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How the Pilgrims shaped our sex lives

Even now, the Pilgrims' views still inform debate about sexuality in this country.
Kim Carney /
/ Source: contributor

We here at Sexploration have decided that the true meaning of Thanksgiving has become lost amid the annual Detroit Lions loss, the Macy’s parade and the midnight stampede into the nearest Wal-Mart. We’d like to see America return to quietly gathering with family and friends to remember our Pilgrim forefathers.

And what better way to kick off this national revival than to answer the question everybody seated around the giblets and stuffing and space-age jellied cranberries has, but never asks: Did these people ever have sex?

Of course they did. Babies were born and they didn’t pop out of the pumpkin pie.

The question is understandable, though, because the Pilgrims have a reputation as a pretty dour bunch; if one moved in next door, you probably would not invite him to your next boozy leather 'n lace Halloween costume party.

And, true to their reputation, they spent a lot of time thinking about how to punish lust, according to a remarkable online archive of texts and scholarly commentaries assembled by anthropologists at the University of Virginia, including James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, Christopher Fennell and Lisa M. Lauria.

Even now, the Pilgrims' views still inform debate about sexuality in this country.

Though there was no formal criminal code at the time of the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621, everybody knew what was expected because they were intimate with the source of Pilgrim law, the Bible. They were, after all, the religious right of their day, and they thought they had been guided to America and requested by God to establish laws based on Biblical teachings “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith" as the Mayflower Compact stated.

To this day there are some in this country who believe sex laws should be Biblically based (and many old sex laws still on the books are, in fact, taken almost straight out of the Bible), but even most social conservatives might balk at that. The Pilgrims, however, did not.

Leviticus provided their guidance and that Old Testament book is not exactly nuanced. Sodomy? Death. Bestiality? Death. Man has sex with his daughter-in-law? Death. Adultery? Death. You get the picture.

The laws of Plymouth Colony echo Leviticus. You could be sentenced to death for sodomy, rape, buggery and, for a time, adultery. (Sodomy and buggery might be synonymous to us, but buggery apparently referred more to bestiality.)

Some Christian preachers today quote Leviticus 20, approvingly arguing that both the Old and New Testament are the infallible word of God.

And on his farm he had a sheep...
In practice, though, even the Pilgrims did not typically enforce death for sex. In fact, only one person was put to death for a sex crime in the colony, poor Thomas Graunger, a teenage farm boy who, perhaps flush with the surge of hormones, turned to those he knew best. His story could make you look at the Thanksgiving turkey in a whole new way.

Governor William Bradford recounted the tale:

“He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey … 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.”

As punishment, he was forced to watch all the animals killed. At first, the court had a problem figuring out which sheep Thomas favored — sheep looking pretty much alike — but Thomas helpfully pointed out his sex partners. After being killed, they were buried in a pit, and then Thomas himself was hanged. If you wonder what the animals did to deserve it, Leviticus was cited by the court: “If a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast.”

Though Thomas was the only person executed for a sex crime, punishments were still brutal. Even for lesser crimes, like fornication, you could receive whippings, brandings, wearing a Hawthorne-esque scarlet letter, time in the stocks, fines and banishment. Yet if court records are any indication, there was no shortage of colonists willing to tempt fate. 

Thomas Saddeler got the penal full house. He was found guilty of sex with a mare and sentenced “to be severely whipped at the post, and to sit on the gallows with a rope about his neck during the pleasure of the Court, and to be branded in the forehead with a Roman P to signify his abominable pollution, and so to depart this government.”

The story of Plymouth’s sex life isn’t all men and horses. There were also men and men, and men and women, or at least that seems to have been Edward Michell’s theory. He was put on trial “for his lewd [and] sodomitical practices tending to sodomy with Edward Preston, and other lewd carriages with Lydia Hatch.” He was sentenced to be publicly whipped, first at Plymouth and then Barnstable.

Men were not the only offenders. The prim women weren't always so prim.

“Mary, the wife of Robert Mendame, of Duxborrow” was put on trial for “using dalliance diverse times with Tinsin, an Indian, and after committing the act of uncleanness with him … the Bench doth therefore censure the said Mary to be whipped at a cart’s tail through the town’s streets, and to wear a badge upon her left sleeve during her abroad within this government; and if she shall be found without it abroad, then to be burned in the face with a hot iron; and the said Tinsin, the Indian, to be well whipped with a halter about his neck at the post, because it arose through the allurement [and] enticement of the said Mary, that he was drawn thereunto.”

Women were often caught with the evidence: babies. The records are spotted with one bastard child after another or complaining husbands who can’t figure out just when the new son or daughter was conceived.

Babies showing up just a few months after marriage were also evidence of fornication. Premarital sex was punished severely. Thomas and Joane Pynson, a married couple, were found guilty of “incontinency before their marriage” so Thomas was whipped and Joane had to sit in the stocks.

Fines were levied even for making passes, for appearing to have a “lascivious carriage” in public, or partying in mixed company at an unseemly time of night.

“Whereas Edward Holman hath been observed to frequent the house of Thomas Sherive at unreasonable times of the night, and at other times, which is feared to be of ill consequence, The Court has therefore ordered, that the said Edward Holman be warned by the constable of Plymouth, that he henceforth do no more frequent or come at the house of the said Sherive, nor that the wife of the said Sherive do frequent the house or company of the said Holman, as either of them will answer it at their perils.”

The court had no idea why Holman was going to visit Sherive or his wife (or both? Hmm…) but those who create sex bans often have the best imaginations.

Give thanks
It wasn’t all severity at Plymouth. The Courts did attempt fair trials and some accused were found innocent. Sometimes punishments were skipped out of mercy.

Perhaps such mercy was a nod to human nature. After all, according to Lauria’s estimates, up to 50 percent of Plymouth colonists had premarital sex, despite the laws. Some were gay or bisexual. There were bad marriages, cheating wives, teenagers flooded with hormones. Life was complicated.

Does that sound familiar?

We have an awful lot in common with the Pilgrims, including, among some of us, the unrealistic image of sexual propriety they bequeathed us.

Keep that in mind as you gather around the turkey this Thanksgiving. And as you say grace, give thanks you weren’t one of them.

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and contributing editor for Glamour magazine, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.