These last few days of November sees the anniversaries of two events that were significant in the lgbt histories of their respective nations. In a few days I’ll cover the trial of the last men hanged for sodomy in England. Today I’m going to cover the first known trial of a man hanged for sodomy in the American colonies.
Today, when USA is
celebrating Thanksgiving, we look at the period around Thanksgiving 1624 in the
colony of Virginia. Most of the English colonies followed the laws of the home
country. As such they adopted the Buggery Act of 1533 which set down that
anyone found guilty of sodomy would be hanged. The definition of sodomy under
this act was any sexual act with a man, woman or animal which involved anal
intercourse. It was not an anti-gay law because it applied to everyone. Of the
162 known death sentences recorded in colonial court documents in the 17th
century there are 5 which deal with same-sex sodomy. The hanging of Richard
Cornish shortly after 3 January 1625 (or 1624 as it would have been regarded at
the time, because New Year was in March in those days) is the first recorded.
The trial of Richard
Cornish began on 30th November 1624 in the Council and General Court of
Virginia, presided over by the Governor of Virginia, Sir Francis Wyatt. An
accusation of sodomy and sexual assault was brought against Cornish by a fellow
mariner called William Couse.
William Couse was a
19-year-old crew member on board the merchant ship “Ambrose” of which Richard
Cornish was the Master. Couse testified that on the pervious 27th August Master
Cornish had sexually assaulted him in his cabin. The “Ambrose” was at anchor in
the James River. Master Cornish had been drinking and called for Couse to come
and put a pair of clean sheets on his bed in his cabin. Couse did so, and
Master Cornish climbed into bed and pleaded with young Couse to join him. Couse
refused. Master Cornish got out of bed and cut off Couse’s cod-piece. The
Master pushed him onto his bed and lay on top of him, kissing and hugging him,
and then raped him.
The next day Master
Cornish apologised to young William Couse, yet he continued to kiss him and
grab the teenager’s cod-piece on several later occasions. After Couse refused
further unwanted attention Master Cornish brought him up in front of the rest
of the ship’s crew and forbad any of them from eating with him. Couse was then
forced to cook meals for all of the crew.
Couse had intended to wait
until the ship had returned to England before making any accusation against
Master Cornish. Instead, perhaps due to Cornish’s persistent harassment, Couse
decided to take the matter up with the local authorities. Technically, such as
accusation would have been heard by the Admiralty back in England. Being such a
serious offence it isn’t likely that the Governor of Virginia himself was not
present to pass sentence.
The sentence of death by
hanging was inevitable. We don’t have a record of the exact date when Cornish
was hanged but it was after 3rd January 1625, when a fellow crew member gave
his testimony, and probably before 8th February 1625, when Couse was called to
help choose a new ship’s master for the Ambrose.
Of Richard Cornish himself
we know very little other than his occupation and the manner of his death. He
was also known by the name of Richard Williams. Naming conventions, even in the
17th century, were not fixed. The two names may indicate that he or his family
came from Cornwall. Cornwall had a very strong maritime tradition at the time,
and Williams was a very common name. Perhaps there were two Richard Williams’
in the English navy and the surname Cornish was used to distinguish one from
the other. As a ship’s master Richard Cornish would have been older than the
19-year-old William Couse. We can assume that he was probably born before 1600.
We also know that Cornish had a brother (see below).
We know almost more about
the ship “Ambrose” than we do about its master. The “Ambrose” may be the same
ship that later became a colonist passenger ship, one of the Winthrop Fleet of
The case of Master Cornish
didn’t end with his death. Before the end of the year his brother Jeffrey
became involved in the aftermath of the execution.
Jeffrey Cornish was in
Virginia Colony during 1625. He discovered his brother’s fate and sought out
people who could help him to clear his brother’s name and reputation. He had
heard rumours that Richard has been put to death wrongly. At Dambrella Cove in
Canada (now called Damariscove Harbour Island not far from Portland, Maine;
Canada was a general name given at that time to the coast of New England)
Jeffrey boarded the ship “The Swan” where he had obviously been told he could
find someone who could shed more light on the matter. There Jeffrey spoke to
several men who knew about the case, even some who were present at his
brother’s trial and execution. Jeffrey swore revenge on all who had been
involved in his brother’s death, including the governor. Several witnesses
overheard crew members criticising the governor for ordering Master Cornish’s
execution, for which they were brought before the Governor’s Council and
General Court. Criticism of the governor was an offence and both crew members
were punished. One had both ears cut off and the other just one ear in addition
to other punishments. Jeffrey Cornish appears not to have been charged with any
offence and we know no more about him.
The case of Master Richard
Cornish languished in the archives until 1971 when historian Edward S. Morgan
used the case to illustrate the governance of Sir Francis Wyatt. From then on
it became part of lgbt heritage often referenced in lgbt articles and, more
Whether the execution of a
convicted rapist should be commemorated or not is a matter of opinion. Capital
punishment is not what I, personally, support, and I condemn the sentence of
the court but can’t condone the crime. Despite what his brother Jeffrey thought
there is no evidence that the case against Master Richard Cornish was