I only had the vaguest sense of the Puritan origins of Massachusetts when I moved here from out of state. In my search for Northampton’s queer past, I have become more and more astounded that from a foundation of severe social constraint this Commonwealth has moved to become a national leader in gay rights and same-sex marriage. It’s as though, even as Puritanism and capitalism seems to still prevail, the state’s rebellious radical roots surface from time to time as well.
Among the colonies of Europeans trying to plant themselves on the east coast of this continent, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a reputation for extreme intolerance. While chartered by the King of England and under that law, the settlers were secretly religious radical separatists intent on establishing a new Eden, separate from the English Anglican Church, in which everyone belonged to a congregation based on the same ideologically “pure” Christian covenant.
Throughout much of Massachusetts, one sees remnants of this past in the frequent presence of the white spires of Congregational Churches, whose founding dates back to the origins of those towns, when the towns were not distinguished from religious congregations. The colonizers went beyond English law to form this new society by requiring every new plantation (as towns were often called) to be strictly organized around Church, State and Family. The church mandated attendance by all, whether townspeople were admitted members or not. Initially, only those men who were full Church members and property owners constituted town government, with a vote and the ability to serve in offices both in the town and in the government of the colony. Everyone had to live within extended family households headed by such patriarchs.
This congregational social form was reflected in the regulated development of each new plantation as specified in detail by the Colony’s government. The meeting house was built first in what would be the center of the community. It was used for both church and government meetings. All dwellings, in early Nonotuck/Northampton on four acre lots, were built within a half-mile walking distance of the meeting house. The commonly held land of woods, pasture and field surrounded this center.
From James Trumbull, History of Northampton. Historic Northampton’s digital map collection. The Meeting house was at the intersection of Main and King Streets. Its common was probably where punishment stocks were located and where this hanging may have taken place.
It’s hard to imagine how small, closed, and conformist early Nonotuck, as it was first called, would have been. While the founding fathers may have been as interested in establishing their own estates as in creating a religious community, they did follow the Puritan blueprint dictated by the colony. The settlers were a single congregation that literally built the town around the church.
Within it, individual behavior came under constant, but often unsuccessful, regulation. No one could settle or even visit for more than ten days without permission. From the beginning, no single persons were allowed to live alone, but had to be part of an established household monitored by a patriarch for “disorderly living.” As the plantation grew, tithingmen were appointed to regularly inspect ten to twelve neighboring households to enforce the Sabbath and the 9pm curfew. They were also on the alert for idleness and drinking.
Amongst such constraint and near constant oversight, the existence of people who we would today call gay, lesbian, queer, or transgressive in some way would have been severely challenged. Research in queer history, summarized in a recent post , demonstrates that same-sex eroticism and gender crossing existed from the very founding of the Massachusetts colonies. It is likely to have existed in Northampton as well, yet is still hidden history.
A standard source on the history of the early settlement is James Trumbull’s History of Northampton (1898), the first and largest published town history. There is only one major entry suggestive of queerness in this entire two-volume work: a mysterious hanging in 1676 in which neither the man nor his crime are named. Under the heading “First Capital Punishment in Northampton,” Trumbull quotes from the journal of Rev. Simon Bradstreet of New Haven:
“July 1676. A souldier in ye Garrison at Northampton in ye Collony, was hanged. * * * He was condemned by a councll of warre. He was about 25 or 26. He was but a stranger in this county, prest out against the Indians.”
Trumbull found no other reference to this hanging and remarks on the lack of facts, noting that “the crime must have been of a more than usually reprehensible character.”
from James Trumbull History of Northampton
I am left to wonder if this man was hung for sodomy, one of the Colony’s capital crimes. Although only one such execution has been discovered so far in Massachusetts, historians have suggested from records for all the eastern Colonies that sodomy was disproportionately punished by death. Such executions most often occurred during early colonization, within communities struggling to survive.
We do not know what form the execution took beyond it was a hanging. Here is an artist’s later interpretation of a hanging that took place that same year (1656) in Boston on the Commons of Ann Hibbins for witchcraft. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Hibbins#/media/File:ExecutionAnnHibbins1.jpg
Northampton had been established for barely twenty years and consisted of eighty households at the time of the hanging. It had also recently suffered both internal dissension and external threats. In the past year, the settlement had undergone witchcraft and sumptuary law trials. The conflict between displaced Indigenous people and settlers had been raging throughout New England. Just four months previous to the hanging the plantation had been attacked by five hundred Native Americans who had broken through the recently erected palisade, killing five settlers and burning ten buildings. The attack on Northampton was one of the last of the southern campaign of “King Phillip’s War,” and the reason militia from outside the area had been garrisoned in the settlement.
Although the judgement was reached by a “councll of warre,” it is very likely that Northampton militia officers, other settlement officials, and its minister Rev. Stoddard were part of the council. It is quite possible that Stoddard may have read a sermon published and widely circulated two years before on the sins of Sodom. Attributed to Boston’s Rev. Danforth, it urged the death penalty for sodomy and bestiality as a way to set an example for youth and avoid God’s vengeance on the community. Was the extreme measure a way for a settlement feeling under siege to placate a deity? The very lack of facts about the hanging suggests active censorship. Was this because the capital crime committed was “filth…not fit to be known in a public way,” so as to prevent further spread of the idea as a pathogen? We are left to wonder if Rev. Bradstreet simply didn’t know any more about this case or if he was one of those ministers who literally applied the injunction that it was “wickedness not to be named.”
If any early court records for Northampton exist, they still remain to be examined for similar obscuring language. Although Jonathan Edwards scholars have made a start, search needs to be done for the entire colonial period for any local examples of lesser offenses known to have prosecuted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that covered same-sex eroticism or gender crossing such as: “unchaste or lewd behavior, unseemly practices, uncleane carriage one with another, uncivell living together, licentiousness, lascivious speech, disorderly living” and improper dress.
__Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: a Documentary History. Meridian, 1992.
__Katz, Jonathan. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. Harper & Row, 1983; reprint NY: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
__[Boston] History Project. Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Beacon Press. Boston. 1998.
__ Haskins, G. L. Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts – A Study in Tradition and Design. Macdonald & Co.1960.
__Trumbull, James Russell. History of Northampton Massachusetts from its Settlement in 1654. Press of Gazette Printing Co. Northampton, Mass. Volume I, 1898. Volume II, 1902.
Available online: Volume one: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000004746782;view=1up;seq=11
__new perspective; Our Beloved Kin: Remapping a New History of the King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks, an interactive website. https://ourbelovedkin.com/awikhigan/index
__ McLain, Guy A. Pioneer Valley: a pictorial history. Virginia Beach, Va. Donning Co. 1991. By the Director of Wood Museum of Springfield History, it has an excellent essay on the largely exploitive economic relationship of the European settlers and the local indigenous people. Readily available in local libraries.