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Pilgrims’ Retrogression

The Bible reminds us repeatedly that the descendants of Abraham had a very difficult time of it staying on the straight and narrow. Had they and their leaders not constantly fallen from grace, the Old Testament prophets would hardly have had any work for themselves and the entire Old Testament would have been a skinny little volume, indeed.

Such, we find, was also the case with those pious residents of the first English colony of the region that came to be known as New England. This shocking excerpt is from page 186 of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 New York Times bestseller, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War:

As the number of towns grew, the character of [Plymouth Colony] inevitably began to change, and from Governor [William] Bradford’s perspective, it was not for the good. The influx of newcomers made it increasingly difficult to ensure the colony’s moral purity. Even worse than the cases of premarital sex and adultery were, according to Bradford, those of “sodomy and buggery.” In 1642, seventeen-year-old Thomas Granger, a servant to “an honest man of Duxbury,” was convicted of having sexual relations with “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” Taking their lead from Leviticus, Bradford and his fellow magistrates executed Granger on September 8, 1642, but not until the boy had witnessed the killing of his animal paramours, which were all buried in a pit. Bradford speculated that “Satan hath more power in these heathen lands,” but he also feared that a pernicious complacency had infected the colony.

The passage begs a number of questions, and you might think of some that have not occurred to me. First, the author speaks of cases of “sodomy and buggery.” That would seem to be redundant. My dictionary has them as synonyms, both meaning unnatural sex. It seems that he is talking about male homosexuality and bestiality, respectively. Earlier in the book Philbrick wrote of the very great surplus of males to females in the colony, which would doubtless have resulted in that homosexuality problem. One would think that it would have been much more common than bestiality, but the only example of crime and punishment he provides is this one of bestiality. In addition, he says that the book of Leviticus was the colony’s guide for the punishment, but he doesn’t specify chapter and verse.

It appears that Philbrick is intentionally dancing around the homosexuality question. Chapter 20 is the relevant one of Leviticus for the case he describes. Indeed, 20:15 says, “If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he is to be put to death, and you must kill the animal.” But before that, at 20:13 we have: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

So, did the Plymouth Colony, which took the Bible very seriously, impose the death penalty for acts of homosexuality? As it turns out, there is a very good web site to answer the question, “Sexual Misconduct in Plymouth Colony,” by Lisa Lauria of the University of Virginia. We find there that Bradford was no doubt using the term “sodomy” to mean a male homosexual act and “buggery” as sex with an animal. And, consistent with Leviticus, sodomy was a capital offense in Plymouth Colony. However, they apparently never put anyone to death for it. The worst actual punishment described was severe whipping, branding, and banishment from the colony, all of one individual. In another case of sodomy involving three individuals, two of them were subjected to double whipping.

Since Bradford presided over a system inflicting such punishments for an activity that our current society not only condones, but celebrates, one must wonder if his statue, near Plymouth Rock, might be endangered in the current political climate.

Returning to the story of the unfortunate, libido-driven teenager, Granger, one has to wonder how they were able to put together a charge of such specificity. Certainly, none of his victims could testify against him, and had they been able to, considering what seems to be the manifestly unfair punishment that Leviticus prescribed for these unfortunate ones, it’s highly unlikely that they would have spilled the beans. The referenced web site actually has an answer to our question. Here it is laid out in Bradford’s own words:

He was first discovered by one that accidentally saw his lewd practice towards the mare. (I forbear particulars.) Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confessed the fact with that beast at that time, but sundry times before and at several times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictment. And this his free confession was not only in private to the magistrates (though at first he strived to deny it) but to sundry, both ministers and others; and afterwards, upon his indictment, to the whole Court and jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And 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. And accordingly he was cast by the jury and condemned, and after executed about the 8th of September, 1642. A very sad spectacle it was. For first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus xx.15; and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.

It should be noted that Leviticus does not require that the condemned human–females are not exempt from the punishment–witness the execution of the animals with whom he had been intimate. Did they think poor Granger might have developed a romantic attachment to his barnyard “paramours,” as Philbrick calls them, and thought that they might increase the pain of his punishment in this way? It’s almost enough to make me want to join a mob pulling Bradford’s statue down, especially when there was really nothing stopping them from winking at their capital punishment requirement in the same way they did in the homosexuality cases. Leviticus also does not require that the meat of the unfortunate animals be wasted as they were in this case. It must have been flush times for the colony.

Perhaps we should not be shocked and dismayed at the punishment meted out to young Granger. After all, a half century later 14 women and 5 men would be convicted and hanged at the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials and one man would be pressed to death and another five would die in jail.

As surprising as it might seem, almost every legal jurisdiction in the United States still treats bestiality as a crime. In fact, even more surprisingly, anti-bestiality laws have been on the rise over the past 20 years, according to Wikipedia. In Idaho and Michigan, you can even get life imprisonment for it. Apparently, as of yet, bestiality lacks a lobby to come to its defense, while the animal rights lobby, by contrast, is quite powerful. None of those laws prescribe Old Testament-style execution of the animal victims, after all.

From this writer’s perspective, it is hard to see why any such laws would be necessary. One would think that the risk of public exposure and humiliation, such as that implied in the punchline of “No Respect for Giuseppe,” would be sufficient discouragement from engaging in the activity.

David Martin

2 Thoughts to “Pilgrims’ Retrogression”

  1. Giuseppe

    I thought the pilgrims were English horse f*ckers, why are we picking on Italians?

    1. Sorry, Giuseppe, but I wrote the poem/joke well before I wrote the article, and that happens to be the joke as it was told to me, most hilariously, I might add, by a young Iranian-American friend of my sons. He does an Italian accent that I imagine you might find offensive, but it really broke the party up.

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