Thursday 23 November 2017

From First to Last : First

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 1630.

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 recently, websites.

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 fabricated.

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