Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Lorenzo de Medici

Florence, Italy   Visited July 2011


For a change of pace this post goes back a-ways in time to consider one of the great figures of the fifteenth century – Lorenzo de Medici.  Also known in his time by the less than humble nickname ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’, this banker, statesman and patron of the arts was the quintessential ‘Renaissance Man’.  In fact, Lorenzo the Magnificent straddles the intersection of the Italian Renaissance, the dawn of the Age of Exploration and the Protestant Reformation in a remarkably unique way. 



By the time Lorenzo de Medici was born in January 1449, the Medici’s were already the dominant family in the Tuscan region of central Italy.  Under the Medici clan, Florence became one of the great cultural and economic centers in Europe, rivaling Rome for power and influence.  The Medici family dynasty had begun under Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo, who parlayed a banking fortune into political influence and governing control.  The Italian peninsula of the Middle Ages was divided into regional feudal states vying for economic power.  Under Cosimo ‘The Great’, Florence gained ascendency through trade, amassing great wealth in the process.  The Medici were essentially the personal bankers for the Pope, which gave them outsized influence in and beyond their region. 


Lorenzo’s father, Piero ‘the Gouty’, parlayed the family fortunes into an investment in the arts at just about the same time that a great renewal of interest in classical arts and literature was taking place.  This investment established Florence as a creative center for the emerging Renaissance that would eventually sweep across Europe.  Lorenzo was the gifted son of five children and took over primary control of the family concerns at age 20 upon the death of his father. 

Me and my daughter Kelsey overlooking Florence

Lorenzo had a long and eventful ride as head of the Medici empire.  As effective Lord over Florence, he ruled the city in his early years with strong arm.  These early years were also characterized by international political intrigue and civil war as Lorenzo sought to consolidate his power over other clans and expand his influence beyond his region.  The darkest period of Lorenzo’s career occurred in the 1480’s when a falling out with the Vatican led to his excommunication from the church and a siege of Florence by Papal forces.  Lorenzo was able to extract his city from the crisis through negotiation, which led to his return to the church and relative security for Florence.  The latter years of Lorenzo’s political career were a marked contrast to his aggressive youth, where he used his influence relationships to maintain stability and rebuild the economic prominence of the Florentine regime. 

Basilica of San Lorenzo

As remarkable as his political career was, it was through his patronage of the arts that he made his true mark.  As naturally adept in politics as his career displays, Lorenzo also had an artistic side.  He dabbled in painting but became somewhat known for his poetry.  His devotion to the contemplative arts led to his nickname ‘Lorenzo the Thoughtful’.  Lorenzo took personal interest in promoting the careers of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello and numerous other artists – even having Michelangelo living with him for five years.  Lorenzo was primarily responsible for getting Michelangelo the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel.  He also used is resources to collect books and manuscripts which in time were collected in the Laurentian Library of the Church of San Lorenzo (designed by Michelangelo) which is one of the world’s great libraries not only for its architecture but for its collection of classical and early Christian literature.     It can fairly be said there is no Italian Renaissance without the intentional vision, underwriting and encouragement of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 

Painting by Ghirlandaio depicting the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis, (1485)
 at Santa Trinita Sassetti Chapel in  Florence. The Medici family
are prominent in the painting - Lorenzo to the far right.  

One of the more fascinating aspects of Lorenzo’s later years was his dealing with the Italian religious reformer Savonarola.  Even though the message of this self-proclaimed prophet attacked the types of autocratic rule that the Medici’s had developed into an art form, Lorenzo sought spiritual counsel from Savonarola throughout the latter part of his life.  Savonarola was with Lorenzo at the time of his death.  However, he fell out of favor with Lorenzo’s son and heir Piero (‘the Unfortunate’) and was eventually branded at heretic of the church and burned in the Florence Square. 
Savonarola preaching

Lorenzo died in Florence at the age of 43 on April 9, 1492, just four months prior to the date when Columbus set sail for his first voyage of exploration.  He was buried in a chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo (a different Lorenzo) designed by Michelangelo in Florence.  Both his tomb and that of his brother were carved by Michelangelo as well. 

