The Burning of Bleak College

[The Wilderness:]

In May, 1652, Prosperity Bleak visited the Island of Error, where he preached a sermon on "The Plan of Providence," which mentioned ropes, pulleys, a fire, wheels, and things that had to be seen to be believed, but how they fit together, or what they had to do with Providence, no one could understand. In August of the same year Bleak narrowly escaped arrest in a Northampton tavern, where he had issued challenges to the "backwoods saint" Samuel Mather (father of Increase, grandfather of Cotton) to "pit the Invisible against the Felt." Bleak fled to the wilderness. In 1656 or 57, he was said to be living among the Indians west of the Hudson River, where he impersonated a French trader named Ablette. In 1662, a blind Mr. Blick opened a shop on Gansevoort Street, in New Amsterdam, where he dealt in artificial pearls. In 1664, when New Amsterdam was handed over to the English, Mr. Blick vanished, too, and there was no trace of Bleak until the autumn of 1671, when he arrived in New Haven with letters from the clergy of Boston, attesting to his piety and learning. He was accompanied by a piebald quadruped that could only have been a dog, although some people swore they had heard it speak in a woman's voice.

[The Children, 1:]

illustration: Jeff Crosby

Who knows where he met them, around what fire, in what forest. They were not happy to see him. They hated human faces, as humans hated their snouts, muzzles, scales, etc. Even Anne had wept when they were born, and cried that Winthrop or some Priest must be their father, that they were the offspring of a forced copulation for which she was not to blame. In time she got over her horror, and wrapped them in blankets and rugs, but her feelings for the children remained cold. They stayed in the cellar (not imprisoned, just liked the darkness) and came up only when she wanted to show one of her friends what Winthrop had done to her. What an insult he had given her beliefs, what monsters the Puritans were. When the family moved to New Amsterdam, the children were allowed to play outside—probably Anne hoped they'd be slaughtered by the Indians who lurked in the forest. One day they came home and found the house ringed by those Indians, who shot burning arrows at the roof. The children looked at each other, shrugged, and retreated into the forest. They were monsters, after all.

"Monsters?" Mr. Bleak said, reaching his hands toward their fire. "In what sense?"

[The New-Haveners, 1:]

Strange doings in Mr. Bleak's house on Prospect Street. Lights and noises at night. Comings and goings of Figures in Cloaks, and Shapeless Creatures in Carts. Frenzied barking of dogs. Great laying-in of provisions, including much Food not fit for any Man: spoiled Meat, Corn, etc. Digging, constant digging. Speech in unknown Languages, and Inhuman Cries. What is happening? Mr. Bleak is building a school.

[The Graduate, 1:]

Bleak College opened its doors on August 21, 1676, which would have made it the oldest continuously operating college in Connecticut, if a mob hadn't burned it to the ground three years later. Most of what we know about its first incarnation comes from the "True Description of Bleak College Its Heresies Its Destruction" by Martin Lyall, whose son Charles was a member of the ill-fated class of 1679. According to Lyall, the college was remarkable not so much for its curriculum (theology, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as the "technologica," as the Puritans called earthly knowledge) as for its architectural peculiarities: the tunnels that connected the four main buildings; the tower atop West House that lacked interior stairs, so that the only way to get to the top was to climb the outside. The fact that the college had a total of exactly 30 doors, and this number was so strictly maintained that, if a new door had to be cut somewhere, Mr. Bleak nailed an old door shut. The telescope atop West House, which was trained on the churches of New Haven Green, as though some danger was to be feared from their direction. The shed which no one was allowed to visit until the eve of their graduation, and then only on the condition that they tell no one what they had seen.

[The Graduate, 2:]

"Upon Prising apart the Lock (Lyall writes), we found within a Great Framework of Ropes and Wheels, with a Fire at the bottom of it, and, suspended over the fire, a Chair, in which my Sonne sat, clutching at its Arms and evidently very Afraid to fall. Over his Head hung various Discs, representing, the Sun and Moon, and a Ravening Wolf, and the Stars, and Birds in Flight, all Drawn as it were from Life, and moving in their Orbits at various Speeds. What was stranger still, I dare hardly Tell you: the whole Device was Turn'd by Beasts, or Monsters. A Great Creature with a Lion's Body and the Head of a Bat pumped the Bellows, while Fluttering Atrocities saw to the Motion of the Stars, and Charles's rope was held at the Lower Extremity by a Nude Woman with the Head of a Hen. About her feet there slithered Creatures without Legs, although they had Faces, and these Faces they turned to us with an Expression as it were of Contempt. [ . . . ] When we had Charles down from the Chair, and had tied Mr. Bleak in his own Ropes, we Interrogated him, as to the Purpose of his Machine. 'It is meant to shew us how Providence works,' said Charles; but Mr. Bleak, who retained the manner of a Schoolteacher even when Bound, chided him with these words: 'Charles, it is providence.' "

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