Sunday, November 21, 2010

Those Naughty Pilgrims

Thanksgiving is this week. Time to turn our thoughts to turkey and dressing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. The holiday also conjurs up images of the pilgrims at the dinner table looking all prim and proper. But what about those pious pilgrims? As with so much in life, there's the fa├žade and then there's the reality. :)

They certainly have a reputation for being a rigid and humorless group. But there are a few surprises to be found. Even though drunkenness was discouraged, beer was accepted as a drink by men, women, and children. The daily ration on the Mayflower was a gallon a day for each individual. Even sex was not taboo under the right circumstances. They had a matter-of-fact attitude about sex as long as it was between a married couple. It's when sex strayed from being the exclusive right between a married couple that the stories get interesting.

Studies by a group of anthropologists at the University of Virginia found that the pilgrims spent a great deal of time thinking about how to punish those with impure thoughts and actions. Studies also discovered that in 11 percent of the marriages at Plymouth Colony the bride was already pregnant. The same study estimates that as many as 50 percent of the pilgrims engaged in premarital sex. Definitely not an image that fits the staid pilgrims.

According to the Mayflower Compact, the colony was to establish laws based on Biblical teachings "for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith." The Old Testament book of Leviticus was the basis for most of their laws. Adultery? Death. A man has sex with his daughter-in-law? Death. Sodomy? Death. Bestiality? Death. Are you beginning to see a pattern? :)

But interestingly, the pilgrims did not typically enforce the death penalty for sex offenses. There was only one case in which the convicted offender was actually put to death for sex crimes. It was the case of Thomas Graunger, a teenage boy apparently at the peak of his raging hormones who sought satisfaction from any and all sources available to him…the farm animals.

According to Plymouth Governor William Bradford, "He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey."

Even though Thomas was the only one executed for a sex crime, punishments were routinely severe even with far lesser sex crimes and usually meant whippings, being put into the stocks, and fines.

Although not liberal in their thinking or lifestyle, the pilgrims were not as uptight as history would have us believe. They tried to create a strict religious society, but had an understanding and mercy unusual for their time. As time passed, intolerance grew and was reflected in their laws as demonstrated by the notorious Salem witch trials.

Men were not the only offenders in Plymouth colony. The prim women weren't always so pious either. Women were often caught with the evidence of their dalliances: babies. The records of the times are filled with one out-of-wedlock child after another. Babies showing up just a few months after marriage were also evidence of wrong doing. Pre-marital sex was severely punished. Fines were levied even for making passes, for appearing to have a "lascivious carriage" in public, or partying in mixed company at an unseemly time of night.

Sex outside marriage, even between two unmarried consenting adults, usually meant a whipping and fines. If the woman became pregnant, the man had to either marry her or pay for the child's upbringing. The man was usually placed in the stocks and whipped while the woman was made to watch. Sometimes mercy was granted as in the case of a servant, Jane Powell. Following years of hard servitude, she was destitute and had agreed to having sex in the hopes of marrying the man. Apparently the court found her plea convincing and she went unpunished.

Even though the pilgrims imposed strict punishment for crimes, they also understood human temptations. In 1656, Katheren Aines and William Paule were sentenced for committing adultery. William was whipped and forced to pay the costs of his imprisonment. Katheren was whipped, imprisoned and forced to wear a letter on her shoulder designating her as an adulteress. (Calling Nathaniel Hawthorne!) However, Katheren's husband, Alexander, was also punished. Alexander had left his family for some time and treated her badly during their marriage. The pilgrims viewed him as guilty of "exposing his wife to such temptations." Alexander was required to pay for his wife's imprisonment, and sit in the stocks while William and Katheren were whipped.

This Thanksgiving as you sit down to your turkey dinner, it might be a good idea to take a moment to be thankful you aren't a pilgrim. :)


Tess MacKall said...

And a turkey!!!!!!!!

Oh good lord.

But I think that death as punishment was not right, especially for a teenager. Heck, anybody.

Well, I guess all this just goes to show you that lust is a powerful thing. Two people will find each other against all odds---against all threats. And those were some pretty serious threats too.

I think I'm going to have a hard time stuffing the turkey this year. lol

Samantha Gentry said...

Tess: Yeah, talk about a kid with raging hormones! :)

They definitely had some pretty harsh punishments

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

I was just reading some comments on another place where they were talking about the current 'decline of morality.' How ignorant! I'm waiting for them to tell me when we had 'high morality.' They seem to think that it is only the invention of the internet that caused us to commit adultry and other such "immoral" doings. They are probably the people who 'hate history,' too!

Great blog.

Samantha Gentry said...

Anna: The internet allows anything and everything to be "common knowledge" within seconds, but there's not much out there that's actually new in the realm of morality and human behavior.

Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful info! Care to share any of your resource links?

Samantha Gentry said...

Liz: To tell you truthfully, this week's blog is a recycle of sections of a two part blog I did last year for Thanksgiving. All I had was last year's blogs and not where I originally got the information. Sorry I can't be of more help.

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you leaving a comment.