The Fudge Factor

Jonathan Carriel Confesses Instances of Authorial "Cheating" in Great Mischief




First of all, there was no recorded slave insurrection in Kings County, New York, in 1759. The hysteria described in Great Mischief is entirely fictional.  However, insurrections and panics were hardly unknown to small towns, and were common to American cities (north and south) throughout the 18th Century. A further reasonable presumption is that for every such disruption remembered by history, many others of nearly equal seriousness have probably been forgotten. (John Glasby’s relation of the horrific New York City events of 1741 in Chapter 3, by contrast, although a fictional character’s personal “take” on the events, is based on the historical record.)


Many primary source records about colonial New York in 1759 remain that would throw this fantasy about “New Utrecht” completely into the trashcan. [For readers unfamiliar with New York City:  “New Utrecht” is indeed a real place, a township chartered by the New Netherlands in 1657 but no longer an independent municipality. Thousands of people live today in a section of a couple square miles that is now commonly called a “neighborhood.”] Not only are there complete records of the clergymen who officiated, there are colonial property and tax records which would include base information about the actual freeholders and probably even their slaves. Thus, the specifics of New Utrecht in 1759 could likely be assembled by a diligent researcher. Truth often being stranger than fiction, it could well be fascinating! However, the historical novelist draws his or her line somewhere and I, though constraining myself to the historical datum that the population at that time consisted of approximately 200 whites and 100 blacks, have been content to invent names, characterizations, relationships, and structures for all 300 of them. 


In deference to modern sensibilities, the pejorative most offensive to modern ears has been eschewed in favor of more neutral terms such as Negro, black, African, slave, bondsman, servant, and so forth. The sad truth is that the pejorative would have been routinely used by even the most educated and liberal-minded white Americans of the mid-18th Century—including all our leading characters—without a second thought (but also without the intensity of malice now associated with it). There were, I presume though I don’t know, equivalents in Dutch language or slang.  Contrariwise, but also untrue to actual historical practice, our hero generally candidly refers to slaves as “slaves.”  The usual, genteel euphemism was “servant,” of course, which was a fudge at the time that neatly obscured the distinction—crucial to the individual—between contractual service and involuntary servitude.



Chapter 1 - The Red Hook ferry is a fictional concoction operated by the fictional Jacob. It would have made little economic sense to conduct a ferry service from the north side of the Gowanus Creek to the southern tip of Manhattan, given the better roads that led directly to the Brooklyn Ferry (where the Brooklyn Bridge now stands). It is likely that our fictional Jacob will eventually realize his enterprise is terminally unprofitable and give it up.


Chapter 4 – The Intelligencer and the Examiner are fictitious. The New York newspapers of the period were the Gazette and the Mercury, both of which were weeklies.


Chapter 5 – The existence of a stocks in New Utrecht is a supposition. The idea that the town’s Selectmen (the existence of their office also a supposition) would have some limited authority to inflict corporal punishment is likewise putative. Stocks and pillories took many forms; the ankle-clamp stocks described in Great Mischief were among the least sadistic, but could still occasion permanent injury. The 24-hour sentence is entirely fictional. (I trust it did not escape my readers that the identical sentence imposed upon Rykert Dordrecht and Justus Bates … constituted an irony that masked brutal injustice.)


Chapter 6 - An assumption of the novel—no more than that—is that Kings County slaves lived in “slave quarters,” black sections of each town separated from the masters, rather than in apartments of the masters’ houses, or in slave areas attached to individual plantations (as frequently seen in the American South). Recently, I’ve found one assertion to the contrary—that even in the southern, more densely populated counties of New York, slaves were domiciled with their masters, apart from other slaves; it strikes your author as unworkable, uneconomic, and implausible given that flat, water-bound Long Island posed an even greater challenge to would-be escapees than nearby New Jersey or Westchester County. Based on the population statistics, a further assumption has been that the local slave population, which was at its greatest proportional height in this era, was roughly equal in males and females, and increased primarily due to birth and longevity rather than to importation. A further assumption is that the sale of slaves outside the locality would be an extremely disruptive rarity. A final assumption is that slaves living in slave communities would tend to intermarry irrespective of ownership, creating black families subject to the whims and vicissitudes of multiple white families.


Chapter 6 - Poor Richard’s Almanac was discontinued after 1758; no farming family would have lacked one of its competitors, however. 


