Sex Lives of the Pilgrims: Girls Gone Wild, Gay Guys, An Orgy, Incest & Goodwives Chasing Native Men

Is that a musket on your shoulder, or…?

Puritanism,” said legendary wit H. L. Mencken, “is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Clearly, Mencken never pawed through the court record of Plymouth Colony‘s first generations of Pilgrims. In them, one finds eye-popping details of every imaginable sexual encounter. It’s enough to leave the most heathen of sinners gulping. Ultimately, it may perhaps prove that the greater the initial repression the greater the eventual expression.

But some of this stuff is enough to crack Plymouth Rock. Again.

One finds that the bedraggled band of fifty or so English and Dutch immigrants who got off the Mayflower with fear and malnutrition had little time or inclination for trouble. They were so desperately praying for help to survive  that the stability provided by their faith in God only emboldened their promise to live as purely as possible. As a previous General Society of Mayflower Descendants historian Eugene Aubrey Stratton makes clear through the original research and analysis of his book, Plymouth Colony: Its History and Its People, 1620-1691 (1986), however, ’twas not long before longing appeared.

Single Pilgrim girls were the most vulnerable to sex troubles.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent Puritan problem involved girls gone wild – who then got pregnant.

The first sign of pregnancy usually meant marriage, but if a new couple had a child a little too soon after the wedding, they were punished as retroactive sinners. That was the deal with one of the earliest records, in April 1633 when John and Joan Hewes were put in the public stockade after their pre-marital sex was figured out. Mayflower status offered no leniency. Even celebrity Pilgrim kid Peregrine White (the only child born on the ship), and his wife Sarah were fined after it was figured out they “fornicated” before marriage. After being found guilty of pre-marital “carnall copulation” Rebecca Alden (daughter of the famous Mayflower Pilgrim John Alden) and her husband Thomas Delano (ancestor of Franklin D. Roosevelt) were so humiliated they named the boy “Benoni,” Hebrew for “child of sorrow.”

More surprisingly are the instances of unwed mothers. When servant Dorothy Temple claimed her baby daddy had recently been hung, her master was ordered to support her and her “male bastard.” When he refused, he was put under house arrest. One of the court messengers ended up looking after Dorothy and son.

Missy Mary Churchill enjoyed sex with Mayflower son Thomas Doty so much in July of 1671 that she invited him a few more times – until her father’s friend Ephraim Tinkham unexpectedly dropped by. The older man got suspicious after nobody answered his knocks on the door. He walked in and heard some noises in another room when Mary came out to greet him. Old Eph knew something was up and sure enough young Tom emerged. Ephraim suggested he come out for a walk with him, when he warned Tom to stop his visits, “lest evil come from such carriages,” Stratton recorded. When Mary’s baby bump appeared, she was fined – by which time terrified Tom had fled the colony.

Whether adultery or single sex, Pilgrims hid it well – unless pregnancy resulted.

When Mary Sutton got pregnant by Joseph Booth, she suggested it was date rape. It freed her from having to marry the guy and raise the child as a single mother while Booth was still hit for child support. Other bad girls were doomed to old maidenhood without a shot at marrying the men who did them wrong, like Elizabeth Warren who was knocked up by Edward Doty – who was already married.

Wifely goodwives also got the itch, two of whom had attraction towards Native American Indian men.

At least two married Goodwives initiated affairs of the flesh with Native American men.

The married Mary Mendlove had “dalliance diverse tymes” with Tinsin the Indian, but it turned out that this respectable lady had been the one who seduced him through “allurement and inticement.” She got a routine whipping but also had to wear “a badge upon her sleeve” identifying her as an adulteress. And if she was seen without it, she was “to be burned in the face with a hott iron.” Meanwhile, Tinsin only got whipped. After also having her way with another naughty Native man, Mrs. William Tubbs got it worse – five shillings and thirty whippings, but he wasn’t fined or whipped.

Rape was rare but it was attempted. In one case, the married Anne Hudson accused Richard Turtall of “taking hold of her coate and inticing her by words, as alsoe by taking out his instrument of nature that hee might prevaile to lye with her in her owne house.” Incest was a grave crime. It was only because Lydia Fish’s accusation of being raped by her brother was based solely on her testimony, he was spared the death penalty. Although Catherine Winter was tried for incest with her father-in-law, the severity of the charge seemed to have been mitigated because they weren’t blood-related.

The Pilgrim courts had a diverse number of sexual crimes to process

Despite the Pilgrim’s world of male dominance, when it came to breaking sex laws women seemed to get a break now and then. One John Peck was fined fifty shillings because he had his way with a maid or, as the court record put it, “attempting the chastite of his fathers mayde to satisfy his fleshy, beastly lust…” Because the maid resisted she wasn’t charged.

If a married woman committed adultery part of the blame was pinned on her husband. When Katherine Aines was found to be fooling around with William Paule, her husband Alexander’s absence from home implied that he was, as Stratton put it, “exposing his wife to such temptations.” The two who messed around got whipped and had to sit in prison a bit – but the cuckolded Alex had to sit in the stockade and pay for Katherine’s court fees. In a different case, one husband was found guilty for not having sex with his wife.