Lorenzo's crypt in Basilica San Lorenzo.  Photos
are not allowed so this is a stock image.


Michelangelo's statue of Lorenzo 'the Thoughtful'
on his crypt
As we’ve seen, Lorenzo de Medici was at the center of the Renaissance.  His passing coincided with the beginning of the Age of Exploration that led to a radical redefinition of the political and economic landscape of Europe.  And his ties to the Reformation are also intriguing.  In addition to his association with the proto-reformer Savonarola, Lorenzo indirectly contributed to the emergence of Protestantism.  Through political intrigue, his son Giovanni was elevated to the papacy in 1513 and is generally considered to have been a disastrous and corrupt pope.  In his devotion to artistic splendor and extravagance, he pressed forward the grand design of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  However, being short of funds for the work he decreed the sale of indulgences by which people could buy themselves and others out of purgatory for a price paid to Rome.  It was this practice of purchasing salvation that so troubled a devote monk in Germany that he began a campaign to reform it.  The 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral by Martin Luther began as a protest and ended as the Reformation. 

View of the Medici Chapel from our hotel
in Florence

My encounter with Lorenzo’s tomb was somewhat unexpected.  On a trip to Florence with my daughter Kelsey, her friend, and my brother we stayed at a little hotel not too far from the Duomo.  Outside our window was a multi-story octagonal structure connected to a large but not particularly ornate Basilica.  It was somewhat underwhelming by Florentine standards.  On the second of two days of touring we decided to try to get in and see what was there.  We walked around the entire building until we finally found an entrance to what looked like a small museum.  Paying a small fee, we went in to check it out and were mildly impressed by some of the artifacts from the Medici family.   

Interior of the Medici Chapel

We were about to leave when I noticed a sign that pointed the direction to the ‘chapel’.  Out of curiosity, we followed the sign and found ourselves in the octagonal structure we’d seen outside our window.  Inside it was a breathtakingly magnificent chapel (the Chapel of the Princes) adorned with semi-precious stones inlaid in marble of various colors.  Full-scale statuary by Michelangelo and others fill every wall but the entrance and the altar area.  Reading about the chapel later it turns out that original plan was to buy or steal the Holy Sepulcher from Jerusalem and put it in the center of the floor, but that plan never worked.  Leaving this beautiful space, we discovered another small hallway that led unexpectedly to the ‘New Sacristy’.  It is here where Lorenzo and his brother Guiliano are buried in marble crypts designed and carved by Michelangelo.  It truly is a must see on any tour of Florence. 


In recent times there has been considerable talk about the ‘Medici Effect’ based on the popular business and leadership book, The Medici Effect by Frans Johanssen.  The book’s title derives from Lorenzo’s gift for creating an environment multi-disciplinary creativity for the flourishing of innovation in arts and sciences. 

Lorenzo (left) in virtual combat in the video game 'Assassin's Creed'. 
For a nice graphic depiction of Lorenzo's world check out this
short video from the game dealing with the Medici Cape

Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy

Arlington, VA     Visited April 1972

This post commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  It also represents what I think is the first of my historic graveside visits I can remember.  I’ll weave that part of the story in below.  Trying to write about John Kennedy in a condensed way is a challenge given the volumes of material written and broadcast about the 35th president.  His story is mythic without the need of exaggeration, his death tragic in a way that has shaped the national psyche and his legacy one of the great debates of the modern era.  

You might find this short C-Span bio a helpful primer on our subject.  


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in the Boston suburb of Brookline, MA on May 29, 1917.  He was the second of what would eventually become a family of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy.  At the time of JFK’s birth the Kennedy family was already something of a dynasty in New England – he was named for his maternal grandfather John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald – the legendary mayor of Boston in the early 1900’s.  John’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was the son of the other great politician of the era and when he married Rose Fitzgerald the two great Boston Brahmin families were joined.  Joseph Kennedy went on to a long career in politics, most significantly serving as US Ambassador to England during World War II. 

