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Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle

Ava Chamberlain, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards, North American Religions (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

This fascinating revision of the tragic story of Jonathan Edwards’ “crazy grandmother” is one of the most important books in Edwards studies in many years. It chronicles the life and hard times of Elizabeth Tuttle, whom Edwards scholars have long known but never known well.

The daughter of a successful Puritan family in New Haven, Elizabeth married after conceiving her first child out of wedlock. Her husband, Richard Edwards, came from a less prominent family and was two years her junior (only 20 when they married), but was determined by the court to be the father of her child (a daughter, Mary). Richard confessed to having slept with Elizabeth long before their wedding but denied being the father of her baby. He claimed another local man, Joseph Preston, was the father, saying Elizabeth had granted this in private conversation.

Richard never managed to prove this claim in any court of law, but refused to raise the baby as his own. (Elizabeth’s parents raised Mary.) He settled down with Elizabeth for more than 20 years, siring several children with her, including Jonathan Edwards’ father (Timothy Edwards, born in 1669). But eventually, their marriage ended poorly, in disaster, which was aggravated by Richard’s insecure male ego and mental illness in the family leading to brutal, bloody murder.

In 1676, Elizabeth’s brother, Benjamin Tuttle, struck their sister, Sarah Slauson (Jonathan Edwards’ great aunt), in the head, with an ax, in her Stamford home in front of her four children (ages 12, 9, 6 and 4). Though Benjamin had suffered mental illness much of his life, he was executed by hanging for his crime the following year. Most of the family would recover from this tragedy with time, but three Tuttles never did. Sister Mercy spiraled downward into mental illness herself, later murdering her teenage son, Samuel, with an ax (in 1691, in front of Samuel’s brother Francis). She was deemed insane by the court and thus spared the death penalty. David, Mercy’s brother, also suffered from depression and had to be cared for to the end of his life by Thomas, another sibling. And Elizabeth, of course, suffered her own mental illness, which exacerbated the trouble with her husband.

In 1691, after a two-year public battle, Richard finally received a bill of divorce from Elizabeth. He had accused her of “obstinately Refusing Conjugal Communion” with him “for Many years” (120) toward the end of their marriage. Lying atop his other claims to have been cuckolded at the outset of their marriage by Elizabeth, to have been verbally abused (Elizabeth “often Threaten[ed] my Life to Cut my Throat when I was Asleep,” 135), to have been cheated on again after the two of them were married (Richard claimed his wife admitted this but never proved it in court), the charge of sexual abandonment would finally prove persuasive.

Less than six months later, Richard married Mary Talcott, a younger woman with whom he had confessed to having sex during his conjugal abandonment at home. The two had several children together, living a much less scandalous life after the early 1690s. Richard never cared for Mary, though. Nor did he do anything for Elizabeth above the call of duty from the court. In fact, Elizabeth disappears from the record after this–like so many other early American women.

She does not disappear, though, at least not forever, from discussions of Edwards’ family. Jonathan’s first biographers knew almost nothing about her. But in the late nineteenth century eugenics was all the rage. Many regional genealogists, Edward family enthusiasts, and students of eugenics retrieved Elizabeth and used her to interpret Jonathan’s genius, account for the residue of melancholy and sexual immorality in the family (Aaron Burr, Jr., being a customary example of the Edwardses’ sexual sins), and even oppose family planning by contending, for example, that if Elizabeth were sterile we would never have known Jonathan. Winship’s Jukes-Edwards: A Study in Education and Heredity (1900), which compared Edwards’ bloodline rather favorably, no glowingly, to that of a pseudonymous clan of social misfits, ne’er do wells, and hardened criminals, is only the best known of such eugenic encomiums.

Chamberlain has succeeded in writing an outstanding history of Elizabeth and her family–a model microhistory set in colonial New England. In her noble effort to listen to what she calls Elizabeth’s “silence” and allow her, paradoxically, “to speak for herself” (188), she appears a biased champion of her lady’s reputation, defending it against the men who sullied it so long. But this is probably what we need in order to set the record straight, to swing the pendulum of Edwards’ family history back in a sensible direction.

This book is must reading for Edwards scholars, historians of gender, sex, power, and mental illness in America, and anyone else interested in New England cultural history.