Sodomy Case: Cornish Executed, Virginia, c. 1624-1625

"Hanged for a rascally boy wrongfully"

About 1625 a ship's master, Richard Cornish, was executed in the Virginia Colony for an alleged sexual attack on one of his male stewards, a crime that Cornish's brother later denied. One witness claimed: "The Master would have buggered" the steward. Cornish's brother said his relative was "hanged for a rascally boy wrongfully."(1)

The testimony against Cornish, and reports of his brother's defense, are recorded in the surviving Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, from November 30, 1624 through February 6, 1626.

The Council and General Court that executed Richard Cornish was the ruling body of the Virginia Colony. As historian Edmund S. Morgan points out, the Council

consisted almost entirely of the men holding large numbers of servants.... These men, with a more than average interest in controlling the labor force, were thus enabled to maintain their personal ascendancy not only over their servants but over all lesser men.(2)

Council members met every challenge to their authority with the rigor of an absolute government. As these documents suggest, the execution of Richard Cornish was intricately involved with colonial class politics.

In the following texts from the Virginia Council Minutes punctuation, abbreviations, and old English spellings have been edited, spelled out in full, modernized, and regularized for clarity in reading; quotation marks have been added; nothing of substance is changed. The old English "Richard Williams als Cornush" has been translated as "Richard Williams also Cornish" following the definition of "als" in the Oxford English Dictionary. The major testimony in the case follows.

Couse's Testimony

William Couse [or Cowse], aged 29 years or thereabouts, sworn and examined sayeth, that the 27th day of August last, past about one or 2 of the clock in the afternoon, being aboard the good ship called the Ambrose, then riding at anchor in James River, Richard Williams, also [known as] Cornish, master of the said ship called the Ambrose, being then in drink, called to this examinee to lay a clean pair of sheet into his bed, which this examinee did, and the said [Richard] Williams went into the bed, and would have this examinee come into the bed to him, which this examinee refusing to do, the said Richard Williams went out of the bed and did cut this examinee's cod piece . . , and made this examinee unready [unsteady?], and made him go into the bed, and then the said Williams also Cornish went into the bed to him, and there lay upon him, and kissed him and hugged him, saying that he would love this examinee if he would now and then come and lay with him, and so by force he turned this examinee upon his belly, and so did put this examinee to pain in the fundament, and did wet him, and after did call for a napkin which this examinee did bring unto him, and [Cornish did] sayeth that there was but one man aboard the ship, which was Walter Mathew, the boatswain's mate, being [passage missing]. And further sayeth that he was for 3 or 4 days after, and that after this, the next day after, in the morning, the said Williams also Cornish said to this examinee, "Though [I did] play the fool with you yesterday, make no wonder." Further he sayeth that after this, many times, he [Cornish] would put his hands in this examinee's cod piece and played [with him] and kissed him, saying to this examinee that he would have brought them [sic] to sea with him, if he had [passage missing] him, that would have played with him. And after this examinee being called and refusing to go he ... [took?] him before the mast and forbade all the ship's company to eat with him, and made this examinee cook for all the rest.(3)

Mathew's Testimony

Walter Mathew, sworn and examined sayeth, that [he] being in the storage room in William Cowse's cabin, the master called the boy [Cowse] into his bed cabin, both being locked in the great cabin. . . . William Cowse replied that he would not--saying further that, if he did so, it would be an overthrow to him both in soul and body, and alleged the scripture to him [the master]. But of what it was that the Master did urge him to [do] he [Mathew] knoweth not, nor heard not the boy [Cowse] cry out for help after this. This examinee went forth of his cabin upon the deck and heard no more, but when William Cowse came forth of the cabin this examinee asked him what the matter was between the Master and him. . . . [Cowse] replied he would keep that to himself till he came into England, but after told this examinee that the Master would have buggered him, or to that effect, but did not confess that the Master did the fact.(4)

The above testimony resulted in Richard Cornish's execution. After this the Virginia Court called several witnesses to an incident in Canada in which Cornish's brother, Jeffery, had sworn revenge for his relative's death--the injustice of which one, Edward Nevell, reportedly emphasized.

