The Burning of Bleak College

[Paradise, 1:]

The weather was awful: rain for three seasons, then sweltering heat, then rain again. Enormous flies spawned in the wetlands at the mouth of the Quinnipiac River: malformed flies with bird-like legs, flies with tiny canine heads. So the legend goes. "By this Wingèd Persecution we hope to attain more quickly to Earthlie Happiness," Prosperity Bleak wrote in his journal, having already decided to found, in the middle of this wet grey wilderness, an institute of higher education.

[Boston, 1:]

illustration: Jeff Crosby

In 1637, Anne Hutchison (or Hutchinson), for whom a suburban parkway would one day be named, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for "traducing the ministers" of the Colony, by which her accusers meant, inviting women to her house to talk about theology, and not apologizing to anyone for it. She taught that divine grace was accorded at birth, and no amount of polite behavior afterwards could make up for its absence. Anne knew that she was saved; why should she apologize? Those who accused her were "Baals, Priests, Popish Factors, Scribes, Pharisees and Opposers of Christ himself," she said.

Her punishment was terrible. John Winthrop, the governor of the Colony, writes: "Mistris Hutchison being big with child, and growing towards the time of her labour, as other women doe, she brought forth not one (as Mistris Dier did) but (which was more strange to amazement) 30. monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as far as I could learne) of humane shape." Then she was banished. Anne and her husband and their monstrous brood fled to Rhode Island, which was known in those days as the "Island of Error," because so many heretics lived there. Even the Rhode Islanders wouldn't have her—and those monsters!—and she moved to New York, where, in 1643, she and her husband were killed by Indians, near a body of water called by the Dutch sailors Hell-Gate. The monsters escaped. More on them later.

[Mr. Bleak, 1:]

In the same year, a blind man named Prosperity Bleak arrived in Boston, bearing a letter from Dr. Sextus Halbmond of Leiden (Holland), which attested to his piety and his education. As the churches of Boston were fully staffed, Mr. Bleak preached in out-of-the-way places: in Smoaky rooms at the back of coffee houses, in dockside Warehouses, in Churches half-built, or half-destroyed by fire. In these places he made a name for himself with his doctrine of "Purposefull Suffering." Where other ministers delivered sermons once or twice a week, Bleak held sixteen services; where other ministers urged chastity and abstinence from coffee, Bleak urged celibacy and abstinence from milk. "You cannot be Sprung, unless you are first Lock'd," he said, "no more can you knowe Delight, unless you have tasted its Opposite." His congregation was the largest in Boston, larger even than that of John Wilson (who had a knack for describing the fires of Hell), until it was discovered that no such person as Sextus Halbmond had ever lived in Leiden, or anywhere else. The only Bleak anyone could find a record of was a locksmith's apprentice, who had come to Boston from Dorset.

[Mr. Bleak, 2:]

The name suits him so well, it seems like another of his fabrications. In fact the English telephone books abound with Bleaks, named not for the adjective but for the fish, Alburnus lucidus, a relative of the bream and the minnow. "It is found in European streams, and is caught by anglers, being also a favourite in aquariums. The well-known and important industry of 'Essence Orientale' and artificial pearls, carried on in France and Germany with the crystalline silvery colouring matter of the bleak, was introduced from China about the middle of the 17th century." —Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. The fish is called ablette in French.

[Paradise, 2:]

As a blind locksmith, Mr. Bleak no more believed in Heaven than he did in Halbmond. He believed what his fingers told him: that there was no other world but the one that contained England and Boston and the great wilderness beyond. Likewise, his "Purposefull Suffering" had no end but the provocation of earthly delight.

And what delight! Stevedores rolled about on the floors of sheds that stank of fish; coffee fiends flung their hands in the air and cried that they would never sleep again; and in the roofless churches, men and women huddled, eating oranges and whispering secrets that they could not remember afterwards.

[Boston, 2:]

Boston was not built for that kind of happiness. Wilson preached against the "Fishy Bleaks," who were, he said, relics of the same "pagan creation" that had peopled America with "Salvages"; and John Winthrop railed against "those followers of Mr. Bleak who lie upon the Common Grass and rub one another's Haire." In March of 1654, a warrant was issued for Bleak's arrest on the grounds of witchcraft and incitement to riot. The officers went to Bleak's house, but they found nothing except a treatise on raising demons from Hell (planted by Winthrop) and a bag of oranges.

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