Here’s the wicked place this blog starts from. Most of Northampton’s queer history it is still missing, hidden until an informed search can be made of the town’s early documents. Thanks to the work of gay and lesbian historians, though, we have a lens through which to view that past in the knowledge that same-sex eroticism and cross-gender expression existed in Massachusetts from its very beginning. Jonathan Ned Katz provided the first book, Gay American History, in 1976. The first regional history, Improper Bostonians,was published by the [Boston} History Project, in 1998. Since then, an increasing amount of scholarship has provided greater detail and filled in many of the gaps in knowledge of New England’s queer past. What follows is a brief summary of 17th century Massachusetts deviant history. My intention is to provide a context for the founding of Northampton in 1654, and for both the expression and constraint of certain behaviors in the new plantation.
Higginson fleet 1629
In 1629, the newly patented Massachusetts Bay Company “sent divers ships over [from England] with about three hundred people.” Aboard the bark Talbot, Rev. Francis Higgeson wrote in his diary, “This day we examined 5 Sodomiticall boyes, which confessed their wickedness not to bee named. The fact was so foul we reserved them to be punished by the governor when we came to new England, who afterward sent them backe to the company to bee punished in ould England, as the crime deserved.”
When Thomas Hutchinson wrote the first history of Massachusetts, History of the Colony and Province, around 1760, he deliberately omitted these two sentences about “sodomy.” They were discovered in the handwritten manuscript and restored to the public record by historian Jonathan Katz. They give evidence of the struggle of the authorities to control same-sex eroticism from the very founding of the Colony.
References to the Biblical city of Sodom, which God destroyed for its sinfulness, are the source for the word “sodomy,” as the greatest sin of that community. However, Katz cautions that at the time the term “Sodomite” referred to any of Sodom’s sinful citizens and their whole array of vices, but rarely to persons guilty specifically and only of sodomy.
A year after the Talbot delivered its immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay, the man who was to become the Colony’s first Governor wrote an impassioned goodbye to a male friend before embarking from England with the next fleet of colonizers. In 1630, John Winthrop wrote to William Springe,”…I must needs tell you, my soul is knit to you, as the soul of Jonathan to David: were I now with you, I should bedew that sweet bosum with tears of affection…” The History Project discovered this letter and explains that masculine friendships were customary at the time. Such relationships allowed for open expressions of love as well as being “bed-fellows,” without the accusation of sodomy.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s authority, and that of the earlier established (1620) Plymouth Colony, was resisted by Europeans who had already settled here. Most notorious among them was Thomas Morton, who had set up his own Merrymount Colony near present day Quincy. The pagan, poet, and admirer of indigenous people was banished several times for challenging the Puritan monopoly in the area.
Morton had a successful trading post and agrarian colony run equitably with former indentured servants. Their celebration of May Day, with an 80 foot tall May pole, provided the Puritans with an excuse to crack down on their competitors. According to Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford, in 1628, Morton and other male settlers at Merrymount were guilty of “great licentiousness.” The men’s consorting with Indian women is mentioned along with what Bradford called worse practices associated with ancient Roman feasts. Bradford explained that “…sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name) have broken forth in this land oftener than once…” Plymouth militia chopped the Maypole down and arrested Morton, ultimately charging him with selling firearms to the Native Americans, and holding him for return to England.
A poetical interpretation of the Merrymount May pole celebration
The “worse practices” in the case of Thomas Morton may have referred to interracial sex. It could also be an oblique indication that the European men may have had intimate relationships, not only with Native American women, but with each other and/or Native American men. It is possible that the various groups of First People present in new England had very different attitudes toward same-sex intimacy and what we now call gender roles. Though no mention has yet been found in records from the eastern colonies for the Eastern Woodlands people, other early European explorers of the continent as well as later observers in the rest of the country discovered gender and sexual expression differing from the Europeans in at least 130 Native American societies. More exploration of First People from their own perspective needs to be done. Individuals crossed gender in dress, work, and speech as well as sexual activity. French explorers called the men a derogatory “ber dache”. There were also women who were gender variant.
In 1636, the Reverend John Cotton drafted the first set of laws for the Colony, which were based on the Old Testament. Under those crimes designated as capital, which were punishable by death, Cotton included “Unnatural filthiness, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls.” Cotton’s proposal wasn’t adopted, but is notable for his inclusion of women. Only New Haven Colony eventually included women in a similar statute as a capital offense.
