Chilling article in Yankee traces the thin line between civilization and savagery


January 08, 1995|By Bruce McCabe | Bruce McCabe,Boston Globe

There are two compelling pieces in unlikely print sources this month that suggest a historically thin line between civilization and savagery in our society.

The scenario of Sybil Smith's "Judging Hannah" in the January Yankee magazine evokes the most primitive old John Wayne westerns but is chilling and bloodcurdling enough for a current TV movie. It's an account of the little-known action -- some might say atrocity -- committed in 1697 by Hannah Duston of Haverhill, Mass., a deed that would lead to her becoming the first American woman to have a statue built in her honor.

The account is adapted by a niece eight times removed from Duston from an account by Puritan writer Cotton Mather. It's crafted so suspensefully, I won't cut to the chase but merely cite the opening paragraph:

"It is hard to imagine scalping a person. There is adhesive tissue under the dermis that must be cut and pulled at. The scalp bleeds freely, and the instrument, especially if crude, like a hand-forged iron knife, would be clumsy and slippery when wet."

Then there's the January/February Modern Maturity, in which true crime author Ken Englade and mystery writer Tony Hillerman collaborate on a frightening true crime story set in a seedy section of Albuquerque, N.M.

The story unfolds like a film noir. It begins with an early morning attack by a thrill-seeking teen-ager on a 63-year-old man who is jogging. An assistant district attorney describes the 16-year-old as a classic sociopath. "He would kill . . . the same way I'd swat a fly," she says. But the foreboding episode takes a surprising twist. The man is packing a .25-caliber Colt automatic.

At the story's conclusion, the youth, serving a four-year sentence, is vowing to kill the man if he ever sees him again.

Here's another twist. Those 65 and older are, according to 1992 Bureau of Justice statistics, the least likely victims of violent crimes or theft. But that's because, the authors say, many older people are avoiding activities they felt safe taking part in only a few years ago. The piece raises the compelling question -- who owns the streets?

Shopping subculture

The January Consumer Reports takes a look at the garish television shopping subculture, finding it essentially a showcase for everything from, as it says, "white elephants to Pink Floyd."

The piece says that jewelry makes up about half of all merchandise sold on television because it's often an impulse buy, it shows up well on the screen and it can yield higher profits than many other types of goods. In fact, there's a jewelry sub-subculture in which callers, exchanging views on "CZ" (cubic zirconia, a diamond substitute), "cabochon" (a smooth, rounded gem cut) or "stampato" (a production technique), sound like jewelers themselves.

CR also takes a look at infomercials, which it calls "Wild Pitches." Interestingly, infomercials were effectively eliminated in 1961 by federal programming guidelines but resurfaced mostly as miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes in 1984 when the rules were relaxed. Now you frequently can't tell an infomercial from regular programming. CR says the effect of watching a Magnavox infomercial was "remarkably like watching a genuine TV show."

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