Colony Bay TV

The Travail of Sarah Pine — The Research Story

May 5, 2011 James Riley

Although “Courage, New Hampshire” as a project had its roots way back in 2003, it had several false starts. When I started back in again, in the summer of 2010, I turned to a new friend, Shelly Cavallaro, for help on the research front. Shelly works at one of the premiere 18th century document locations on the west coast
— The Huntington Library in San Marino, and you can tell it’s not just a job for her. She likes the detective, forensic reality of the work.

Now, I could listen to 18th century music and watch period maps fly by for five minutes at a time, but in the era of the Joel Surnow’s “24,” Wilson and I knew we had to tell a dramatic story. We had to have a problem right a way — a big, hairy dramatic problem — and we had to grab the audience by the neck and do some serious choking. I had made a study of British atrocities during the American Revolution, and one of the more vile primary documents I encountered was Lord Rawdon’s letter, making light of the rape of American women. Nothing, of course, seemed more dramatic than that, and we began to look into the pre-war criminal jurisprudence of New England.

SheehanWell, we actually spent a fair amount of time on the topic, including research on the story of Bryan Sheehen, who was executed for rape in 1772, after trials and reprieves lasting six months, before 12,000 people. There’s a lot of feminist clap-trap out there on the subject of American history and rape, namely that women didn’t have a chance in court, but the capital nature of the way colonials treated the crime speaks to the contrary reality: an 18th century woman could at least see her assailant executed — unlike the present day. There certainly wasn’t any indication, in the primary documents, that rape wasn’t taken very seriously as a crime, or that women suffered any more of a disadvantage than the victims of other crimes, where the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

As we began trying to craft a “Courage, New Hampshire” story around the subject of rape, however, my daughter Mallory began to worry that we really couldn’t introduce the township itself, in a pilot episode, against this utterly grim backdrop. We had been researching the topic for a while, so I resisted. We had actually gone so far in the research, that we were beginning to write the story, so it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Then I got to thinking about what I do when I’m browsing Netflix and I see a plot involving rape. I pass.

Along the way, we began reading stories about bastardy cases, many of which were tried by none other than John Adams himself, and I knew I could write a story about a family reality in colonial life that would: a) seem a bit exotic to the 21st century mind, b) have a lot of dramatic weight and c) have a chance at being redemptive.

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