In Puritan Times, A Teen Was Hanged For A Crime Judged Worse Than Murder

Illustration for article titled In Puritan Times, A Teen Was Hanged For A Crime Judged Worse Than Murder

Perhaps if young Thomas Granger had been more discreet, more circumspect, his name would have long since vanished in the mists of history. But in Puritan times, his unusual crime so offended his community that it warranted the harshest of punishments.


He was but a servant boy in the early days of Plymouth Colony, occupying the lowest socioeconomic rung in the New World. There were no recorded hints about his being a potential American Dick Whittington. He could expect to live a plain, unremarkable life, leaving behind the scantiest of records: a name on a ship’s passenger log, perhaps a brief note in a Bible recording a marriage and a crumbling gravestone in a colonial churchyard.

Each day, as he went about the menial tasks reserved for a lad of 16 or 17, he rubbed shoulders with the giants of his day: the Standishes, the Mathers, the Bradfords. For these men, every recorded move, every transcribed utterance would be eagerly dissected and debated by future generations of historians. Not Thomas. Save one reckless moment, Thomas would have been long since forgotten. His name would interest only amateur genealogists bearing the Granger surname and, briefly, one anonymous Mormon diligently carrying out his church’s divine mandate to baptize every person who ever lived.


But make his mark he did. Thomas Granger, mild-mannered servant lad, had the singular misfortune to go down in the history books as America’s first really naughty child. Other youngsters before him had violated the laws of both God and man. It was Thomas’s poor luck to be the first one caught red-handed in the commission of a capital crime.

Today, his deed would be but a minor offense. The worst he could expect would be probation and a few intensely embarrassing sessions with a psychologist. But to the Puritans, he was guilty of the vilest felony under Massachusetts law. The Founding Fathers saw no alternative but to elevate him to an obscure sort of immortality. Thomas Granger was the first Caucasian juvenile to be hanged in the New World.

The year was 1642. Young Thomas, like any normal teenage boy, seethed with lust. Hormones coursed through his veins; bawdy ballads and unmentionable fantasies filled his mind. It took only a glimpse of a trim feminine ankle or the sight of a carelessly revealed forearm to trigger intense, unnamable emotions and perverse desires in the randy lad. His dreams were undoubtedly white hot.

Tragically, his surroundings provided few outlets for his raging passions. From time immemorial, the number one complaint of teen boys everywhere has been sexual frustration. And Puritan Massachusetts, if not the worst time and place in American history for a fellow to get laid, must surely rank in the top ten. One can sympathize with Thomas and his fellow pimple-faced pubescents as they fought the battle between their primitive urges and their social mores against this bleak sexual landscape. It was a battle they had virtually no chance of winning; their only hope was to avoid detection by both God and man.


Thomas tried to be careful, stealthily confining his sins to quiet barnyards and remote fields far from prying Pilgrim eyes. There were no rumors, no gossip, no one to raise a voice against him as he surrendered and gave free reign to his passions. For weeks, months, perhaps a year, he went about his furtive practices undetected. But it came to an end suddenly one day when he was caught literally with his pants down. A colonist crossing a remote field stumbled across Thomas enthusiastically sodomizing a mare, no doubt as pornographic thoughts of a young strumpet named Eliza or Prudence filled his head.

Needless to say, such villainy had no chance of going unpunished. Once the stunned witness recovered his wits, he headed directly to the proper colonial authorities. A complaint was lodged. Thomas was detained. His days as a practicing zoophile were over.


At first, he vehemently denied the charges, but the magistrates persisted. No record survives of their methods for extracting the truth. But in the end, Thomas broke and made a clean breast of things. No doubt to ensure the salvation of what was left of his immortal soul, he told the entire shocking story.

Yes, he shame-facedly admitted to his inquisitors, it was true. He had engaged in immoral congress with the mare as accused. And it hadn’t been the first time, nor had the long-suffering mare been his sole victim. He had been introduced to the practice by a fellow farm worker who had many fond memories of his youth on a farm back in merry old England. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. As quills flew furiously across parchment, he freely described dozens of unnatural acts with all manner of animals. When he finished, he had implicated no less than a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey in addition to the mare. Unfortunately, the details of his crimes fell victim to the squeamishness of the times. His principal chronicler could only shudder when describing the indictment, writing “I forebear particulars.”


The court itself had no such reservations. They wanted to know it all. Mere detail wasn’t enough: they demanded that Thomas identify his erstwhile partners. The mare and the cows were easy. But the smaller animals would prove problematical. Despite the intimacy he had shared with them, Thomas was unable to describe them adequately. The authorities tried parading numerous sheep before the lad. But it was useless. Even to connoisseur like Thomas, all sheep looked alike. Apparently, they didn’t even try to track down the goats or the turkey.

Thomas repeated his confession to the ministers, and once more in open court for the edification of his undoubtedly horrified fellow colonists. It wasn’t the notion of a sex crime that they found so disturbing; a pair of men had paid a heavy fine the previous year for raping two young girls. This “unnatural act”, however, was a far more serious affair. Despite his tender years, Thomas was sentenced to hang.


But that wasn’t all. In those pious times, his crime demanded more than the life of the man. God’s justice was harsh in those days. The colonial fathers were intent on enforcing Leviticus 20:15 to the letter: “And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast.”

Even by the standards of the era, Thomas’s hanging on September 8, 1642 was a grisly affair. In keeping with the prescribed Old Testament penalty, the animals opened the festivities. Before Thomas’s eyes, they slaughtered the mare, the cow, and the two calves. Least anyone be tempted to make use of the sinned-against flesh, the remains were thrown into a pit and buried. Then, apparently without any further ceremony, Thomas was hanged.


The Puritan colonists may have walked away from that gory spectacle, smug with the assurance that they had nipped an epidemic of youthful wickedness in the bud. But nothing could be further than the truth. Not only would Benjamin Gourd, another Massachusetts lad of 17, share Thomas’s fate for a similar crime 32 years later (his sentence read “the mare you abused before your execution in your sight shall be knockt [sic] in the head...”), a long line of children and teenagers, some 300 to date, would follow Thomas to the scaffold. And their crimes would be far, far naughtier than diddling with the livestock.

Image: cemetery in Plymouth, MA by ctay75010

John Marr is the former editor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun. Further information here and here.


This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.

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