PLYMOUTH - In the summer of 1637, two working men at the English colony at Plymouth faced the possibility of execution, convicted of what the law books said was a grave moral crime.
John Alexander and Thomas Roberts had been caught in a homosexual relationship.
Court records from their case, and from a handful of others, are the only keyhole through which researchers at the Plimoth Plantation museum can peek backward through time to imagine the lives of the colony’s gays and lesbians.
On this date in 1637, John Alexander and Thomas Roberts were changed with and convicted of “lude behavior and unclean carriage one with another, by often spending their seed one upon another, which was proved both by witness and their own confession; the said Alexander found to have been formerly notoriously guilty that way, and seeking to allure others thereunto.”
John Alexander was sentenced to a severe whipping, then to be burned in the shoulder with a hot iron, and then to be permanently banished from the Colony.
Roberts was sentenced to a severe whipping, but was not banished. He was prohibited from ever owning any land within the Plymouth Colony “except he manifest better desert.” He was returned to his master and forbidden to hold any lands in the future.
Sodomy, usually homosexuality, was considered a capital offence but rarely punished as such. These punishments, while harsh, still lacked the full force of the law.
At the Out at Plimoth Plantation event, the living museum of Colonial and Native American history presents special programs on gay history of the 17th and 18th centuries in early American culture.
“Plimoth Plantation as a museum has always been a place that has tried to recover every life,’’ said Richard Pickering, the museum’s deputy director. Pickering quoted the poet and author Paul Monette, who wrote that most of gay history “lies in shallow bachelors’ graves.’’
“We’re telling the audience that we’re going to talk about all those uncles and all those aunts who have fallen off the family tree,’’ said Pickering. “Their stories may be lost, so let’s contemplate those lost lives.’’ Though the historical record is sparse, “we can get a sense of what the options of the past were,’’ and provide some sense of history to a modern gay community “that really doesn’t have a strong sense of its past much before 1960.’’
Back in the 1600s, homosexuality was thought to be a behavior that could be learned due to a lack of “proper’’ examples of traditional relationships, said Pickering. Being gay or lesbian at the time was not a sexual identity as we think of it today. Gays and lesbians “did not have the opportunity to pursue the kind of lives and identities that modern social structures allow,’’ he said.
Yet the prosecution of Alexander and Roberts for homosexual conduct reveals layers of complexities in Colonial life, despite the scant court records. Though the maximum penalty was death, neither man was executed.
Alexander, who was perceived as the seducer and therefore was considered more responsible, was branded with a hot iron and banished from the colony, said Pickering.
Roberts was allowed to stay, though the court forbade him from owning land or participating in the political process, Pickering said.
“At first glance you would think that 17th-century New Englanders would be very harsh,’’ said Pickering. But both men were spared execution, and in time Roberts was allowed to own land and to vote. “Even though there are statutes, in the enactment of the law they are much more gentle.’’ It may have been that the colony needed every pair of hands and couldn’t afford to lose both workers, or that in a tiny community of a few hundred, the judges would have known the defendants personally and were reluctant to send neighbors to their deaths.
Plimoth Plantation began researching the gay history of the colony about 10 years ago, in preparation for bringing its replica of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower to gay-friendly Provincetown.
The role players at Plimoth Plantation wear period costumes and never come out of character while they’re on the job. In a recent interview, for example, Pickering had to leave the “village’’ for a private room to speak as a modern man. In that spirit of authenticity, the museum researched gay Colonial history to educate its staff in case one of the role players got a question about same-sex relationships while in Provincetown.
The museum last year presented that research to visitors at its first Out at Plimoth Plantation, a conscious effort to reach out to the gay community. “For a while the museum just assumed it was known that everyone was welcome here,’’ said spokeswoman Jennifer Monac. “History is everybody’s story. We realize we need to make it relevant for everybody.
“We wanted to create a day where same-sex couples could attend like any other family and not have to worry if they hold hands or show affection,’’ she said.
The museum’s website is www.plimoth.org.