Recommendation: Susana H. Case, Salem in Séance

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Susana H. Case’s book of poems, Salem in Séance is constructed around the idea of a séance at which participants in the Salem witch frenzy of the late seventeenth century speak to the author, giving their different views of what happened. And the author sometimes speaks back.

The actors do not appear according to the chronology of the historical events, but in three sections by roles: Detentions, Accusations and Authorities. The characters are a little hard to keep track of, perhaps partly because so many names begin with P: Proctors, Putnams, Porters and Parrish. As a person who likes history I wanted, at first, a list of who was involved to keep track of them all. Later, I concluded that the lack of such a list and the neglect of chronological sequence adds to the impression of chaos and confusion that must have prevailed at the time.

Case weaves texts from the period into the poems, distinguished by use of italics. Her own comments are indicated by italics within brackets. These interjections are used with restraint, which gives them more force; a great deal can be suggested about alternative possibilities and understandings in a few words. Sometimes the speaker responds briefly to the interjection, other times not. These interruptions never bend the story the speaker is telling.

A poem which uses both kinds of insertions is “A Father’s Son.” The speaker is Cotton Mather.

In 1692, my excoriating father, Increase,
finally brings the colony’s new charter
from England.
We can take witches such as have rendered
themselves obnoxious
to trial.
[A Mather through and through.]
I am my father’s son. This battleground
with Satan―accusations

fly unleashed, like my vowels used to whoosh
through echoing rooms, women
on brooms.
[To your political advantage.]
The threat is burning for eternity―
forgiveness is bad for business.

The cure for a surfeit of witches is
before a lasting skepticism.

Two dogs full with evil in their eyes
are hanged by the neck
on Gallows Hill.

Selections from these poems don’t convey the full impact, but I’ll include one more short poem which is a good example of Case’s tight, no words wasted, style.


Nathaniel Hawthorne,
of great-grandfather
John Hathorne,
trial magistrate who believed
in guilty
before being proven
guilty, a very religious
man, wealthy,
the only magistrate involved in Salem
not to repent,
restores the w
to his family name
for reasons of dissociation
now that he is done with college,
the w
three hundred years before.

He, as much as anyone,
understands the importance
of a letter.

Salem in Séance is published by WordTech Editions, the imprint which is publishing my book, Made and Remade. I am happy to see my book on the same list with such a well-crafted work.

You can find out more, read more sample poems. or order a copy via: http://www.wordtechweb.com/case.html


Thanksgiving Thoughts

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People have given thanks for the harvest since long before any major religions were formulated.  This giving of thanks always has something of a religious quality.  The relation of religion to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has long been tangential at best, however.  Those paper pilgrim hats and feather headdresses from grade school weren’t about religion; they were about making us citizens with a common heritage, a shared history, incomplete though it was.

94933_CoverFrontThe role of religion in the Thanksgiving holiday made it a subject that liberal preacher John Emerson Roberts spoke on almost every year; the hypocrisy of talking about religious services and preferring feasting and games was an obvious target.  Here, from the biography, is a summary of his thoughts on the subject in 1895:

At this time, the day still had to be set by the annual proclamation from the president (The proclamations are still made, even though Congress fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in the mid-twentieth century.) These proclamations have religious overtones that go back to the Puritans. Grover Cleveland’s 1895 proclamation called for giving thanks “in our accustomed places of worship,” and for prayer that God would continue to show mercy to and guide the nation. Roberts applauds the people of the country for being ahead of the platitudes of the proclamation: they use the day for feasting, fun, and football games. He notes that even the newspapers, supposedly holding up the pious conventions, give far more space to reporting sports than to church services. The people know what they need and they act accordingly.

When the Kansas City Star published an editorial objecting to what Roberts had said. he used the papers themselves as evidence to support his argument. In the four daily papers published in Kansas City on the day after thanksgiving, he counted 568 lines covering religious events for the day and 6,480 on football alone. “These figures prove nothing,” Roberts admitted, but they showed what the editors judged to be “what the public was interested in on Thanksgiving day.”