The Kennedy Clan

Gridiron Jack


John (called ‘Jack’ by family and friends’)  was a somewhat sickly child who grew stronger through family competition – particularly with his older brother Joseph Jr., whom he both idolized and competed against.  Both Kennedy boys went to private prep schools and matriculated to their father’s alma mater at Harvard University.  Joe Jr. was always considered the brighter and more promising of the two.  Both played football for the Crimson, but Jack had to quit due to a back injury, a malady that would affect him for the rest of his life.  John Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1940 with the intent of going to law school.  His senior thesis explored the question of how England was unprepared for the start of World War II and was later published as a book (which became a best-seller) under the title Why England Slept.

Both Joe and Jack enlisted in war effort.  Joe joined the army air corps and Jack, after being rejected by the army for his back issues, enlisted in the navy.  He was given command of a patrol boat in Pacific.  On August 2, 1943 Kennedy’s boat, PT 109 was on night maneuvers when it was rammed by a larger Japanese ship.  Kennedy’s response in the rescue of his men earned him the Navy and Marine Corps medals and a Purple Heart.  The commendation reads,

For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

 When asked later in life to explain his heroism Kennedy would just say, "It was easy. They cut my PT boat in half”.  Kennedy's heroism was portrayed in full Hollywood style in the 1963 film PT 109 starring Cliff Robertson as JFK.  The movie was released just five months before the assassination.  Here's the trailer for the film

Injuries resulting from this event forced JFK to leave the service.  What compelled him into politics was the death of his beloved brother Joe, who was shot down on a high risk bombing mission in 1944.  Joe had been the one groomed for political office and Jack felt the burden to take the family obligation on his behalf.  He was elected to Congress in his first run in 1946 and served three terms before taking a Senate seat for the state of Massachusetts in 1952.  A year later, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, a socialite and budding journalist who was twelve years his junior. 
JFK’s senate career was highlighted by the publication of Profiles in Courage (later acknowledged to be co-authored by Ted Sorenson) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  But Kennedy battled serious and debilitating illness throughout the Fifties, which limited his impact in Congress.  Nevertheless, in 1960 there were a number of political and cultural trends which thrust young and charismatic JFK to the forefront of the Democratic Party as a symbol of a new era of national political leadership.

Kennedy/Nixon debate - Old School Talking Heads

The 1960 election against Republican Richard Nixon was one of the closest in U.S. history.  In fact it may well have turned on the first televised debate where Kennedy’s youthful charisma was vividly cast against Nixon lack of telegenic presence. Interestingly, although polls among those who watched the debate clearly favored Kennedy, polls reflecting only those who heard the debate on radio favored Nixon.  In the end John F. Kennedy was elected the youngest president (and first Catholic) in American history. 

Jack and 'John John' and the
Resolute Desk

Jack and Bill

The Kennedy presidency was dominated by two significant realities – the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than chronicle the three years of the Kennedy presidency, I’m going to highlight two great achievements and two significant shortcomings of a brief but eventful presidency.  What I consider the two great achievements are: 
  • The Launching of the American space program.  The Apollo project, designed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, was bold, visionary, and politically advantageous in pushing the United States ahead in technological research and development during the Cold War years.

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis.  In perhaps the closest point in history to armed US/Soviet conflict, Kennedy’s brinksmanship and use of intelligence and emerging technology to push the Russian missile launchers out of Cuba show the presidency in one of its great moments. 

What I consider to be Kennedy’s most significant shortcomings are:
  • The Bay of Pigs fiasco.  The disastrous attempt to invade Cuba with an army of anti-Castro Cubans failed miserably, not only embarrassing the US government, but establishing Fidel Castro as a communist icon within 90 miles of the US coast. 

