Taming Lust: Crimes against Nature in the Early Republic

Taming Lust: Crimes against Nature in the Early Republic

Taming Lust: Crimes against Nature in the Early Republic

Taming Lust: Crimes against Nature in the Early Republic

Synopsis

In 1796, as revolutionary fervor waned and the Age of Reason took hold, an eighty-five-year-old Massachusetts doctor was convicted of bestiality and sentenced to hang. Three years later and seventy miles away, an eighty-three-year-old Connecticut farmer was convicted of the same crime and sentenced to the same punishment. Prior to these criminal trials, neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut had executed anyone for bestiality in over a century. Though there are no overt connections between the two episodes, the similarities of their particulars are strange and striking. Historians Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown delve into the specifics to determine what larger social, political, or religious forces could have compelled New England courts to condemn two octogenarians for sexual misbehavior typically associated with much younger men.

The stories of John Farrell and Gideon Washburn are less about the two old men than New England officials who, riding the rough waves of modernity, returned to the severity of their ancestors. The political upheaval of the Revolution and the new republic created new kinds of cultural experience--both exciting and frightening--at a moment when New England farmers and village elites were contesting long-standing assumptions about divine creation and the social order. Ben-Atar and Brown offer a rare and vivid perspective on anxieties about sexual and social deviance in the early republic.

Excerpt

This book treats a most unusual offense—one that evokes laughter for some and disgust in others. Our account of John Farrell and Gideon Washburn, two elderly New England men tried separately for bestiality in the 1790s, runs counter to the instinctual sense of what it means to be human, while also reminding us of the animalistic demons we hold in check. Researching and writing about bestiality, even reading this book, is an act of transgression—an affront, perhaps, to the good taste that seeks to keep the unseemly part of human existence hidden.

Prepare to be startled. Some of the analysis places cherished elements of Western culture in uneasy proximity to a despised practice. We point to elements in high art and religion where bestiality is part of both context and subtext. and our historical analysis necessitates consideration of bestiality as a subcategory of sodomy—a highly offensive association that might fuel homophobic prejudice—but one that is grounded in the statutory record. As far as the law in the early modern period was concerned, bestiality was a subcategory of sodomy. Even the enlightened philosopher Montesquieu spoke of bestiality and sodomy as one and the same—“crimes against nature.” Currently we associate sodomy with human anal penetration and male homosexuality. However, before the middle of the nineteenth century sodomy was a rather broad category—a catchall word that represented all nonreproductive sex as well as general moral degeneracy. a sodomite was a man who committed sexual acts prohibited in the Bible. Sodomy stood for the broader threat of sexual degeneracy. Finally, sodomy was the opposite of manliness—and all the gendered social and cultural associations that went with it.

Bestiality occupies an anomalous place in the range of sexual violations. It features elements similar to the two most abhorrent sexual crimes, rape . . .

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