What would Dr. Roberts say today about Black Friday and the way it has recently leaked into Thanksgiving Day?  Would he assert that “the people know what they need and they act accordingly?”  Or would he perceive a pressure of corporate capitalism throwing society out of balance, as I do?  My perspective is affected by the fact that I have what I need, and when I make a big purchase it is usually because something has broken and I want to replace it.  When something does break, I’m not likely to wait for sales or the crowds that go with them. I give thanks that I can avoid Black Friday.

An additional note on Thanksgiving:

I recently heard an ad for some worthy cause in which the speaker said, “People remember the thanks but they don’t always remember the giving.”  Another blow to language: giving thanks is not a two-part action.

Comments Roberts made on other Thanksgivings, and his comments on many other subjects are reported in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.

John Emerson Roberts: His Significance in Freethought History

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The Council for Secular Humanism has published on their website an article I wrote describing John Emerson Roberts’s pivotal position in the development of freethought from liberalism to radicalism.  You can find it at:


If the article makes you interested in more background, consider ordering my biography, which gives much attention to the context in which Roberts worked and what made him successful.  You can get a new, signed copy from me via Amazon, through ERYBooks, at:


J. E. Roberts in later life with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

J. E. Roberts with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

Clarence Darrow, Friend and Colleague of J. E. Roberts

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Darrow0001 Clarence Darrow was a few years younger than Roberts, and like him was gradually making a name for himself in the nationwide freethought community represented at the American Secular Union conference in Cincinnati in 1900.  Darrow was not yet the widely known figure that the Leopold and Loeb case and the Scopes Trial would later make him.  This event in 1900 was apparently the first time these two men came into personal contact.

Born in Kinsman, Ohio, in 1857, Darrow had a different background from the majority of freethinkers: he was born into it.  His father had trained to be a Unitarian minister, but lost his faith. Darrow looked up to his father as “the village infidel” and sought to emulate his moral commitment and intellectual courage. Darrow studied at AlleghenyCollege in Pennsylvania and at the University of Michigan, but earned no degrees. He became a lawyer through apprenticeship in a law office in Youngstown,   Ohio, passing the examination in 1878, the same year Roberts completed his education for the ministry.

Darrow married in 1880. After a few years in smaller towns, the couple moved to Chicago in 1887. There Darrow soon got involved in local and then wider politics. He worked closely with John P. Altgeld, helping to elect him governor of Illinois in 1892. In addition to giving political speeches as a member of the Democratic Party, Darrow also gave popular lectures.

Darrow’s fame spread beyond Illinois with his defense of Eugene Debs following the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1896, he hoped to be elected representative from Illinois’s 3rd District. He spent more time campaigning for the top of the ticket William Jennings Bryan and for Governor Altgeld’s reelection than for himself; all three lost. In the process, Darrow developed a long-lasting dislike of Bryan.

Clarence Darrow was a restless man, not at all a homebody. His work and political activity took him away from home a lot, and his wife Jessie’s disappointment pushed him further away. After several years of this, he asked her to divorce him. No fault divorce was unheard of in this era. Jessie could have found plenty of faults with Clarence. Instead, she graciously allowed him to divorce her, though charges had to be invented, for the sake of his career. The divorce was filed in 1897.

Darrow would marry again in a few years, but when he and Roberts shared the podium in Cincinnati in 1900, he was living as a bachelor. According to several reports, he tended to look rather scruffy and ill-dressed. If Roberts’s appearance lived up to the photographs available, they would have made a striking contrast. In addition to questions of dress, Darrow’s square face contrasted with Roberts’s narrow one. Both men would have their ups and downs in the years to come. Although Darrow was only four years younger than Roberts, his fame beyond Illinois would not peak until the 1920s, with the Leopold-Loeb Trial and the Scopes Trial. Roberts, in contrast, though he did not know it, was close to his peak of popularity, which would come in 1902. This may have been partly because Roberts’s style of speaking retained more of the nineteenth century than that of Darrow. Location and contacts were also factors in the difference.

