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On Popular History: Rebecca Traister

Note: Alexis Coe's Substack will include interviews with writers and journalists whose work builds on a deep engagement with historical literature. She explains why here.  

Rebecca Traister describes her research process as “skipping from stone to stone,” but how she chooses those stones and the way she moves between them seems key to her success. In the interview below, The New York Times bestselling author and writer-at-large at New York Magazine displays the best qualities of a nonfiction writer: Rebecca is humble about gaps in her knowledge, resourceful when it comes to filling them, and questions open secrets, no matter how long it takes. “A book that was supposed to take me 18 months to write took me five years,” she wrote, “a lot of it spent reading other people’s books.”

Alexis Coe: What’s your favorite bit of local history or family lore? 

Rebecca Traister: I have been entertaining myself through the pandemic by learning more about Roger Toothaker, one of the men who died during the Salem Witch panic. About ten years ago, I was playing around with one of those online genealogy programs and found my way to him but didn’t think much about it, because I genuinely had been messing around and I assumed that I had pressed the wrong button. This summer, an uncle who’s been doing genealogical research laid everything out, and sure enough, Roger was my 8th great-grandfather. He’s a guy who had bragged about having trained his daughter to hunt witches and kill them (perhaps by boiling their urine overnight?) but then in 1692 was accused of witchcraft himself by Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard. Eventually, his wife and my eighth great-grandmother Mary Allen, along with their ten-year-old daughter, Margaret, and Mary’s sister Martha Carrier would also be arrested for witchcraft. Roger died in prison before his trial. 

Maybe the reason that Roger, in particular, interests me is because I have been thinking so much about the language of “witch hunts” deployed by people — often powerful white men — as a way to describe the dynamics of being called out for bias, discrimination, harassment, or misconduct. It’s just a profound perversion of the power dynamics that surrounded actual witch hunts. Interestingly, Toothaker isn’t the only man in my family’s history to have been the victim of a witch hunt, though a less literal one. On the (very far other) side of my family is my dad’s uncle, Phillip Frankfeld. He was the former leader of Maryland’s Communist Party, and in 1951 was arrested along with his wife, Regina, under the Smith Act as part of a sweep of “second string Reds.” They were both sentenced to jail, serving five years, and interestingly, Regina’s sister also wound up implicated, for allegedly passing notes to her while in prison. (The other piece of family lore related to this is that we were somehow related to Elia Kazan, who of course named names, but I have zero evidence that this is true). Anyway, I’m just interested in these men, and at some point wish I had the time and resources to research both of them in depth. 

Read entire article at Substack