When Northampton was settled in 1654, it came under the Body of Liberties, which were adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641. Article 8 in Capital Crimes quoted directly from the Old Testament, Leviticus 20:13: “If a man LYETH WITH MAN-KINDE as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination. They both shall surely be put to death.” A revision in 1648 added the stipulation: “except one who was forced or be under 14 years of age in which case he be severely punished.” This statute would stand until 1698, when “sodomy” was changed to “buggery,” grouped with bestiality, and the phrase “contrary to the very light of Nature” was added.
In 1983 in the Gay/Lesbian Almanac , Jonathan Katz compiled records of at least twenty legal cases in the eastern Colonies involving charges of “sodomy” or other erotic acts between men or between women from 1607 to 1740. Seven of these occurred in Massachusetts Colonies *. Within these twenty cases, there is good evidence of four men having been executed for “sodomy,” and two to four others may also have been. Only one has been found to occur in Massachusetts. Legal historian George Haskins speculates that a greater concern about non-procreative sexual acts occurred at the beginning of the colony because of the need for more laborers. He notes that passage of sodomy law and a cluster of sodomy, bestiality, and related cases in 1641-42 coincided with an economic depression, a halt in immigration, and the return of new colonists to England (or movement to other colonies), in part, because of the growing reputation of Massachusetts for intolerance.
Katz agrees that “sodomy” and other non-procreative crimes (including rape, bestiality, adultery, and masturbation) were considered to be, not only sins against the family and posterity, but also threats to the economic prosperity of the colony. Perhaps because prosecution of capital crimes required two witnesses, the colonial court records discovered by Katz indicate same-sex eroticism was most often punished as a lesser offense. These were variously charged as “unchaste or lewd behavior, unseemly practices, uncleane carriage one with another, uncivell living together, licentiousness, lascivious speech, and disorderly living.” Punishments included public repentance, fines, whipping, branding, disenfranchisement, and banishing.
Though cases are rarer and punished to a lesser degree, women were also included in this proscription. Katz found two court cases in the Massachusetts colonies and minister commentary from five New England ministers that made references to acts of women with women.
Three cases of cross-dressing in the 1600’s, two involving women wearing men’s clothing, hint at enough of a phenomena that the Massachusetts Colony passed a law in 1695 prohibiting the wearing of the clothes of the opposite sex.
Statutes concerning “sodomy,” and particularly some legal commentaries and trial records, are fairly explicit. Outside the courtroom, however, there is a marked reticence to be so frank, as though these actions, even the knowledge of them, were infectious. In addition to Rev. Higgeson’s “wickedness not to bee named” and Bradford’s “things fearful to name,” Katz documents instances in which “buggery” is referred to as a sin “amongst Christians not to be named,” and a note that the private confessions of some youths being tried were so filthy that they were “not fit to be known in a public way.” Katz observes that in Puritan Colonies , sodomitical impulse was not thought of as a sexuality or an identity, but as an inherent potential that could be drawn out of the fallen by bad example.
This, then, was the colonial culture that informed Northampton’s beginnings in 1654.
*Multiple Massachusetts colonies; Plymouth Colony founded 1620, Massachusetts Bay colony founded 1628, Maine Colony founded sometime 1640s, all three joined together under one charter as the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
Further reading online sources:
__Thomas Morton became a popular figure in American literature and his myth is hard to sort from the facts. Multiple online sources are available; http://ancientlights.org/morton.html
Morton’s account of the revels at Merrymont: http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/19-mor.html
The new English Canaan text https://archive.org/stream/newenglishcanaan00mort/newenglishcanaan00mort_djvu.txt
__An entry site for indigenous peoples queer history is chapter 17 of An Online Guide to LGBT History https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/pwh/index-am.asp#c17
__Bowen, Gary. “Transgendered Native Americans.” American Boyz. 1996. http://web.archive.org/web/20030213203638/http://www.amboyz.org/articles/native.html
__Parker, Wendy Susan. “the Berdache Spirit.” http://reconciliation.tripod.com/berdache.htm
_Multiple sources Native American gender variance: http://www.angelfire.com/on/otherwise/native.html
__Emmerson, Everett H. Letters from New England: the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629-1638. University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.
__Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: a Documentary History. Meridian, 1976. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/991788.Gay_American_History
__Katz, Jonathan. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. Harper & Row, 1983. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/766631.Gay_Lesbian_Almanac
__[Boston] History Project. Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Beacon Press. Boston. 1998. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/194550.Improper_Bostonians?ac=1&from_search=true
__ Haskins, G. L. Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts – A Study in Tradition and Design. Macdonald & Co.1960.
__Foster, Thomas A. Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. New York University Press. New York, New York. 2007. https://nyupress.org/books/9780814727508/
__D’Amelio, John and Freeman, Esther. Intimate Matters: a History of Sexuality in America. University of Chicago Press. 1988. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/I/bo14770063.html