Roe's Testimony

Nicholas Roe sworn and examined sayeth that he remembereth at Canada, being at Dambrell's Cove, Jeffery Cornish came aboard the ship called the Swan and demanded [of] this deponent the cause of his brother's execution, saying that [he] hath been told his brother was put to death wrongfully, and that he would be revenged of them that were the occasion of it. And further sayeth that whilst Jeffery Cornish and this examinee were in talk, Mr. Nevell came in [the] place and told the said Jeffery Cornish that he was at the trial of his brother, and at his execution also, and that he would say more concerning his execution than this deponent could do, after which this deponent was called down into the hold, so that what other conversation was betwixt them-concerning that he knoweth not. The said Cornish and Nevell remaining upon the deck talking together--and more he cannot depose.(5)

Giles' Testimony

John Giles sworn and examined sayeth that he heard Jeffery Cornish swear and say that he would be the cause of the death of those that were the cause of putting his brother to death, this deponent being aboard their own ship called the Swan, ... but that Edward Nevell or another told the said Cornish he was put to death wrongfully, he cannot say.(6)

Knollinge's Testimony

Christopher Knollinge sworn and examined sayeth, that being ashore at Dambrells Cove in Canada, Jeffery Cornish came unto him, and demanded of him what he could say concerning his brother being put to death, saying that some of [those aboard] the Swan should tell him that his brother was put to death wrongfully, and [J. Cornish] said that he would spend his blood for his brother, to be revenged of them that did it, but this deponent, asking the said [J.] Cornish who told him so [that his brother was wrongfully executed], he [J. Cornish] refused to tell him, and more he cannot say.(7)

Foster's Testimony

William Foster, sworn and examined sayeth, that he, this deponent, demanded of Mr. Nevell at Canada, being aboard the Swan, wherefore Mr. [Richard] Cornish was hanged, unto whom Nevell answered, and said, "he was hanged for a rascally boy wrongfully," and that he [Foster] hath heard Mr. Nevell say so divers times."(8)

Crispe's Testimony

Thomas Crispe, gentleman, by the oath he hath formerly taken, affirmeth that Jeffery Cornish did say that Edward Nevell should tell him that his brother suffered death wrongfully, and the said Thomas Crispe wished the said Jeffery Cornish to take heed what he said, for sure the Governor would do no wrong or injustice to any man; for that he [Jeffery Cornish] shall be answerable for what he doth. Thereupon the said Jeffery Cornish did vow that he would be the death of the Governor if ever he came for England.(9)

Avelinge's Testimony

Arthur Avelinge, sworn and examined sayeth, that he being at Dambrells Cove in Canada aboard the Swan, one who come aboard asked Mr. Nevell wherefore Mr. [Richard] Cornish was put to death. Then Edward Nevell answered "he was put to death through a scurvy boy's means, and no other came against him." Then the other men replied, "I have ill luck my brother should come to such an end."(10)

The Court's First Order

It is ordered that Edward Nevell for his offence shall stand on the pillory with a paper on his head showing the cause of his offence in the market place, and to lose both his ears, and to serve the Colony for a year, and forever to be incapable to be a freeman of the country.(11)

Several witnesses testify to another, later incident, this time at Edward Fisher's house in the Virginia Colony, involving dissensioh over Richard Cornish's execution.

Hickmote's Testimony

James Hickmote, sworn and examined sayeth, that one Saturday night, being the fourth of February, 1625, being at the house of Edward Fisher in James City, one Peter Marten being in company and falling in talk concerning Richard Williams also Cornish that was executed for buggery, the said Marten then commending the said Cornish for an excellent mariner and skillful artist. Thomas Hatch, being also in company, said that in his conscience he thought the said Cornish was put to death wrongfully, whereupon this deponent [James Hickmote] said, "You were best take heed what you say, you have a precedent before your eyes the other day, and it will cost you your ears if you say such words." To which the said Thomas Hatch replied, "I care not for my ears, letthem hang me if they will."(12)

