William Bradford: "Sodomy" and "Buggery," 1642


William Bradford (1590-1657)

"Things fearful to name"

In William Bradford's history of the Plymouth Colony (unpublished in his lifetime), he commented on an outbreak in 1642 of sodomy, bestiality, fornication, adultery, and rape.(1)

After discussing the Humfry case (discussed on the previous page). Bradford marveled that "wickedness did grow and break forth" in New England, a land where wickedness was so much spoken against, investigated, and severely punished, "as in no place more." Even "moderate and good men" had censured New Englanders for their "severity in punishments."

But all the orations against wickedness, and the strict punishments accorded it, "could not suppress the breaking out," that year and others, of various "notorious sins . . , especially drunkenness and uncleanness." Bradford referred not only to "incontinency" between married persons, but to "that which is worse"--even "sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name)" -- had "broke forth in this land oftener than once."

Bradford suggested that such crimes might originate in "our corrupt natures, which are so hardly bridled, subdued and mortified."

A more specific reason for such outbreaks might be that "the Devil" was more spiteful against New England churches because they tried harder than others to preserve holiness and purity, and punish sin. Perhaps the Devil was trying to "cast a blemish and stain" upon New Englanders for their virtues; Bradford would rather think that than believe that "Satan" had "more power in these heathen lands" than in more thoroughly Christian nations.

Bradford also suggested that in New England "wickedness being more stopped by strict laws," and so closely looked into, was like "waters when their streams are ... dammed up." When such dams broke, the waters previously held back "flow with more violence and make more noise and disturbance than when they are suffered to run quietly in their own channels."(2) Bradford thus speculated that the strict suppression of sin caused it to break out in especially violent forms, that repression caused violent sexual expressions--a suggestion surprising to find in the words of an early Puritan.(3)

Bradford did not think the discovery of wickedness in New England indicated the presence of more sin there than elsewhere. He did think that evils were more likely to be made public in New England by strict magistrates and by churches which "look narrowly to their members." In other places, with larger populations, "many horrible evils" were never discovered, whereas in relatively little populated New England, they were "brought into the light," and "made conspicuous to all."

Bradford described the case of Thomas Granger, a teen-ager executed, in September 1642, for buggery with "a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey." Granger, and an individual who "had made some sodomitical attempts upon another," were questioned about "how they came first to theknowledge and practice of such wickedness."(4) The sodomitical individual "confessed he had long used it [the practice] in Old England." Granger "said he was taught it [bestiality] by another that had heard of such things from some in England when he was there, and they kept cattle together." This indicated, Bradford said, "how one wicked person may infect the many." He therefore advised masters to take great care about "what servants they bring into their families."(5)

It might be asked, said Bradford, how "so many wicked persons and profane people should so quickly come over into this land and mix themselves among us" --"us" being those "religious men that began the work," who "came for religion's sake."

Bradford answered that wherever the Lord sowed good seed the "envious man" will try to sow bad.

Second, in the American wilderness "much labor and service," much "building and planting" was necessary. and "many untoward servants . . . were thus brought over, both men and womenkind"; these eventually founded their own families and multiplied (presumably increasing the numbers of "untoward" children).

Third, and "a main reason," said Bradford, "some began to make a trade" of shipping passengers to America; these traders, to "advance their profit," did not care whom they transported as long as their passengers "had money to pay them." And "by this means the country became pestered with many unworthy persons."(6)

Finally, a "mixed multitude" came into the American wilderness, some being sent with the "hope that they would be made better," others so that they would be "kept from shame at home." Such persons "would necessarily follow their dissolute courses" in the New World. Thus, Bradford concluded, in the twenty years since the first truly pious settlers had arrived, the colonial population had perhaps grown "the worser." (7)



  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 86-87, citing Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, pp.316-22.
  2. Bradford, Of Plymouth, p. 316.
  3. Bradford's positing a hydraulic theory of lust--that its damming up (or repression) causes it to break out in even stronger waves--indicates that this idea is by no means new, radical, or an invention of Freud's, but is an old, middle-class ideology of eros. For a discussion of the "hydraulic theory of sexuality" see Jeffrey Weeks, "Discourse, Desire and Sexual Deviance: Some Problems in a History of Homosexuality," in Kenneth Plummer, ed., The Making of the Modern Homosexual (London: Hutchinson, 1981), p. 97.
  4. Probably Edward Michell or Edward Preston; see 1642, March 1.
  5. Bradford, Of Plymouth, p. 321.
  6. Bradford, Of Plymouth, p. 321.
  7. Bradford, Of Plymouth, p. 322.