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13 May 2024

A bloody American ancestry

Advancing through fear and violence, amassing wealth and power, the Blood dynasty embodied the untamed spirits of a young nation.

By John Banville

John Kaag has a knack of stumbling upon treasures. In a previous book, American Philosophy: A Love Story, he discovered in an old house in the New Hampshire woods a library of precious first editions, many of them by American philosophers of the 19th century who are among his intellectual heroes. In American Bloods – yes, as you might guess, Professor Kaag is himself an American – he unearths the history of a highly influential family from its roots in the north of England all across the United States, from the time of the first settlers up to the present day. The result is a thrilling and illuminating tale.

Kaag, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, lives in a house not far from the town of Concord, north-west of Boston and hard by Walden Pond. Concord was the birthplace of transcendentalism, that peculiarly American strain of individualist philosophy practised by, among others, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau.

The house in which Kaag and his family live was built in 1745 by one Josiah Blood and his wife, Sarah, and of a night its “warm lights”, Kaag tells us, “peek comfortingly through Tophet Swamp”. Local folk would surely need all the comfort and light to be had, for Tophet was the biblical site where the Canaanites burned their children alive as offerings to the god Moloch. One can see what was on the minds of those fearsome Puritans who first settled on the Eastern Seaboard of the North American continent; their God was no softie, either.

It is in the midst of Tophet Swamp that Kaag, out for a run one bleak November evening, encounters, to his deep consternation, a wolf. This creature is to be the malign mascot of his narrative, loping in repeatedly to remind us of the wild, often savage, origins of the United States.

Deeply shaken after the feral encounter at the aptly named Wolf Rock, Kaag, who had just moved himself and his family into the Blood house, is unable to sleep, and goes down to the living room, to pass the insomniac hours by unpacking cartons and clearing the place by morning. In the process, he discovers a secret room, and in the room “a stack of yellowing paper, an inch thick, bound with a rubber band”.

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What he has chanced on is a history of the Blood family, self-published in 1960, by one Richard Dane Harris, a narrative “sprawling, convoluted, borderline fantastic, riddled with more than five thousand names, all of them Bloods”. Kaag is immediately hooked.

He concedes that there are quite a few more famous American families, such as the Astors and the Roosevelts; the Bloods, however, “unlike many other more visible or iconic American dynasties, consistently, and with remarkable regularity, reveal a particular frontier ethos: their genealogy tracks what Henry David Thoreau called ‘wildness’, an original untamed spirit that would recede in the making of America, but never be extinguished entirely”.

The story begins, however, not on the shores of New England, but in, of all places, 16th-century Ireland, where members of the Blood family fought for England against the last of the great Irish lords, Hugh O’Neill of Ulster, and his almost successful challenge to Elizabethan rule. Here we meet Thomas Blood, who as Kaag wryly informs us “came by his thieving ways as honestly as any man could”. Thomas, a cousin to the earliest American Bloods, made himself notorious by various deeds, the most notable of which was the theft of the British crown jewels from the Tower of London.

This early section of the book is one of the most entertaining, in its swashbuckling sweep and dash. After the theft of the sparklers, Blood and his half-dozen henchmen were quickly captured. It would have been expected that the ringleader would lose his head for this crime against the state; instead, Charles II, the “Merry Monarch”, took a shine to the arch-thief, and granted him “a handsome pension and a place at the royal court”. Sometimes the wages of sin is triumph: Thomas Blood became a figure of legend.

By the time of his death, in 1680, the legend had become tarnished. The epitaph on his gravestone reads in part: “Here let him then by all unpitied lie, And let’s rejoice his time was come to die.” But there were those who believed it was all a trick, that Blood had staged his own death and fled to the New World, “a place”, Kaag writes, “more suited to his savagery”.

The book now moves on to Robert, John and James, the nephews of Thomas Blood. Born in Nottingham, they emigrated to Massachusetts in 1630, perhaps as part of the Winthrop Fleet that arrived in Salem in the summer of that year. By the end of the decade the settlers had made a pact with the indigenous peoples
of the area and founded the town of Concord.

It was in Concord that James Blood built a house, “a hulking grey clapboard colonial”, known now as the Old Manse, which was to become, Kaag writes, “one of the most iconic [buildings] in the history of American letters”. It was in an upstairs room of this house, 200 years later, that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the first drafts of his early book-length essay “Nature”, one of the foundational texts of transcendentalism.

For a Blood, “James was a very respectable man”, Kaag writes. His cousin Robert was of a very different type. He established Blood Farm, a four-square-mile tract of land stretching north from Concord, and consolidated his power by marrying the well-connected, and wealthy, Elizabeth Willard, whose family had been among the founders of Concord. By this union, the Blood dynasty was firmly established.

Robert Blood, whether he knew it or not, was a Hobbesian to the bone. The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes witnessed the savageries of the English Civil War that broke out in 1642, and learned hard lessons therefrom. The essence of his social theory is contained in a sentence quoted by Kaag: “The original of all great and lasting societies consists not in the mutual good will men had towards each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other.”

The fear, and the hatred, that drove the Bloods and their like was directed mainly towards the indigenous population. Concord and settlements like it, Kaag writes, “were regarded as near holy places for the simple reason that they provided rare safe havens from the godless horde that threatened to emerge with torches and tomahawks in the night”.

There was, of course, the other enemy: the British. And sure enough, when the time came to fight them, a Blood was in the thick of it. Thaddeus Blood, born in 1755, was among the minutemen who led the Battle of Concord, in which was fired what Emerson in a poem called “the shot heard round the world”, instituting the American Revolution. Fifty years later Emerson tried to persuade Thaddeus to describe the battle, but the old man was weary. “Leave me,” he said. “Leave me to my repose.” Old soldiers fade away…

It was not all Blood and thunder. The central chapter in Kaag’s book, “The Stargazer”, tells the story of Thaddeus’s son Perez. He was decidedly a man of peace, who lived with his two unmarried sisters and built an observatory in the woodshed to house his home-made telescope which he employed to interrogate the skies. Emerson and Thoreau visited the gentle dreamer, who believed, as Kaag beautifully writes, “that life was made of all that one chose not to ignore”.

American Bloods is a trove of fascinating stories. The family contributed much, for good and ill, to the forging of a nation, “succeeding and failing in all the quintessentially American ways”. In these pages you will meet the engineer Aretas Blood, thanks to whom “the age of electricity [began] in the United States”; James Harvey Blood, whom, Kaag admits, would have been forgotten had he not married Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for the US presidency; the mystic philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood, mentor to the great pragmatist philosopher William James; and a host of other members of this extraordinary family, fashioned so closely to the American grain, and vein.

American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation
John Kaag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288pp, £23.99

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[See also: What the Greeks teach us about suicide]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink