Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Prevalent Fear

From Our Savage Neighbors, by Peter Silver, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, pp. 58-59:

    Rather surprisingly, the right of at least eventual burial was a basic assumption of the laws of war. As the great Spanish theorist Vitoria had observed, it had been considered a clear right under natural law, even for the corpses of executed criminals, since at least the time of the Israelites: and since "piety is a natural thing, even for the dead . . . [it] is unlawful to abuse their corpses." Unlike those people today who sign up happily for posthumous donations and dissections, early Americans were very far from indifferent about what happened to their bodies after death. When blended with Indians' supposed propensity for mutilating their dead or dying opponents, this dread of posthumous abuse (especially of decaying visibly, or becoming food for animals) accounted for an enormous part of the fear that provincial Americans felt when considering Indian attacks. Their evident fascination with the burning up after death of Indians victims in flaming barns or houses probably sprang, too, from the idea of the dead's being disposed of in horribly unconventional ways.
    Body-burying expeditions had a central place in newspaper reporting–a place that makes sense when we understand the special power the damaged or unburied dead had to shock and depress colonists. The parties of men who trudged off to find victims and "[Bury them] in a Christian Manner" became vessels for terror. In late October 1755, after William Parsons heard reports of an attack near Easton and went out "to assist in burying the Dead," he wrote two letters unburdening himself of the horror of the trip. His little party, doubling in numbers as it went, heard of another attack nearer by and decided "to go . . . to these dead Bodies" first, which they soon found "lying dead just in the Road" with "all the Skin of their Heads . . . scalpt off." As darkness fell, the members of the party worried that "their Bodies might be torn to pieces" before morning. So they borrowed a grubbing hoe and shovel from the nearest farm and dug the deepest grave they could in the stony ground, putting them both in one grave . . . as we found them with all their Cloaths on."