The two men shared an admiration for Ingersoll, but they developed quite different philosophies. While Roberts followed Ingersoll in style and substance, often quoting him, Darrow admired Ingersoll for his success in broadening awareness of freethinking, but he took his own views from other sources. In spite of this difference, Roberts and Darrow maintained a long friendship. Darrow was frequently available to speak at Roberts’s podium, and Roberts usually made use of Darrow’s presence to raise a little extra money. They shared a love of civil argument, and the pleasure of speaking before an audience.

This post is taken from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date”Freethought Preacher.  There’s more information and a link on the Books page.

New Year’s Optimism – in 1893

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94933_CoverFront1893 was a bad year for the American economy.  The country would not recover from the financial disaster of that year for several years to come.  John Emerson Roberts, preacher of All Souls’ church in Kansas City, was personally affected.  The Board of Trustees of the church reduced his salary by twenty percent, “in hopes that it could be more promptly paid.”

New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1893, was a Sunday.  Perhaps it was a preacher’s instinct for what his congregation wanted to hear that led Dr. Roberts to avoid all mention of current ills and give a sermon which took great leaps into abstractions.  Though the lecture was titled “The days that are gone and the days that are to be” Roberts gave very little attention to the days that are gone.  He began:

This is the day and the hour when by common impulse we pay our homage to time, the warder at the gates of destiny.  Time!  Within that monosyllable what mystery is enshrined; what depth unfathomable, invisible, echoless, vast.

Like God, within it all things live and move and have their being.  But whence is it and what?  Is it an existence, an entity, a fact, a something: and if so what are its parts, its elements?

There are many things which we cannot comprehend, but we define them and with our definition we mask our ignorance and put on airs . . . Our age hastens to be wise.  Restless of mystery, impatient of knowledge, it has cruelly invaded the chaste and tender secrets of the olden time, and now has cold formulas and colorless explanations for everything.

He soon moved from this negative note to flights of positive oratory.

We cannot get rid of God. . . . . To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this – that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere; show forth . . .  that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

Why have we not found this out?  Why do you sit there and wonder what the preacher means?  Because we have inherited the false notion that nature is exclusive of God, that He can be present only through supernatural means.

We must know God, if at all, in terms of the finite.

Let us ask, what is time?  It is the revelation of eternity in terms comprehensible by man. . . . Time is but the world’s manifestation of God’s eternity.

Roberts concluded:

Marvelous mighty, unspeakable gifts of days!  To make them constellations wheel in space, galaxies keep their silent watches, moons wax and wane, stars come out; suns rise and set, and then, as if to call unthinking men to marvel, the wonderful dawn hangs its crimson drapery, the triumphal gate through which the day is ushered in.

This ministry, this service, this joyous slavery of the universe, this striding of the constellations around the pole, this eternal and tender conspiracy of worlds and galaxies and systems; this birth from eternal mystery of morning and of night – this, oh, human soul is for thee!

Ah. coming days! The days that are to be!  Let me with thee conspire to make time and life divine.  Then shall we greet each morning with a smile and meet all the future with a cry of joy!

Did this idea that the universe goes through its cycle for the sake of humanity comfort the financiers, business owners and other civic leaders who attended Roberts’s church that Sunday, who may have been badly hurt by the financial crisis?  According to the report in Monday’s paper, it pleased them greatly: “This sermon was one of the most eloquent Dr. Roberts has delivered during his pastorate, and at the close he was warmly congratulated by many of the large congregation which listened with closest attention throughout.”

Further evidence that Roberts pleased his audience came a few months later.  In 1894 Roberts received an unusual honor from the larger community.  He won a contest sponsored by the Kansas CityWorld in which readers were asked to vote for the most popular minister in the city.  The prize was substantial: a horse and phaeton.  For Dr. Roberts, things were looking up.  He had many years of positive influence and appreciation ahead of him.

For more on John Emerson Roberts, read John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  You can find it on Amazon or order directly from the author.

