1644: Goodwife Cornish

2 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Maine,Massachusetts,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1644: Joost Schouten, LGBT VOC VIP

July 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1644, Joost Schouten, the able merchant and diplomat of the Dutch East India Company, “was strangled and burned to ashes in my presence in Batavia [Jakarta] because of his gruesome sodomy.”

That’s the report of Gijsbert Heeck who, like Scouten, left a noteworthy memoir. Heeck allowed that Schouten “was a man of unusual knowledge and extraordinary intellect,” but despite his gifts remained “in his heart … a hypocritical villain and seducer of many, secretly using his prominence and great authority to force them away from the path of decency into the way of his shameful foulness, seeking thereby to satisfy his devilish lechery.”

Before all that devilish lechery stuff came to light, Joost Schouten (English Wikipedia link | Dutch) had enjoyed a brilliant two-decade career in the Far East, most notably in Siam. There, Schouten ingratiated himself with the Siamese king Prasat Thong,* winning lucrative trade concessions, personal honors, and a seat for himself on the East India Company’s executive organ, the Council of the Indies.

A report that Schouten initially wrote for that company surveying Siam’s geography, people, and politics was published in 1638 and translated into many tongues: he was the first general account of Siam for Europeans. While several others would follow (pdf) in the 17th century, Schouten’s Description remains an essential source for the period.

Schouten himself was no mere observer in the ferocious scramble for colonial position and trade leverage in East Asia. It’s for this august person that the explorer Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania) named Schouten Island (off the coast of Tasmania). That was on the voyage that Tasman undertook to circumnavigate Australia, and discover (for Europeans) New Zealand — a voyage outfitted by Joost Schouten. Given another decade, with Dutch commerce on the come, who knows what heights he might have attained.

But the envoy’s scintillating service record did him little good when a handsome French halberdier repulsed by Schouten’s advances entrapped him in June 1644. This was an offense the Company took incredibly seriously.

Schouten confessed the crime voluntarily, and the only consideration the judges showed him was a pre-burning mercy strangulation. Their verdict, according to Peter Boomgaard, evinced “fear for the punishing hand of God if those who ruled did not take drastic measures.” Schouten was an educated man; indeed, he himself had been a judge. All the worse that, where he had wrought his best service for the Dutch Republic, he had also consciously invited its undoing in a hail of fire and brimstone.

One could, on the other hand, say that it was the Company itself that tempted divine wrath. After all, those in its service routinely spent months in overwhelmingly male environments: ships at sea, and trading outposts that were by now barred to European women. (Local women were a different story, of course.) Nor was Schouten’s particular stomping-grounds of Siam near as virulent in its attitude towards homoeroticism as the Calvinists back home; Schouten’s own travelogue noted that “their Priests, as well as many of the Gentry, are much given to Sodomy, that unnatural passion, being esteemed no sin, nor shameful thing amongst them.” Abroad on the blooming East, coinpurse bursting with the commerce of nations: it must have been a heady experience.

Whether coming around to the Siamese “esteem” or having nurtured it from the start, Schouten had, he said, indulged same-sex encounters** with some 19 different men since putting to sea from a return visit to the mother country in 1637. At least three of those partners — a boatswain’s mate, a soldier, and a burgher — were to their sorrow alive and conveniently identifiable in the Indies.

“Those who were known [to have taken part in his deeds] were, either with him, or later … smothered under water since they were unworthy to continue living among humans,” concluded our eyewitness Gijsbert Heeck. “Which is a fitting recompense and retribution for their gruesome life on earth. In the hereafter, however, the worst is still to come. But it is not for us to judge.”

* Prasat Thong, a law-and-order type, is alleged by the account of another 17th century Dutchman to have personally conducted some executions.

** Schouten, 40ish at his death, said that he was always the “passive” (penetrated) partner in these affairs with much younger men. (This, and all the text that follows it in the post, is also as per Boomgaard.)

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1644: Mary Latham and James Britton, adulterous lovers

3 comments March 21st, 2012 Headsman

One James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery, upon a law formerly made and published in print.

It was thus occasioned and discovered. This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends’ minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.

Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and fearful horror of conscience withal, he could not keep secret, but discovered this, and other the like with other women, and was forced to acknowledge the justice of God in that having often called others fools, etc., for confessing against themselves, he was now forced to do the like. The woman dwelt now in Plymouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was detected, etc., sent her to us.

Upon her examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house. It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull. And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.

The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it; and questioned the letter whether adultery was death by God’s law now.* This Britton had been a professor in England, but coming hither he opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness.

March 21 [1643/44*]. They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.

-John Winthrop‘s journals, specifically this volume

While Puritan courts were certainly known to execute for sexual transgressions, Mary and James appear to be the only documented case in the history of [what is now] the United States of an outright execution for adultery.**

The crime and the setting inevitably call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and indeed he would likely have known about this case from Winthrop’s journals.

There are, however, even more compelling parallel cases — which, if they do not end on the scaffold, are at least as dramatic from the standpoint of posterity.