Fisher's Testimony

Sara Fisher the wife of Edward Fisher sworn and examined affirmeth as much as Mr. James Hickmote hath upon his oath formerly delivered. Anthony Jonnes sworn and examined sayeth that he heard Thomas Hatch say that Richard Cornish was put to death wrongfully, and that he did not care for his ears.(13)

The Court's Second Order

It is ordered that Thomas Hatch for his offence shall be whipped from the fort to the gallows and from thence be whipped back again, and be set upon the pillory and there to lose one of his ears, and that his service to Sir George Yardly for seven years shall begin from the present day, according to the condition of the duty boys, he being one of them.(14)


  1. Adapted from Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (NY: Crowell, 1976), pp. 16-19, citing H. R. Mcllwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 1622-1632, 1670-1676 ... (Richmond: Colonial Press. 1924), pp. 34, 42, 78, 81, 83, 85. Katz thanks John D'Emilio for informing him of this document. This case is also briefly discussed in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), which adds a few details. The Minutes of this case were first printed with some useful footnotes in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography; see vol. 21, no. I (Jan. 1913), p. 91; n. 2 (Apr. 1913), p. 144. In 1913 the character and "details" of this case wese said to be "unprintable, even as part of an ancient record." Also see vol. 24, no. 3 (June 1916), pp. 243-45, etc. Footnote with data on Thomas Hatch and "Duty boys" vol. 25, no. 2 (Ap. 1917), p. 120. The full texts of this case were also reprinted in an appendix to Louis Crompton, "Homosexuals and the Death Penalty in Colonial America," Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 1, no. 3 (1976), pp 277-94. Cornish's execution was the subject of an apparently fictionalized, undocumented account, published in the gay press, an indication that gay history was of interest to a homosexual rights activist of the 1960s and 1970s: see Dick Leitch, "America's First Protest Movement: Gay Zap 1624,"Cay (N. Y.), vol. 4, no. 108 (Oct. 1973), pp. 11, 16,20, 22. Leitch claims Thomas Jefferson commented on this case, but when Jonathan Ned Katz was researching this case in the early 1970s he found no documentation of this. TIMELINE ENTRY: Some of the original documents in this case are reprinted on line in Rictor Norton, compiler. "The Trial of Richard Cornish." Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. See: Accessed March 25, 2008.
  2. Edmund S. Morgan, "The First American Boom: Virginia 1618 to 1630," William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2 (April 1971); p. 193.
  3. McIlwaine, p. 34.
  4. McIlwaine, p. 42. A passage in McIlwaine, on p. 47, adds: "It is ordered that William Cowse shall come up from Hog Island and here in Court to make choice of his master with whom he is willing to dwell with, either with Captain Weste or with Captain Hamer, with whom he hath already agreed." The manner of settling the state's fee for disposing of Richard Cornish is also discussed.
  5. McIlwaine, p. 78
  6. McIlwaine, p. 78
  7. McIlwaine, p. 78.
  8. McIlwaine, p. 8I.
  9. McIlwaine, p. 83. These Minutes add: "It is ordered that a warrant be sent for Richard Evans and Arthur Avelinge his man, to appear here at James City on Monday next ...."
  10. McIlwaine, p. 85
  11. McIlwaine, p. 85. These Minutes add: "Arthur Avelingeby the oath he hath formerly taken deposeth that William Barker read the warrant to him, where he by name was commanded to appear at James City and that after Robert Saben called the said deponent to come up with him according to the warrant, but he being Richard Evans servant, his said master answered he would see the warrant before he should come up. "It is ordered that Richard Evans for his offence in disobeying the Governor's command shall lie neck and heels 3 hours in the market place, and shall pay 100 weight of tobacco towards the building of the new bridges at Elizabeth City, and be put out of his place, except upon his good behavior Captain Tucker shall approve him hereafter."
  12. Mcllwaine, p. 93.
  13. Mcllwaine, p. 93.
  14. Mcllwaine, p. 93.