Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors
It is hard to imagine scalping a person. There is adhesive tissue under the dermis that must be cut and pulled at. The scalp bleeds freely, and the instrument, especially if crude, like a hand-forged iron knife, would be clumsy and slippery when wet.
And what of the revulsion one might feel at handling a dead human thus? Had Hannah Duston’s life prepared her for that? She was certainly used to wringing chickens’ necks, helping with the slaughter of cows and pigs. Further, she must have been angry when she scalped the ten Indians who had recently been her captors. They had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house. They had brained her week-old infant and taken her captive, forcing her to walk many miles north in March while scantily dressed. For all she knew, the rest of her family was dead.
Moreover, she was no stranger to horror. She had been captured at the tail end of King William’s War, in an era distinguished for its savagery on both sides, and many outlying British settlements had already been plundered and burned.
When I tell Hannah’s story, when I try to imagine her acts, this context is paramount. I judge her in the light of the history that preceded her, not the history that followed.
It is March 15, 1697. There is still snow on the ground, though it has melted away in sunny spots from the bases of bushes and trees. To the northwest of the main town of Haverhill there are six or so buildings, surrounded by fields and meadow. This is where Hannah lives in a small brick house.
Hannah is lying in a feather bed. She is chatting with Mary Neff, her aunt and also the local midwife. Hannah had borne a girl child six days before. She is wearing her nightclothes and a sanitary napkin made of flax. She is not bleeding a lot; that is good. And her milk is in. The babe is nursing well; she is a strong infant.
I imagine Mary at the “chimney,” the large open fireplace where they cook all their meals, where they get warm. She must start preparing dinner soon — salt pork, beans, and applesauce. There are still some apples in the cellar, punky, to be sure, wormy, but they make a nice sauce. And at the tag end of winter it’s nice to have something fresh.
The children are outside playing. They range in age from 18 to three. There isn’t much work to do in March, other than splitting wood. The fields aren’t ready to be plowed. The stock has been cared for in the barn.
Thomas, Hannah’s husband, is out in the fields. He’s looking them over, seeing where the water collects, thinking where he might ditch the meadow. He has his gun with him, the long rifle, as it is known. Last summer, in Haverhill, four were killed while in their field, picking beans. But what can he do? It’s terrible living inside the garrisons; it’s crowded and boring. Their land, their house need them. If Thomas keeps his wits about him, and if the Lord wills it, he and his family will make it through this difficult time.
If the Lord wills it. Do Thomas and Hannah truly believe that? They must. They are constantly encouraged to examine all incidents in the light of how they illustrate God’s plan. A priest may be an agent of Satan, smallpox the instrument of God.
But they must be motivated by deeper, more primitive instincts as well. They are human, and they want to live. They like to eat, laugh, drink beer, smoke tobacco, have sex. They are willing to fight. When they examine their hearts, they may secretly accept their small daily lapses, their lusty appetites.
Let us meet some other instruments of God, hidden at the edge of the clearing where Thomas is staring at the sky. They have feathers in their scalp locks and their faces are painted red. They are carrying tomahawks and flintlocks.
Thomas catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. Ten Indians step from behind the trees. They level their guns at him and a series of shots break the morning stillness. Thomas leaps on his shying horse and gallops toward the house, screaming as he rides. “Indians! Run to the Marsh garrison! Now! Lord save us!”