OCTOBER 2: Lesbian Sex Punished in Plymouth (1650)

On this day in 1650, Sarah White
Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were convicted by the Plymouth Colony for “lewd
behavior with each other upon a bed.” It was one of the first acts of explicit
homophobia enacted against women in American history and the only piece of hard evidence
of sexual relations between women in the 17th century.

The statement of Sarah White Norman’s prosecution as taken from Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650 by Kenneth Borris. 

Little is known about the lives of
Sarah and Mary besides their court documents. What we do know is that Sarah was
married to a man named Hugh Norman in 1639 and that Mary was married to a man
named Benjamin Hammon in 1648. That same year, 1648, would eventually come to
change both women’s lives as it was the year Sarah’s daughter, Elizabeth, drowned
in a well, and the year that both women were charged by
the Plymouth Colony with “lewd behavior with each other upon a bed.” No historian
has yet to try and sketch out a narrative from these landmark events. Sarah was
quite a bit older than Mary, who was only 15-years-old in 1648, and therefore
she was the only one who had to stand trial. The Puritan community of Plymouth
was much stricter and defined in their laws against sexual impropriety, unlike
their homeland of England which only sought to punish “sodomy” committed by men
and had little recognition for women’s sexuality at all in the time of the 17th century.

Sarah was prosecuted for her “lewd
behavior” and her husband fled back to England with their children, abandoning
her to face punishment in Plymouth alone. Her punishment, as handed down on
October 2, 1650, was to “make a public acknowledgement, so far as conveniently
may be, of her unchaste behavior” and to “take heed of such carriages for the
future, lest her former carriage come in remembrance against her to make her
punishment the greater.” Mary, who was below the colony’s age of discretion, was
able to slip by with a stern warning and went on to have many children with her
husband before being widowed in 1703. Sarah’s ends are unknown, although is it
believed that her husband and children died in poverty in England.

-LC

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