The Time a Pilgrim Was Executed for Having Sex with a Turkey
In 1642, as a wave of sin swept over the nearly prosperous colony of Plymouth, a man named Thomas Granger entered the history books in the most ignoble way imaginable.
Image via the Boston Public Library on Flickr
Now's the time of year when we hear a lot about the Pilgrims, those buckle-hat-wearing (not really) motherfuckers who crossed the Atlantic to colonize Plymouth, wound up making friends with the Native Americans, and blah blah blah that is why we have Thanksgiving.
You've probably already heard about how there were no turkeys at that first Thanksgiving in 1621. But you likely don't know about an especially grim episode that occurred 21 years later, in the midst of a colony-wide sin outbreak, when a man named Thomas Granger was executed for having sex with a number of animals, including the bird that would become the Thanksgiving mascot.
The story comes from Of Plymouth Plantation, a diary by Governor William Bradford that is the most complete and authoritative primary source from that period. Here's what Bradford wrote of Granger:
"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. Horrible it is to mention, but the truth of the history requires it."
Basically, someone walked in on Granger, a teenage servant, while he was engaged in "lewd practice towards the mare," and the young man eventually confessed to having sex with the horse regularly, along with several other farm animals.
Then, as now, bestiality was a serious crime. But back in 1642, the punishment was strange by modern standards: The authorities worked to determine which animals Granger had had sex with, then killed them in front of him before executing Granger himself. They then buried the animals, as opposed to eating them, because their bodies had been defiled. (This procedure was based off of the Bible passage Leviticus 20:15.)
"Just before this event, we have an account of two people accused of rape, but they were whipped rather than executed," said Peter Drummey, a historian who serves as the Stephen T. Riley Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society. "There certainly seems to be a disdain for executions," he added, which points to how extreme Granger's transgressions were considered to be.
Drummey added that the killing and burying of the animals would have been a hardship for the colonists and was therefore another indicator of how seriously this crime was viewed: "You're talking about an agricultural society. This slaughter of all the farm animals, that's a substantial economic sacrifice."
Life in the early American colonies was brutal and people died, like, all the time, over seemingly minor afflictions. In 1621, Bradford recorded, Plymouth's governor, John Carver, "came out of the field very sick, it being a hot day; he complained greatly of his head, and lay down, and within a few hours his senses failed, so as he never spake more till he died, which was within a few days after." That was how Bradford took over as governor.
The colony grew under Bradford, but by the time of Granger's sordid misdeeds, there was a sense that people were sliding into sin—even though breaking sexual taboos resulted in harsh punishments, people kept on breaking them. Bradford took this so seriously he even consulted with a trio of ministers to determine which sodomy crimes were worthy of the death penalty, how far an interrogator should go while attempting to extract a confession, and whether there are crimes where a single witness and a confession were sufficient rather than the then-traditional standard of two witnesses.
"Bradford lists it as why he sees [Granger's crime] as a decline of Plymouth Plantation," said Drummey. "Granger learned this from some other people who learned it in England. So here they are being tainted by the old world. There's a paradox. They're surviving and growing. They're successful but maybe not in the way they intended to be."
By worldly standards, the Plymouth Colony was doing great in 1642. Nearly half of the Pilgrims who set out from England had died by the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and of the 53 survivors, only four were adult women. But by 1641, the population of Plymouth had shot up to about 2,000 according to Plymouth Colony, Its History and People. Life in Plymouth had finally stabilized.
"And yet all this could not suppress [the] breaking out of sundry notorious sins, (as this year, besides other, gives us too many sad precedents and instances) especially drunkenness and uncleanliness; not only intercourse between persons unmarried, for which many both men and women have been punished sharply enough, but some married persons also," Bradford wrote at the beginning of the 1642 section of his book. "But that which is worse, even sodomy and buggery, (things fearful to name) have broke forth in this land, oftener then once."
Granger's acts were extreme, but there are other examples from that period of the Pilgrims stuffing more than just turkeys. Plymouth court records from 1642 tell the story of Edward Michell, who was accused of "lewd and sodomitical practices tending to sodomy with Edward Preston, and other lewd carriages with Lydia Hatch," who was also punished for sharing a bed with her brother. All this came to light because Preston apparently propositioned a man named John Keene, who turned him down and told the authorities. Keene was then ordered to watch while the two Edwards were whipped. Another, tamer, example of sexual wrongdoing was the case of John Casley and his fiancee, Alis, who were discovered to have had sex before their marriage; John was whipped while Alis was forced to look on from the stocks.
All this led Bradford to wonder if perhaps the Devil had more power in the New World than in European "Christian nations." He even considered that the Pilgrims' strict moral codes might be to blame for all the unlawful fornicating: "It may be in this case as it is with waters when their streams are stopped or dam̅ed up, when they get passage they flow with more violence, and make more noise and disturbance, then when they are suffered to run quietly in their own channels. So wickedness being here more stopped by strict laws, and the same more nearly looked unto, so as it cannot rune in a common road of liberty as it would, and is inclined, it searches everywhere, and at last breaks out where it gets vent."
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