Gay Puritans in 17th century New Haven Colony were better off with money than without. Without wealth or social standing, they could go to the gallows for the crime of sodomy.
New Haven hanged three gay Puritans of low social status between 1646 and 1655. But a well-known gay Puritan escaped capital punishment because of his wealth and social standing.
Throughout the New England colonies, Puritans only executed those three for sodomy, according to historian Lawrence Goodheart.
Gay Puritans in New Haven
Puritans established New Haven Colony as a moral community that followed Biblical law. Sometimes that meant harsh punishment and unequal justice. Exposing sexual harassment got you whipped and disagreeing with a minister got you hauled into court.
Committing sodomy got you hanged.
The New Haven Puritans made ‘Sodomiticall filthinesse’ a capital crime, defining it as ‘carnal knowledge of another vessel than God in nature hath appointed to become one flesh.’
The first of the three gay Puritans to die for their sexual orientation was William Plaine, a married servant in New Guilford.
Theophilus Eaton, New Haven’s governor, consulted John Winthrop in Massachusetts about Plaine. Winthrop wrote in his journal that Plaine ‘corrupted a great parte of the youth of New Guilford by masturbation, which he had committed, and provoked others to the like, about 100 tymes.’
Plaine also questioned whether God exists. A hangman sent him to his death in New Haven in 1646.
Officials hanged another unnamed man for ‘unnatural filthiness’ in 1650.
The last of the gay Puritans to die on the gallows was John Knight. He had engaged in ‘filthyness in a sodomatical way’ with 14-year-old Peter Vinson and Mary Clark. Vinson and Clark received whippings for concealing evidence, and Knight died on the gallows in 1655. Puritan officials concluded he was ‘not fit to live among men.’
But another Puritan, widely acknowledged as gay, managed to escape hanging.
Puritan officials charged Nicholas Sension, a wealthy resident of Windsor, with sodomy in the 1640s and in the 1650s. But they never punished him.
One of his frequent partners also worked as his servant, Nathaniel Pond. Before his death in 1675, Pond feared punishment and begged his fellow servants to stay quiet about Sension’s flagrant behavior toward him.
But in 1677, 12 men said Sension had approached them and offered to pay for sex. Witnesses then spilled the beans about his relationship with Pond. Two saw him having sex with Pond, and one cited a creaking bed as evidence.
Two other servants said Sension had tried to rape them. Daniel Saxton woke one night to find his underclothes off and Sension on top of him. Another servant, Thomas Barber, woke to find that Sension ‘with his yard [sought] to enter my body.’ He fought him off.
A jury found Sension ‘hast most wickedly committed or at least attempted that Horible sin of sodomy.’ But he only received a whipping and a fine.
In contrast, Plymouth Colony to the north only whipped gay Puritans for sodomy. According to records, in 1637,
John Alexander & Thomas Roberts were both examined and found guilty of lewd behavior and unclean carriage one with another, by often spending their seed one upon another, which was proved both by witnesses & their own confession.
The court sentenced Alexander to a severe whipping, branding on the shoulder and banishment. Roberts, a servant, also received a severe whipping, but he returned to his master.
Massachusetts officials, too, seemed reluctant to execute gay Puritans. In 1629, for example, the ship Talbot arrived in Massachusetts. During the voyage from England, five ‘beastly Sodomiticall boyes … confessed their wickedness not to be named.’
The Puritan authorities sent the boys back to England.
With thanks to The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut by Lawrence B. Goodheart.
This story was updated in 2022.