  • JFK’s incessant womanizing.  In Kennedy’s day, rampant unfaithfulness to a marriage by a politician was rarely reported on by the press.  However, the recklessness with which we now know he engaged in this behavior would certainly be impeachable in our day. 

Great Speeches

John Kennedy was not just a telegenic leader, he was a capable of soaring oratory.  Here are key moments from three memorable speeches in JFK's brief presidency.

 The Inaugural 1/20/61 - "Ask not what your country..."
 Rice University 9/12/62 -
 "We choose to go to the moon...."
Berlin 6/23/63 -  "Ich bin ein Berliner...."

 November 22, 1963

With my friend Steve Gonzales at
Dealy Plaza with the Texas
School Book Depository in
the background
The Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a watershed in American culture.  Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Dealy Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll, the Zapruder Film, the Warren Commission are part of an iconic lexicon of American tragedy.  The events of November 22, 1963 have been discussed, debated, dissected, documented and dramatized maybe more than any other single event in U.S. history. 
We will never know what a full Kennedy presidency would have produced; whether the youngest president ever elected would have guided the nation through the turbulent Sixties or allowed his own personal weaknesses to undermine the presidency a full decade before the Watergate scandal.  What we do know is that far more changed with the death of John F. Kennedy than would have ever been imagined prior to that dark day in November.

The JFK assassination and aftermath is the first significant historical event that received nearly round the clock video coverage.  The images and moments captured by news cameras and amateur photographers remain among the most iconic and emotionally moving in our history.  As I was doing research for this post two particular video clips resonated with me.  One is the CBS coverage by Walter Cronkite leading up the confirmation of Kennedy’s death in Dallas. 

The other is a grainy video clip of the bugler at Arlington Cemetery playing Taps during the graveyard service.  Early on he misses a note but recovers to complete his task.  At the time this missed note coming from the emotion of the moment resonated with both those at the cemetery and those watching on TV as an poignant expression of faltering confidence in the face of national tragedy.  And his recovery radiated the well of resolve that would carry the Kennedy family and the nation through its grief in the days ahead.  Here’s a clip of the bugler's call.
Funeral procession into Arlington Cemetery

The Kennedy family grave area at Arlington Cemetery is one of the most frequently visited historic sites in the nation’s capital.  I first visited it in the spring of 1972 as a seventh grader on a trip with other school safety patrol students on a train trip from Atlanta to New York City and back.  As part of our tour we visited Arlington and I saw JFK’s grave and the eternal flame for the first time.  The main thing I remember was that after we visited Arlington we were dropped off from our buses at the Smithsonian where we were allowed to roam around the museum area.  Imagine several hundred unsupervised seventh graders running around the Washington Mall with no watches on a time schedule to catch a train for New York.  Things were very different back then.  I’ve since been back to the Kennedy site several times, most meaningfully with son and my father about a year and a half before my Dad passed away.  
I don't remember where I was the day JFK was shot - I was four years old.  But I know the world I was growing up into changed that day.  And I'm a product of what it has become. 

A picture I took with my Instamatic camera on the
seventh grade patrol trip - April 1972.

Your blogger and son just about 40 years
later - November 2012.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christy Mathewson

Lewisburg, PA.  Visited August 2013

October is baseball month in the blog.  In this post it’s an honor to feature an original Hall of Famer, Christy Mathewson.  Even though he ended his pitching career almost a century ago he still ranks in the all-time top ten in most major pitching categories.  Nicknamed “Big Six” by fellow ball-players (because his stature) Christy Mathewson is generally considered to be one of the classiest players ever to play the game.  What is less known is the extraordinary service he rendered to his country as a soldier in World War I.  Read on. 

