THE HANGING OF EPHRAIM WHEELER: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America

Irene Quenzler Brown, Author, Richard D. Brown, Joint Author . Harvard Univ./Belknap $26.95 (388p) ISBN 978-0-674-01020-8

History's grand narratives—the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Gold Rush—are always crowd pleasers, but microhistory, on the scale of everyday persons and singular events, draws readers seeking a more intimate encounter. The case unfolded here, of a man executed for raping his daughter, offers such an experience, bringing readers face to face with a family torn by domestic violence and civic authorities struggling with questions of justice. Throughout the book, Brown and Brown, both professors at the University of Connecticut, balance a historical perspective on rural Massachusetts in the early 1800s with a sympathetic portrait of each character. After a journalistic reporting of the Wheeler trial, the authors take a psychological approach to the story from the viewpoints of Betsy, the 13-year-old victim; Hannah, the abused wife; and Ephraim, the father, who insisted that he had been framed. The authors also follow the judges, the state councilors and the governor through the decision to uphold capital punishment and, particularly, to deny petitions for Ephraim's life. If the authors go a bit far in transposing modern psychology to these early Americans, they clearly distinguish documented facts from conjectures about the individuals' thoughts and emotions. Wheeler was hanged two centuries ago, yet the authors effectively demonstrate that there were never uncomplicated solutions to the perennial problems of family violence and criminal justice. 14 photos, 1 map. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 03/10/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
Paperback - 402 pages - 978-0-674-01760-3
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