Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Unnatural Sex and the Puritans

I've been doing some research on my father's side of the family, and I've discovered that nearly all of them came not from New York, as I'd assumed, but from Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Most of them had left England by the mid-1600's, so I've been reading up on the Puritans and Pilgrims. One of the things I've found out is that they were appalled by unnatural sex.  By that phrase they meant everything except intercourse between a husband and wife.  Masturbation was condemned everywhere in New England and made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven.  Following the Bible, adultery and sodomy were capital crimes.

And so was bestiality, sex with animals and fowls.  In Albion's Seed:  Four British Folkways in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), David Hackett Fisher relates the case of George Spencer, a servant with only one eye in New Haven.  Spencer had been anything but a model servant, and when a sow gave birth to a piglet with only one eye, Spencer was accused of bestiality.  Under great pressure, Fisher relates, Spencer confessed, then recanted, confessed a second time, and then recanted again.

Two witnesses were required to convict him of bestiality, but the magistrates, determined to find him guilty, got around that inconvenient technicality.  The one-eyed piglet was admitted as one witness, and Spencer's confession was admitted as the other one, even though he'd recanted it.  Although Fischer is silent on this point, New England courts treating cases of bestiality followed the Biblical injunction of Leviticus: "And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast" (20:15), So both George Spencer and the sow would have been executed.

Fortunately for John Lawrence at his trial in 1677, the Court of Assistants in Cambridge was not willing to circumvent the required two witnesses for bestiality.  In Sex in Middlesex:  Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699, (Univ. of Mass. Press, 1986), Roger Thompson relates that John Lawrence was seen by Thomas Michelson between seven and eight in the morning "standing on a tree that lay along on the ground having his face towards his mares tail and his hand clasped about her Buttock."  After awhile, he deposed, Lawrence "turned the mares tayle on one side and then he again clasped his hands about her Buttocks as before and wrought with his body against hers."  But a second person near the scene, one Isaac Amsden, deposed that he was too far away to witness the act, so the case was dismissed.

Another notable case was that of Thomas Granger, a sixteen or seventeen year-old servant in Duxbury, one of the Pilgrim settlements in Massachusetts. William Bradford found it horrible to mention his case in his history, Of Plymouth Plantation, but he believed that the truth of history required it.  Granger was first seen copulating with a mare ("I forbear particulars," Bradford comments primly), and when he was examined on that topic, he confessed to buggery not only with the mare "at sundry times" but with "a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey" (Bk. II, Chapter 32).

Although Granger at first denied this charge, he eventually confessed to the entire court and was condemned to death.  But there was some difficulty in following Leviticus.  One sheep looked much like another, with the result Granger had to identify each one he'd had sex with: "whereas some of the sheep could not so well be known by his description of them, others with them were brought before him and he declared which were they and which were not."  On 8 September 1642, the executions took place: "first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face," and then Granger himself was executed.

Remarkable as these cases are, they seem far from typical.  Roger Thompson points out in Sex in Middlesex that only two men were executed for bestiality in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. (The one-eyed George Spencer lived in Connecticut.)  Thompson's meticulous study of town and court records led him to believe that most people in that county were as law abiding about sexuality as they were about other matters.  Not all inhabitants were members of the church, and not all church members were godly, but bestiality was not common.  In part, the occurrences we know about may have been the few ones in which the act was observed (as it was not in the case of George Spencer), and more perhaps may have taken place in private.  But many members of these communities believed that God was watching them--"God can see you in the dark" was a common warning--and might well punish all of them for the sins of the few.  So were they taught, and so they believed--at least for the greater part of the seventeenth century.  They were called to be communities of their brothers' keepers for the greater glory of God, and in that watchful context what they termed "abominations in the eyes of the Lord" accordingly would have been rare.