Christopher Mathewson was born August 12, 1880 in a small town above Scranton PA called Factoryville, PA.   Upon graduation from high school he enrolled at nearby Bucknell University where he played collegiate baseball and football, joined a fraternity and was elected senior class president.  He was named to the Walter Camp All American football team in 1900 as a drop-kicker.  This was not the typical route to a professional baseball career at the beginning of the 20th Century.  But he had begun playing semi-pro baseball at the age of 14 and played minor league ball throughout his college years, so he left college already eyeing a Major League career.

Big Six in action

Christy Mathewson pitched his first game as a major leaguer for the New York Giants at the age of 19 in 1900.  He won 20 games in 1901.  By 1902 he was also playing in the National Football League as a fullback for the Pittsburgh Stars.  He abruptly ended his football career when the baseball Giants apparently demanded he end his second sports career if he wanted to play with them.  The decision was apparently the right one because Mathewson quickly emerged as one of the dominating pitchers in the game.  He built a reputation as a student of hitters whose variety of pitches and pinpoint control could make him almost unhittable at times.  Connie Mack said of Big Six, "It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you."

 Christy and Jane in 1918 right before shipping out
In 1903 Mathewson married his college sweetheart Jane and they had their only child, a son, later in the year.  Mathewson was a devout Christian and was dubbed ‘The Christian Gentlemen’ – a demonstration of respect by fellow players and others associated with the game  Throughout his career he refused to pitch on Sunday based on his Sabbath convictions. 

Here is some interesting footage of Mathewson and his Hall of Fame manager John McGraw

2011 T-205 Baseball Card -
lists for $100,000 in mint
Christy Mathewson’s 1905 season is one of the greatest pitching performances in the history of baseball.  He went 31 and 9 with a 1.28 ERA and 206 strikeouts.  He walked only 64 batters in 338 innings.   Mathewson led the Giants to the World Series where he threw three complete game shut-outs over the course of six days as the Giants defeated the Philadelphia A’s in five games.  In 1908 he won 37 games.  While never winning another World Series “Matty’ Mathewson (another affectionate nickname) retired age 36 at the end of the 1916 season after 17 years in the league.  He finished his career with 373 wins (third on the all-time list and tops in the National League) and a lifetime 2.13 ERA.   Following his retirement Mathewson managed the Cincinnati Reds during the 1917 season.

The Christian Gentleman and
the Georgia Peach (Ty Cobb)
in Europe
With the US entry into World War I in 1918 Christy Mathewson was looking for a way to serve his country.  Though 37 years old and a family man, he joined a special unit along with (Ty Cobb and Branch Rickey) known as the Chemical Warfare Service (aka, the Gas and Flame Division).  The unit had a singular purpose – to be on the front lines and attack into any chemical warfare assault and repel the threat with flamethrowers.  Seriously!    

Tragically during one of the extensive live gas training exercises at the front Matty was not able to get his gas mask secured.  Ty Cobb describes the scene this way in his autobiography, “My Life in Baseball”.
“I will never forget the day when some of the men, myself included, missed the signal (to snap their mask into position). Men screamed…when they got a whiff of the sweet death in the air, they went crazy with fear and I remember Mathewson telling me ‘Ty, I got a good dose of the stuff. I feel terrible’….I saw Christy Mathewson doomed to die.”

 A fuller account of Mathewson’s military service from Stars and Stripes can be read here.

Mathewson statue in his hometown
of Factoryville, PA
Following his recovery Big Six returned to coach for the Giants in 1919-21, but his health had been severely compromised in the accident.  He spent most of his time at Lake Saranac in upstate New York for his health.  However, he contracted tuberculosis as a result of his gas exposure and succumbed to it at his Saranac home at the age of 45 on October 7, 1925.  According to the Ken Burns' documentary series, Baseball, Mathewson's last words were to his wife: “Now Jane, I want you to go outside and have yourself a good cry. Don't make it a long one; this can't be helped.”  His body was returned to his hometown and buried at Lewisburg Cemetery adjacent to Bucknell University.  The college football stadium has been named after him.

