The Scarlet Letter
The early colonies had laws which governed sexual behavior, some of which reached even into the marriage bed, though they were less likely to be stringently enforced over acts between married couples. Many if not most of these laws were derived directly from the King James Version of the Bible, specifically from the Book of Leviticus. In Plymouth Colony, a man was hanged for the crime of bestiality, which was confessed, and the animals involved and identified by the man killed as he watched before he was executed. The court specifically cited a verse from Leviticus at his sentencing, “If a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast.”
Crimes of a sexual nature which were considered less severe were nonetheless dealt with by the courts, which followed the laws defined in the Bible. The sex laws which evolved in New England, in particular, were based on the Bible because the founders of the first New England colony defined their mission in their first governing document, the Mayflower Compact. In that, they agreed that they had come to the New World “…for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.”
Despite Leviticus calling for death in the cases of incest, adultery, sodomy, and virtually every other act of a sexual nature not sanctioned by marriage between husband and wife, mercy often prevailed and lesser punishments were handed down. Punishments were designed to be a warning to the rest of the community, and as such were usually a humiliation to the punished. Whippings were common, as were a stint in the stocks, bearing a sign describing the transgression. Punishments were announced from both court and pulpit.
One married woman committed the crime of what court records called “the act of uncleanness” with an Indian by the name of Tinsin. The court ordered that she be whipped while pulled through town roped to an oxcart. She was further ordered to wear a badge on her sleeve, identifying her crime, whenever she appeared in public. If she were to be found in public without the badge, the emblem would be branded on her cheek. Tinsin’s punishment was less severe – he was whipped publicly while tied to a post by a neck halter – because the court found that he had been “enticed” into his crime.
Premarital sex was evident and punished as well. Firstborn children arriving prematurely were evidence of “incontinency before marriage” and as the evidence was divinely provided suitable punishment was necessary. The husband was typically whipped and the wife, now a mother, was usually given punishment via the stocks. As New England grew, punishments for sexual acts were less severe, but the laws remained on the books until the development of State Constitutions during the Revolutionary War. Many of the new laws were based on Leviticus as well.