Coed College in 1870: Excerpts from my biography


Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois was founded to develop an educated clergy, like many colleges, including Harvard and Yale.  Unlike Harvard and Yale, Shurtleff decided to admit women in 1869.  It happened because two women, Hasseltine Read, daughter of the College President, and Sarah Ellen Bulkley, daughter of an important professor, campaigned energetically for the opportunity to study.  The innovation was a success.  Two years later a total of twenty-six young women were enrolled in the preparatory school and the college.

The program at Shurtleff was divided into three terms of 13 1/2 weeks each.  Tuition was $8 per term.  College rooms could be rented for $4 per term, but separate arrangements had to be made for board, which was available in various clubs or boarding houses by the week.  Students also had the option of finding both board and lodging with a private family, for which the going rate was $4 or $5 per week.

What did they study?  Each course used one book per term.  Subjects included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and French or German.  There were other courses on Natural Theology and Moral Science.  The course on Moral Science used a text by Francis Wayland.

Wayland understood science . . . as a process of observation, deduction, and classification of elements of a fixed natural world.  He believed the human world of ethics could be similarly organized and he titled his text The Elements of Moral Science.  He began by comparing moral law to Newton’s laws of motion.  The consequences, he argued, were as certain, if not always as immediately obvious, as those of the force of gravity. . . .

Wayland further claimed that human beings were created to choose pleasure over pain, and were also intended to choose long-term over short-term pleasure.  He gave one example specifically aimed at students:

          Thus I am so formed that food is pleasant to me.  This, even if there were no necessity for eating, is a reason why I should eat it.  But I am also formed with a desire for knowledge.  This is a reason why I should study in order to obtain it.  That is, God intended me to derive happiness from both of these sources of gratification.  If, then, I eat in such a manner that I cannot study, or study in such a manner that I cannot eat, in either case I defeat his design concerning me by destroying those sources of happiness with which he has created me.

Wayland had definite ideas about how the material should be taught:

           Let the portion previously assigned for the exercise be so mastered by the pupil, both in plan and illustration, that he will be able to recite it in order and explain the connection of the different parts with each other without the necessity of assistance from his instructor. .
            Let the lesson which was recited on one day be invariably reviewed on the day succeeding.
            As soon as any considerable progress has been made in the work, let review from the beginning be commenced.  This should comprehend for one exercise as much as had been previously recited in two or three days; . . . .

The student who absorbed a whole text in this manner would in theory become able to develop his own ideas in a similar manner.  It is not clear where the student would get his own ideas if he, or his instructor, never challenged the book.

Life at Shurtleff was not all study.  There were two societies, called Alpha Zeta and Sigma Phi, which became coed as soon as the college did.

Each society had its own reading room and gathered its own library.  The two societies were mutually exclusive, since their weekly meetings were held at the same time, Friday evenings, but activities were similar: they held debates, invited guest speakers and arranged musical presentations.  Each held an annual Exhibition, scheduled so that members of the other society could attend.
Alpha Zeta’s Semi-Centennial History, published in 1898, noted the “advance” in the musical offerings brought about by the “advent of the young ladies.  As with most college organizations, not all activities were cultural.  Parties for holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween were popular events, and there were boat rides in spring and fall and coasting and skating parties in the winter.

It might be supposed that Justus Bulkley would have favored admitting women to Shurtleff because, of his nine children, only five, all girls, lived to adulthood.

He justified the inclusion of women in the program, however, by pointing out that educated young women would make better helpmeets for pastor husbands, thereby enhancing the men’s ministry.  Coeducation also gave women more opportunity to find those husbands.  In 1873, shortly after her graduation, Sarah Ellen Bulkley married Charles Brockway Roberts; . . . .  John Emerson Roberts would marry Frances Newell Bulkley in 1878.

These excerpts are from Chapter 2 of my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See Books page for more information.

Two copies of the book are being offered as a Goodreads giveaway ending August 8: http://www.goodreads.com