Thursday, March 05, 2015

Sex Crimes in Colonial America

Adultery:  Adultery was a serious offense. The Puritans defined adultery as sex between a married woman and any man other than her husband.  A married man who strayed was only guilty of fornication. Adultery was punishable by death in seventeenth-century New England. New England courts would not convict, however, unless the evidence fully satisfied the standards of the law.  Courts could only convict if sex, specifically defined as intercourse, was verified by confession or the testimony of two witnesses.  Since there were few instances of transgressors being caught “in blazing offence” by two witnesses simultaneously those accused of adultery were rarely executed.  New England courts often found individuals accused of adultery “not guilty according to indictment” but nonetheless “guilty of lascivious, gross, and foul actions tending to adultery.”  The guilty were punished by a whipping, a fine, or having to wear (or be branded with) the letter “A.” By the eighteenth century the male involved in an adulterous affair could be prosecuted for abduction; a woman was not considered to have the power to consent—even to illicit sexual relations.

Bestiality:   Bestiality was a capital offense.  Some of those accused of bestiality came under suspicion after neighbors complained of the birth of animals with features similar to those of the defendant. One Thomas Hogg was accused of having sex with a sow after the birth of a piglet with features resembling his own. Hogg had frequently offended his neighbors by wearing torn breeches that left his genitals visible, “seeming thereby to endeavor the corrupting of others.” Hogg was also reputed to be a liar and a thief.  Hogg denied having carnal knowledge of pigs, and since there were no actual witnesses to his having been sexually intimate with animals, he was acquitted of bestiality.  He was, however, whipped for “his filthiness, lying, and pilfering,” and ordered to “be kept with a mean diet and hard labour, that his lusts may not be fed.”

Fornication.  The large numbers of indentured servants flooding into the colonies were forbidden to marry without the permission of their masters.  This consent was practically never given, because any resulting pregnancy would deprive the master of the woman’s work for which he had paid. Not surprisingly, the birth rate of illegitimate children among female indentured servants was much higher than that found among free women. In seventeenth-century Virginia the penalty for a female indentured servant having an illegitimate child was an extension of service for two years or a fine of two thousand pounds of tobacco. If the child was fathered by a black man, the penalty was a public whipping and another full term of indentured servitude.

Incest: Men convicted of incest were condemned to wear the letter “I” stitched to their clothing for the rest of their lives. The label was a public humiliation that served to protect the community but also to remind both the criminal and his neighbors of the heinous nature of the crime.  Jonathan Fairbanks of Massachusetts was punished in this way.  He was sentenced to be whipped with twenty lashes, to stand at the gallows for one hour, and to wear an “I” for the rest of is life.

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