house. In another economy, perhaps they would have been electroplating silverware or laminating solar panels or at least staffing a call center; in this economy, they were two adults at home in the middle of the day, defending what they had from a stranger. The unemployment rate in Meriden is much higher than the state average, and 70% of students in Meriden’s public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The former site of the International Silver Company’s factory is now an enormous contaminated brownfield in the center of town.

There are different kinds of seduction. I can aestheticize Meriden’s gothic decay as well as I can aestheticize Caleb Bull’s interpersonal cruelty. Both stories have the natural narrative appeal of tragedy: achievement, then failure, then abjection. I was seduced so many times in Meriden: by the tantalizing chance to learn a secret, by the material reality of the past, by the cultural capital of being “a historian,” by the kick of my own adrenaline, by the feeling of being derailed from my original question and thrust into contact with new ones. The core seduction is the seduction of decipherment, interpretation, knowing.

Days later, I was in another part of the state, looking at the farm where Caleb Bull had grown up just outside of Litchfield. This is not the Connecticut of economic blight but the Connecticut of bed-and-breakfasts, Manhattanites’ country homes, and farms where agritourists can pick their own strawberries. No city council here sucking up to FedEx in hopes of a new warehouse and a few hundred jobs. Tempting fate, I pulled out my camera to take some pictures. A woman in a Prius pulled up next to me. “Do you see something interesting there? A cool animal or something?” Her daughter cast an optimistic look at me from her carseat.

“No,” I said. “It’s just a, historical thing.”

“Well, you never know,” she said. She’s right. You don’t. I thought about who gets to be remembered and who gets to be forgotten.

Tim Cassedy teaches American literature.



  1. September 13, 2014 @ 10:36 pm Weekend Reading: Frazzled New Semester Edition – ProfHacker - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education

    […] “Historians Who Look Too Much,” Tim Cassedy describes an even more direct encounter with the public (and their saps) while doing […]

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