Original five clockwise from top left - Mathewson, Babe
Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb
In 1936 Christy Mathewson was one of the original five inductees (along with Babe Ruth, Ty CobbWalter Johnson , and Honus Wagner) into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The Christian Gentleman was the only posthumous inductee in the class.  His jersey, denoted as "NY" (because there were no player numbers at that time) has been retired by the San Francisco Giants and hangs in the left-field corner of AT&T Park. Legendary writer Grantland Rice eulogized Christy Mathewson with these words.

"Christy Mathewson brought something to baseball no one else had ever given the game. He handed the game a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains, and personality….He gripped the imagination of a country that held a hundred million people, and held the grip with a firmer hold than any man of his day or time!”

Big Six plaque in the Hall of Fame

Mathewson stone with my Phillies cap and
baseball paraphernalia left by another visitor.
The marker is a war veteran's emblem.  
I grew up reading about Christy Mathewson and he fit the ideal of accomplishment and character I was always told to emulate.  So he’s been a prime candidate for this blog.  But Lewisburg, PA is really not on the way to anything so I always wondered how I’d get there.  I decided to take a little detour on the way to speak at our church Youth Camp – a beautiful drive to a nice little town.  Lewisburg Cemetery is adjacent to the campus.  There is a sign at the entrance with a little bit of history but no indication of where Mathewson’s grave is located.  So if you happen to be in the Lewisburg area (not likely) and want to visit Christy Mathewson’s grave (extremely not likely) then here’s a guide.  Turn into the main entrance and up the drive in front of you.  Before you get to a cross lane at the top of the hill you’ll pass a cement walkway on your right.  Park there.  Then walk up the driveway another couple of rows of graves and look to your right.  Mathewson’s tombstone is visible near the driveway on the right hand side. 

Your blogger in front of Christy Mathewson Stadium
at Bucknell University

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cotton Mather

Boston, MA   Visited April 2006

I’ve wrestled with this post.  Cotton Mather is difficult to capture in simple biography.  Pious but strident, thoroughly puritan but enamored with the age of science, a man committed to broad Christian charity but defined most significantly in one of the darkest expressions of religious superstition in American history.  A fascinating and perplexing subject for the blog. 


Cotton Mather was born in Boston February 1663.  Both of his grandfathers – John Cotton and Richard Mather - were pastors who emigrated from a religiously hostile England and became prominent first generation New England Puritans.  Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather was perhaps the dean of Puritan pastors in the late 1600’s, as well as a president of Harvard College.  To be a prominent pastor was not simply a religious standing.  In Puritan New England governing and pastoring were closely aligned.  So Cotton Mather grew up with some big shoes to fill. 


Increase Mather - Cotton's Pappy

Early in life he showed both significant academic gifting and a heart to serve God.  He entered Harvard College at age twelve, graduated at fifteen  and, after further divinity study was ordained to the ministry at age eighteen.  Mather took his first pastoral position serving under his Father at the North Church – the figurative center of Puritanism in New England.  It seems that the younger Mather’s relationship with his father/superior was at times contentious, as Cotton Mather sought to distinguish himself and his ministry from the shadow of his illustrious father. 


Mather's magnum opus - Magnalia Christi
Americana - a history of New England

Ultimately Cotton Mather found his place in his world primarily through his writing.  He was a prolific and diverse author, composing over 400 books in his lifetime on theology, politics, history and science.  Mather was one of the early colonial proponents of germ theory and inoculations – scientific ideas that many clergy members opposed.  He was also was an early proponent of hybridization in agriculture. 



It is indicative of Mather’s wide influence beyond the Puritan world that he developed a relationship with a young BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.  Historian John  Lienhard describes an incident that occurred on a visit by Franklin to Cotton Mather’s home.  Franklin had been an apprentice to one of Mather’s scientific critics, but found the preacher/scientist’s writing intriguing.   After a chat Franklin turned to leave. 