At least one case involved sexual intimacy between two women.

There are also documented same-sex encounters, though Stratton points out that beyond homosexual sex it’s not evident if emotional bonds existed that make these analogous to modern definitions of “lesbian” and “gay.” Among the fewer accounts of women, the married Sarah Norman and Mary Hammon were accused of “leude behavior with each other upon a bed,” but the worst that came from it was that the court made her publicly confess to “unchaste behavior.”

Stratton suggests that the unknown degree of sexual intimacy between Pilgrim men make it difficult to compare to 21st sensibilities.

Only recently have historians focused on the August 1637 case of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts who were found guilty of “carriage one with another” and “by often spendinge their seede one upon another.” Since Alexander was “found to have beene formly notoriously guilty that way, and seeking to allure others thereunto,” he was whipped, burned on the shoulder and banished, but Thomas Roberts was only whipped. William Kersley was charged with “carriages towards men that he hath lyen withall,” but was later found to have married a woman.

Hands-down one of the wildest accounts involved a sex party with one babe, four dudes – and lots of complications. The scene was Hatch house where young miss Lydia Hatch seemed to be the instigator, with her brother Jonathan there for fun too. Joining them were Edward Mitchell, Edward Preston and John Keene.

The only woman with a party of four men – including her brother, Lydia Hatch’s secret party hit a hitch. One guy snitched.

First, Lydia wanted Ed Mitchell to “abuse her body,” but he was up for “lude and sodomiticall practices” with Ed Preston. Meanwhile, Ed Preston was “pressing” John Keene for some action. So Lydia first ended up in bed with her brother Jon while Ed Mitchell got it on with Ed Preston who gave up on John Keene “because he resisted the temptacon.” Finally, Lydia got to do her deed with Ed Mitchell. For participating in what wase the only Puritan orgy (at least the only one found out) the partiers ended up getting a run-of-the-mill whipping – all except for John Keene, who had ratted them all out, but was found “faulty” for watching it all.

After awhile, hearing about yet another popping Priscilla or two musketeers in the forest or a savage goodwife reduces the shock value. And within them all, no matter how judgmental they maintained their appearance, every adult colonist came to realize, if not accept, the vagaries of human nature. For, while they may have been Pilgrims and Puritans they were always really just human beings.

Certainly, there was one case that did seem to push things over the edge a bit. That was the September 1642 case of Thomas Graunger. He was a 16 year old servant boy in the home of Love Brewster where much of his work had him outside, tending to the crops and the animals.

In more ways than one – and with more than one, so it turns out.

The gig was up when one colonist spotted him in the act of penetration – on a mare.

And not all his victims were female.

The ensuing case brought out astounding revelations, Graunger being indicted “for buggery with a mare, a cowe, two goats, divers sheepe, two calves.”

There was one other beast with which young Graunger laid, most ironic on this Thanksgiving day, “…a turkey.”

No amount of shillings or whippings could fix this kid, the court declared. He was sentenced to be hung to death. Before being noosed at the gallows, he was asked where he’d learned such a practice. Granger told them. He “had long used it in England.”

Despite the pious ideal which they strived to honor, many Pilgrims still fell prey to human desires

Governor Bradford had led the Pilgrims away from England and its ungodly influences on the Mayflower with every hope of them creating a new Puritan world. So it was understandable that he became a bit wigged out about all this stuff going on. He knew the penalties were harsh – the steep shilling fees, humiliation in the public stockade and complete social ostracizing, the torturous whippings, the threat of hanging. “Yet all this could not suppress the breaking out of sundrie notorious sins….espetially drunkenness and unclainnes; not only incontinence betweene persons unmarried, for which many both men and women have been punished sharply enough, but some maried persons also. But that which is worse, even sodomie and bugerie, (things fearful to name), have broak forth in this land, oftener then once.”

Yup Governor, you got that right.

Here’s a great little video that sort of bridges the four hundred years between us and the Pilgrims:

 


Categories: Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Holidays, US Mythology

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8 replies »

  1. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked — right down to my instrument of nature!

    Brilliant Carl. You’ve certainly given me some dinner table conversation for tomorrow.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you my friend.

  2. I’m shaking to my boots here! [giggles] Wow, this kind of stuff cannot be found in traditional History books, huh? Some interesting topic for Thanksgiving dinner indeed! The video is really great! Thanks Carl, for another awesome piece of writing, provocative as ever (I use provocative here in the best possible sense, of course)! Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Sferrazza Anthony! :)

  3. The August 1837 case of John Alexander and Thomas Roberts — that wouldn’t have been in 1837, would it?

    Is that the right date? No pun intended on that, but I’ll let it stand.

  4. Wow! Carl…that took the starch out of my pilgrim collar! Everything was fair game even the turkey altho I was thankful for the video especially,like, uh,yah, when it was over! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Reading this particular article made me realize that the pilgrims clearly must have been frequently bored. After all, there was no internet, nor Netflix, nor smartphones. Thanks Carl for putting a whole new spin on the big buckle shoes crowd! Gobble, Gobble!

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