1624: Richard Cornish is executed in Virginia for alleged homosexual acts with
a servant. |
European colonial governments sought to control the sexual behavior of the people within their settlements. The British, French, and Spanish all passed laws regarding sex outside of marriage and "sodomy" - a range of same-sex sexual activities. In early British colonies, as under English law, sodomy was a capital crime (punishable by death). One of the earliest recorded convictions for sodomy in the colonies was that of Richard Cornish, a sea captain executed in Virginia for an alleged sexual assault on another man.
Colonial authorities were not always certain which sexual acts fell under the category of "sodomy." Religious leaders debated the point in the early 1600s, and the laws adopted by different colonies varied in what specific acts were punishable by death. Most only dealt with sexual acts between men. One law also covered sexual activity between women. Despite the severity of the laws, however, we know of only a few instances of executions in sodomy cases during the colonial period. People were more likely to be tried for the lesser offense of "lewd behavior," which did not incur the death penalty. Sodomy was a difficult charge to prove - two witnesses were required, and there was no possibility of a tell-tale pregnancy - and people may have been reluctant to place their neighbors' lives in jeopardy with such a dire accusation. Today, 19 states still have sodomy laws on the books (most of which cover both heterosexual and homosexual acts).