Chapter 7 – The price of slaves (like the prices of wheat, muffins, potholders, smithies, etc.), is conjectural, based on the few, radically variant prices I’ve found in the record. I have seen prices (for healthy male adults in the colonies in the 1750s) quoted as low as £50 and as high as £300. Even though “commodity” prices rose with the war, a six-fold increase is implausible. The £230 deal struck for Vrijdag between Teunis Loytinck and Thomas Dordrecht, is therefore based only on a best guess of what the market might have borne in New York City in April 1759, plus the special situations dictated by the plot and the characters.


Chapter 11 - The dialect of the slaves … is made up, loosely based on such transcriptions of slaves’ statements as were ever written down, deliberately mixed with the clumsy omissions and simplified tenses of the uneducated everywhere. The language put in most of their mouths is doubly fictional, of course, in that a premise of Great Mischief is that most discussions with slaves would have taken place in Dutch!


Chapter 12 - Time of sunset:  thick fudge!  Your author drafted the book three times before realizing this plain error … which by then was too troublesome to correct. At midsummer, sunset in New York City is at approximately 8:30 PM, and sunrise around 5:30 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.  Now of course there wasn’t any daylight savings time in 1759; there wasn’t even standardized time. Time would have been set by the local solar zenith. However, New York’s location at 40 degrees North latitude has not changed, and midsummer nights would then as now have been nine, not eight, hours long.  I decided sunrise was on standard time and therefore would be at 4:30 AM … but forgot to make sunset correspondingly at 7:30 PM. Anybody notice?  Kudos to any reader who caught that one!


Chapter 12 – The described cleanliness of The Arms’ facilities … is greater than that warranted by the historical record (even considering that the Dutch were renowned as the most fastidious Europeans of the era). Modern American travelers would be revolted even to contemplate the unsanitary conditions common to such institutions in the 18th Century.


Chapter 15 – Were the New Utrecht slaves permitted to keep some personal weapons in their immediate possession? My surmise is de jure, no; de facto, yes.


Chapter 15 - The full moon of June 1759 actually occurred on the 10th of the month.  I moved it up four days to permit it to set an hour before sunrise on Saturday the 9th,, the night of the murder, six days after the celebration of Pinkster. (Sorry, I know such fejiggering risks throwing the entire solar system out of kilter!)


Chapter 19 – The precise terms that concluded indentured servitude in New York province … are fabricated. Each colony stipulated some legal requirement obliging the owner to present the freed servant with clothes, tools, land, or cash upon the conclusion of the service period, and the requirements were usually not inconsiderable.



Fudges on the Dutch language:


A Dutch Reformed clergyman of the time was most usually called a domine, which if I understand correctly is pronounced exactly the same as its French counterpart, dominé; to wit, doh-mee-NAY.  However, I more or less defy any native English-speaker to look at domine and not think doh-MEEN or, worse, DOH-meen … neither of which will do at all.  Therefore I adopted the Scottish Presbyterian (also Calvinist) clerical title, dominie, which I believe actually did come into use in some American Dutch Reformed congregations, though probably not until the 19th Century. Contemporary Reformed clergymen are addressed as Reverend, the same as most other Protestants.


Kramers Woordenboek Nederlands-Engels contains two Dutch words for the English mister: meneer and mijnheer.  Although I’d assumed mijnheer was more formal or more correct, Kramers defines it simply as the equivalent of meneer.  So what do I know? Meneer (pronounced, I think, mayn-AIR) works better.


A schout (pronounced SHKOWT) is an historical term for a bailiff or sheriff. It was certainly used in the New Netherlands; I presume it had some basis in the old country as well. Contemporary Dutch-speakers are mystified by the term, but I read that Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the greatest of the 17th Century patroons, who micromanaged his Albany-area plantations from the safety of Amsterdam, outfitted his appointed schouts with a traditional rapier, baldric, and silver plume—to impress the local tribesmen, one imagines. 


Thomas Dordrecht and the majority of both the black and white denizens of New Utrecht are so completely bilingual, that he never feels compelled even to mention in what language a conversation originally occurred as he relates the story to the reader in English.  As opposed to the bulk of the dialog in Die Fasting, that of Great Mischief takes place mostly in Dutch.  Only when it is germane to the plot, as when characters are unable to comprehend each other, is the subject even raised.  As a narrator, our hero generally leaves it up to the reader to deduce what language is being spoken.  As he has related to us, Dutch is commonly preferred in New Utrecht; however, in the presence of English-only or Dutch-only characters, the bilingual characters generally switch, automatically, habitually, and without fuss.


[See Attempting to Pronounce Dutch.]





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