CHOPPING BLOCK (with Peter McLean). 1992.


Livestock was survival in early America. Food animals—sheep, pigs, cows, geese, chickens and other fowl—provided meat and produce for the year and long hard winters. Draft animals—oxen and horses—were essential for clearing fields, plowing, hauling in the requisite 40 cords of winter firewood, carrying and exchanging goods; and for transportation to and from social, religious and work events.

Loss of any animal could be devastating. An empty chopping block: no pig to slaughter, salt, and barrel for the winter, no chickens to behead or a lamb to kill meant deprivation or starvation. Eggs, milk, butter, cheese were year-round provisions which could not be forgone, but would be with the loss of a good animal.

When livestock went lame or sick or suddenly died of a mysterious condition, very frequently witchcraft and Satan’s scheming were blamed. Persons known to have associated with specific animals or their owners when such incidents occurred were as likely to be accused of being witches as those whose specters so frequently afflicted the community. Similar incidents from the past were recalled (or fabricated) and ascribed to the recently accused.