 “As Franklin was leaving, Mather shouted at him, "Stoop, stoop!"  Too late! Franklin struck his head on the low doorjamb, and Mather intoned: "You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps." Franklin did not miss the point. Later he said, "I often think of [Mather's words] when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high."
Cotton Mather has no relation to, and should not be confused with:
Marshall Mathers, aka Eminen

Jerry Mathers, aka The Beaver

Unfortunately, to the larger world Cotton Mather is most well known in connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  This tragic incident in America history is one of the most difficult for those in the modern world to comprehend.  What seems to be true is that something happened among the people of the village of Salem that was unexplainable to the minds of 17th century New Englanders.  It is also clear that a superstitious populace and an ad hoc trial system sent innocent people to their deaths.  Mather is linked to the sad affair in two ways.  His political influence had helped place the key players in the trial in their governing roles before the events started happening.  And, though he was not directly involved in the proceedings, his commentary in writing on what was going on at the time seems to have validated the charges and outcomes of the trials. 
Two very different depictions of the witch trials:

In all honesty, as I’ve read several accounts of the trials, it is difficult to know what to make of Cotton Mather’s role.  He certainly had the influence to turn the trials in a different direction had he wanted to.  But his writings are somewhat contradictory. He seems to advocate on the one hand a careful and thorough investigation of what was taking place and argued against the death penalty, but provided the theological basis for the possibility of spiritual forces at work in the town upon which the convictions rested. 
Cotton Mather's home on Hanover Street in Boston

Cotton Mather’s later years were filled with difficulty.  He had two wives die and his third wife reportedly went mad.  He fathered fifteen children but only two outlived him.  His role in the Salem trials brought criticism throughout his remaining life.  And the zeal for godliness and a fully Christian community that characterized the early years of American Puritanism began to give way to liberalism and division even as Mather sought to preach and lead and write against the secular tide.  However, as he aged he turned more and more to intercessory prayer, particularly prayer for revival of true Christian religion in new England.  On February 13, 1728, one day after his 65th birthday, Cotton Mather died in Boston.  His prayer for revival had not been answered in his lifetime, but within a few short years the Great Awakening  broke out – a revival of the very Puritan theology that Mather and his family had worked so hard to promote in the New World. 

All of the Mathers are buried in a single simple tomb at historic Copp’s Hill Burial Ground.  It is a beautiful spot overlooking Old North Church in one direction and Breed’s and Bunker Hills across the Charles River in the other.  (I found this short amateur Video somebody made on a tour as they walked through the cemetery on the way to the Mather site).  Copp’s Hill is the second oldest burial ground in Boston and is directly on the Freedom Trail.    As my picture (and the video) show, the tomb was in a sad state of disrepair.  I would love to see more made of this historic family and their contribution to the religious and cultural heritage of our country.  But the sad irony is that the Mathers and the Reformed theology they espoused are both disregarded in the New England that owes so much of its character to their formative influence. 

Maybe Cotton Mather's own words offer a helpful perspective on posterity:
“History is the story of events, with praise or blame.”


Your blogger at the Mathers tomb

Cotton Mather has had a couple of interesting pop culture incarnations since he passed from the scene.  Marvel comics created a villain for the Spider Man series in the seventies called Cotton Mather.  Here’s a description:
Powers/Abilities: Mather powers' origin are unknown (probably they were granted to him by the Dark Rider). Mather could sense and find magic beings, project his voice (or thoughts) at very long distances, control and command other's will by touching them or hitting them with the fire shot from his wooden cross. Mather seemed stronger than a normal human. Mather used a wooden cross as weapon. The cross could shoot a "purifying" fire, not burning things, but strong enough to hurt Spider-Man and drive the Vision off. The fire also allowed him to control Scarlet Witch's will.


A little more image-friendly tribute came in the form of the 1990’s Austin, Texas band Cotton Mather.  The alt/pop band became an underground sensation particularly in England with the release of their self-produced album Kontiki.   It was re-released in 2012.  Here’s promo for it.