Saturday, September 5, 2009

Law and Order: Seventeenth Century

Today's New York Times has a strange little article about "New York's Coldest Case" — the murder of John Colman on September 6, 1609.

The author has some fun with the case, interviewing modern detectives as well as historians. They determine that local Native Americans probably killed Colman, possibly in retaliation for earlier attacks, though it is also possible that he was murdered by a fellow crew member.

It's a fluffy piece, but one line stood out for me. One historian, Kathleen Husler, unhelpfully describes the mixed Dutch/English crew involved in the incident as "a typical blend of sociopaths and working men." Is it a well-known fact that sailors were often sociopaths? The choppiness of the article makes it difficult to decipher exactly what Husler meant, but I think historians are generally on shaky ground when they try to diagnose historical actors with mental illness in order to explain their behavior. Perhaps she just meant that sailors were a violent and unruly lot, which they certainly were. But even in a fun little throwaway interview, it seems unproductive to characterize their behavior as antisocial and abnormal, rather than appropriate to their situation and worldview.

1 comment:

The Tennessee Kid said...

Enjoyed the great pictures of the graves. I just wrote a blog entry about the graveyard in Little Compton, RI. In it I used one of your pictures and linked it back to your site. Just thought you might want to know (or check it out) if you're interested.
Take care,