The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:

We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A.”

Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, “Execution Done.” It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne’s novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor’s branding in a section titled “The Scarlet Letter.”

… the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor’s adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester’s plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor’s delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is “some three months old”.

It’s rather interesting to notice that in Latham and Britton’s case, even the judges who ultimately sentenced the lovers to die were overtly reluctant about doing so: the subtext of Winthrop’s narrative suggests to this reader that, had the pair not confessed, everyone would have been more than happy to use the “two witnesses” loophole to avoid noosing a concupiscent teenager stuck in a barren marriage. Whatever our caricature of them, Puritan elites too had some sense of proportionality about these things.

Even in Hawthorne, where the protagonist is punished only with public shaming, one of the crowd complains,

“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their won wives and daughters go astray.”

And they have, ever since.

Thanks to Laura James of the (alas) dormant true-crime blog CLEWS for bringing this case to our attention.

* 1643/44: England was observing the legal new year on March 25 at this point.

** See the Espy file.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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1644: Looters in conquered Beijing

1 comment April 25th, 2010 dogboy

The Shun Dynasty only lasted two months in China, but it still managed to find its way to these pages by deposing the ruling Ming Dynasty and setting the scene for the Q’ing Dynasty.

In the early 1500s, the Ming Dynasty significantly increased contact with Europe, and it immediately saw the value in exploited mineral wealth from the West. At the time, the government was having difficulty maintaining a currency with perceived value: paper money was a massive flop and standard copper coins could not be trusted. Something new was needed, and European silver was a quick and easy answer.

But the decision to move to silver coins backfired a century later, when a variety of converging factors cut the silver supply to China and caused a spike in the price of the metal. As a result, the economy sagged. In the mid-1640s, a drought also gripped the country, and the Ming government was in the unenviable position of watching over a collapsing nation. It didn’t help that the government was highly centralized, with almost all activity occurring in Beijing; a working regional governing mechanism may have allowed it to dig out of the hole, but with the rise of an elite class — and prospective officials seeking every opportunity to serve as close to the power center as possible — there was no hope of a savior once the emperor’s power waned.

Enter the Manchu.

(This is long.)

Originating in Northeast China and Southeast Siberia,* the Manchu occupied their own territory under a local khan. The Manchu army was building strength at the same time that the economic woes under Ming rule increased. While the Manchu originally considered themselves distinct from and superior to the Han Chinese, they made several legal concessions to match the social mores of those they ruled over which enhanced their credibility.

With the Ming Dynasty weakening, the Manchu saw their opportunity to move south.

But even as the Ming fought to repel those Manchu invaders, an internal insurrection was brewing under a man named Li Zu’cheng, an apprentice ironworker from Yan’an. The Chuang Wang (“Roaming King”, Li’s regnal name) was considered a savior of the common folk, even earning a widespread local song looking forward to the day he would arrive:

You’ll feed your mates,
You’ll dress your mates,
You’ll open wide your city gates.
When Prince Chuang arrives, there’ll be no more rates.

(Source)

Li had a strong foothold in the heart of the country, and he was persistent. More importantly, the Ming government was hemorrhaging cash to its frontiers. Eventually, the money began to dry up, and even the ministers within the Chongzhen Emperor’s circle saw the writing on the wall. By mid-March, the Manchus were known to be marching through nearly undefended lines; by mid-April, the treasury stopped paying its military entirely.

On April 24, with Li Zu’cheng at the city gates, Emperor Ch’ung Chen tried in vain to escape his own compound. In his wake, he left the corpse of the empress (suicide), the corpse of his daughter (killed by the drunken emperor in a rage), and a seriously injured crown princess (maimed by the drunken emperor). Having mowed through his family, the emperor joined his chief eunuch Wang Cheng’en, climbed atop a local hill, and, shortly after midnight on April 25, hanged himself.

Li Zu’cheng entered the city unopposed, the gates (as the ditty had promised) flung open for his invading army.

Government officials hid in an attempt to escape retribution, but Li’s forces were reportedly quite orderly and did not seek revenge. Instead, they marched slowly through the city, where many of the locals marked themselves as Shun-min, or subjects of Li’s Shun dynasty.

Looters and bandits, however, were not tolerated, and the well-disciplined force dispatched them quickly and without trial. Their bodies were put on display by nailing them to local streetposts, and by noon, the city was calm.

The Roaming King only managed to hold power for a few weeks before his army was swept away by the Manchus. Li Zu’cheng lived almost two more years on the run, still claiming his title of Emperor of Shaanxi as he fled the newly installed government. It would be several more years before the Manchu would retake Southern China,** but the Q’ing Dynasty would dominate China until the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.

* The Manchurians were technically Tungusic, a significant Chinese minority both then and now. The Manchu largely resisted integration into Han society until the latter half of the 19th century.

** Southern China remained, technically, a distinct entity called the Southern Ming Dynasty, south of the Huai River, until 1662.

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