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And what better way to kick off this national revival than to answer the question everybody seated around the giblets and stuffing and space-age jellied cranberries has, but never asks: Did these people ever have sex? The question is understandable, though, because the Pilgrims have a reputation as a pretty dour bunch; if one moved in next door, you probably would not invite him to your next boozy leather 'n lace Halloween costume party. And, true to their reputation, they spent a lot of time thinking about how to punish lust, according to a remarkable online archive of texts and scholarly commentaries assembled by anthropologists at the University of Virginia, including James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, Christopher Fennell and Lisa M.
Though there was no formal criminal code at the time of the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of , everybody knew what was expected because they were intimate with the source of Pilgrim law, the Bible. To this day there are some in this country who believe sex laws should be Biblically based and many old sex laws still on the books are, in fact, taken almost straight out of the Bible , but even most social conservatives might balk at that. The Pilgrims, however, did not. Leviticus provided their guidance and that Old Testament book is not exactly nuanced.
Man has sex with his daughter-in-law? You get the picture. The laws of Plymouth Colony echo Leviticus. You could be sentenced to death for sodomy, rape, buggery and, for a time, adultery. Sodomy and buggery might be synonymous to us, but buggery apparently referred more to bestiality.
Some Christian preachers today quote Leviticus 20, approvingly arguing that both the Old and New Testament are the infallible word of God. And on his farm he had a sheep In practice, though, even the Pilgrims did not typically enforce death for sex.
In fact, only one person was put to death for a sex crime in the colony, poor Thomas Graunger, a teenage farm boy who, perhaps flush with the surge of hormones, turned to those he knew best. His story could make you look at the Thanksgiving turkey in a whole new way. I forbear particulars. Being upon it examined and committed, in the end he not only confessed the fact with that beast at that time, but sundry times before and at several times with all the rest of the forenamed in his indictment. As punishment, he was forced to watch all the animals killed.
At first, the court had a problem figuring out which sheep Thomas favored — sheep looking pretty much alike — but Thomas helpfully pointed out his sex partners. After being killed, they were buried in a pit, and then Thomas himself was hanged. Though Thomas was the only person executed for a sex crime, punishments were still brutal. Even for lesser crimes, like fornication, you could receive whippings, brandings, wearing a Hawthorne-esque scarlet letter, time in the stocks, fines and banishment.
Yet if court records are any indication, there was no shortage of colonists willing to tempt fate. Thomas Saddeler got the penal full house. Women were often caught with the evidence: babies. Babies showing up just a few months after marriage were also evidence of fornication. Premarital sex was punished severely. The court had no idea why Holman was going to visit Sherive or his wife or both? Hmm… but those who create sex bans often have the best imaginations. The Courts did attempt fair trials and some accused were found innocent. Sometimes punishments were skipped out of mercy.
Perhaps such mercy was a nod to human nature. Some were gay or bisexual. There were bad marriages, cheating wives, teenagers flooded with hormones. Life was complicated. We have an awful lot in common with the Pilgrims, including, among some of us, the unrealistic image of sexual propriety they bequeathed us. Keep that in mind as you gather around the turkey this Thanksgiving. Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and contributing editor for Glamour magazine, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.
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