The years from 1607 to 1783 constitute the founding era of what became the United States. In the early years of this era, in these American colonies, the penalty for sodomy was death, and a number of executions are documented. Why was sodomy, usually conceived of as anal intercourse between men, thought of as treason against the state, and punished so harshly? And what do we know of sexual and intimate relationships between women in these years, and the laws and responses to such intimacies?
This exhibit presents or references all the original documents that Jonathan Ned Katz collected in his books Gay American History (1976) and Gay/Lesbian Almanac (1983), and evidence discovered since.
According to Raymond Paternoster's Capital Punishment in America (1991), during the 1600s there were a total of five documented death sentences in the colonies for same‑sex sodomy during the 1600s, two each in Connecticut and New York, and one in Virginia. In addition, there was another prosecution in New York in which the records do not show disposition of the case. There were a total of 162 known death sentences carried out in all the colonies during the century, making the five known for same-sex sodomy about 3% of the total. The number of executions does not, of course, indicate the impact and effect of such executions.
According to the online Executions in the U.S. 1608-1987: The Espy File (which unfortunately does not document its sources) there were 10 known executions for sodomy or buggery (same-sex or different sex, human-human or human-beast, or act type unspecified) in the colonies between 1625 and 1674. One of those executions was in Virginia, two in New York, three in Massachusetts, and four in Connecticut. Between 1757 and 1801 there were five executions for sodomy or buggery. Three were in New Jersey, one in Pennsylvania, and one under Spanish law in California.
The site DeathPenalty.ProCon sites the Espy File as listing a total of 15 colonial-era executions for "sodomy/buggery/bestiality".
There are claims (not in the Espy File) of three more death sentences carried out for sodomy between 1692 and 1743 (one each in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Georgia.)
Marogt Canaday points out that of the ten death sentences passed by colonial courts, "almost all involved assault or human-animal sex.
The directors of OutHistory are interested in hearing of any further documentation of executions, as well as other colonial cases.
1 Raymond Paternoster, Capital Punishment in AmericaNew York: Lexington Books, 1991, page 4. Information accessed February 15, 2015 from: http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/introduction.htm#fn33
2 Accessed February 15, 2015 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/ESPYyear.pdf
3 Accessed February 15, 2015 from http://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004087
4 Accessed February 15, 2015 from: http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/introduction.htm#fn33
5 Margot Canaday, "We Colonials: Sodomy Laws in America", review of William Eskridge, Dishonorable Passions (Viking Adult, May 1, 2008), The Nation, September 22, 2008, accessed February 15, 2015 from: http://www.thenation.com/article/we-colonials-sodomy-laws-america
Jonathan Ned Katz