English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 1(3), 1976.


Used by permission.


This article traces the legislative history of statutes prescribing the death penalty for sodomy in 17th-century New England and in the other American colonies. New England and some middle colonies broke with English legal tradition by adopting explicitly biblical language. After the Revolution, Pennsylvania took the lead, in 1786, in dropping the death penalty.

As the nation prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the question of the status of the homosexual in pre-Revolutionary America comes to mind. The Body of Liberties approved by the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1641 welcomed refugees seeking to escape "the Tiranny or oppression of their persecutors" or famines or wars. For several hundred years America was to serve as a haven for minorities threatened with religious or political persecution in other lands. What then did it offer the homosexual? Not, assuredly, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, it appears that in 1776 male homosexuals in the original 13 colonies were universally subject to the death penalty, and that in earlier times, for a brief period in one colony, lesbians had been liable to the same punishment for relations with other women. The following essay is an attempt to trace the capital laws against homosexuals in these colonies from their origin in the first settlements until their abolition after the Revolution.

On page 278, a typographic error has been corrected: 1936 >> 1636.