1649 Three Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On March 6 the General Court of Plymouth Plantation convened to dispose of a number of routine matters. It settled a child-custody case, directed the inhabitants of three towns to pay for the construction of a bridge, granted licenses to sell wine, and authorized payment of some witness fees. One colonist was charged with “letting … an Indian haue a gun” and two others with receiving stolen goods. Then came the case of Mary Hammon and Sara Norman of Yarmouth, who were accused of “leude behauior each with other vpon a bed"—in other words, committing a lesbian act.

The record, unlike in today’s highprofile sex cases, is imprecise about exactly what the defendants were doing. Certainly there was nothing unusual about two women sharing a bed; it would be centuries before Americans expected to have beds of their own. A later entry in the case mentions “diuers lasiuious speeches” but goes no further. Whatever they were up to, it must have been quite flagrant, because prosecutions for lesbian behavior were exceedingly rare. In fact, with the possible exception of a 1642 citation for “unseemly practices” between two maids, the Hammon-Norman incident was the only such recorded case in the history of the New England colonies.

For men, by contrast, sodomy was a capital crime, and executions were not unknown. Even in borderline cases an offender could be sentenced to be “whiped … & have one of his nostrills slit so high as may well be, & then to be seared, & kept in prison, till he bee fit … & then to be whiped again, & to have the other nostrill slit & seared.” But sodomy required bodily penetration and “effusion of seed,” and the same was true of the lesser crimes of adultery and fornication. Legally, if there was no male involved, there could be no sex. (This principle, which goes back to the ancient Hittites and the Talmud, would be widely observed in America—and most of the world—well into the twentieth century.) The two Yarmouth women could be punished for their conduct, but nowhere near as harshly as they would have been for a sex crime.

Circumstances point to Sara Norman as the one who instigated the affair. The General Court may have feared she would corrupt Mary Hammon, who was fifteen years old and just married. Sara was a mother, married for nine years to Hugh Norman (who had recently abandoned her), and apparently something of a femme fatale who ran with a loose crowd. In the fall of 1649 one Richard Berry accused her and a man named Teage Joanes of “sodomy & other vnclean practisses.” A few months later Berry recanted and was whipped. The case of Berry and Joanes is tantalizingly incomplete as well; later records reveal them to have been infamous libertines who were ordered to “part theire uncivell living together.”

Mary Hammon was “cleared with admonision” by the General Court. Sara Norman, who was held responsible for the “lasiuious speeches,” was ordered in October 1650 “to make a publick acknowlidgment” of her “vnchast behauior” and “take heed of such cariages for the future, lest her former cariage come in remembrance against her to make her punishment the greater.” This she evidently did, for there is no further mention of her or Hammon in the colonial records.

Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, writing at around the time Sara Norman was at her wildest, put a positive spin on the recent “breaking out of sundrie notorious sins” (some of which he described in detail) in his colony. Perhaps, he speculated, the devil was making especial efforts to corrupt the people of Plymouth because they were so virtuous. Alternatively, the colony’s vigilant pursuit of evil may have made it seem more common than it really was. In any case, he wrote, the prevalence of wickedness should “cause us to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupte natures, which are so hardly bridled, subdued, and mortified; nay, cannot by any other means but the powerful worke and grace of Gods spirite.”