In February 1642, a farmer living in what would become Connecticut brought a deformed piglet to his local magistrates. The stillborn creature “had but one eye in the middle of the face, and that large and open, like some blemished eye of man.” The piglet’s nose, mouth, and ears were “not much unlike a child’s,” and the obvious conclusion, at least to the Puritan Colonists, was that the monster was a pig-human hybrid. And that meant the father — an investigation quickly led the court to a farmhand named George Spencer — had to atone for the mortal sin of bestiality.
The subsequent trial, which ended with death sentences for both Spencer and the unfortunate mother sow, was one of several dozen carried out by the short-lived New Haven Colony, which was subsumed by Connecticut in the 1660s. Similar proceedings, driven by superstition, heavily informed by the Bible, and based upon the presumption of guilt, were likely common across Colonial New England. But New Haven stands apart from its neighbors in one key way: Thanks to a series of secretaries who happened to be gifted storytellers, the Colony’s legal records were unusually detailed and colorful.
In a new book, “The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials From the New Haven Colony, 1639-1663,” Connecticut Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue translates New Haven’s judicial transcripts from 17th-century English, bringing them to life for a modern audience. These courtroom dramas, largely lost to history until now, offer us glimpses into daily life in Colonial America, a world of not only Puritan piety but sexual intrigue, rowdy drunkards, picayune trade disputes, and people whose human frailties we might find all too familiar today. They also provide new insights into the messy origins of American law, which, despite advances like trial by jury, forensic science, and professional attorneys, are sometimes as fallible as the Puritan tribunals of four centuries ago.
Blue spoke with Ideas from his home in Connecticut. Below is an edited transcript.
IDEAS: The New Haven Colonists were very religious, to the extent that the only law they recognized was that of the Bible. And yet the people who came before the court weren’t exactly the Puritans we know from history class.
BLUE: These were not people that were living exclusively virtuous lives. (Of course, none of us do.) There was obviously a lot of sex outside of marriage, some involving other species, but lots involving fellow human beings. More seriously, you had women being groped all the time, lower class women especially, and children being terribly exploited and abused. You had a theocracy that was really almost Orwellian. If you deviated in any respect, to the extent of saying the wrong prayers in your house or criticizing the minister’s sermon or God forbid, becoming a Quaker, you were brought before the tribunal and subject to expulsion from the Colony.
IDEAS: There’s a certain political faction in the United States today that talks a lot about our roots as a Judeo-Christian nation and how those values should continue to inform the law. Would you say these cases offer an argument against that?
BLUE: I happen to be a church-going person myself. I’m not somebody who squawks at religion in any way. But I would say that any time you have a culture where the law only recognizes the literal interpretation of the Bible, it’s not a very pleasant sight.
IDEAS: Many of these trials focused on people whose voices aren’t often heard in mainstream histories of the Colonial period.
BLUE: What really moved me was how child apprentices were first abandoned and then really abused in all sorts of ways. These were small children, being sent from England without any adult supervision. Malnourished. Fed brewis — bread dipped in fat — and developing rickets. Being given alcohol and forced to sign contracts that would indenture them for years. Being beaten by their masters like they were animals. This is part of American history. When we think of [this era] we think of adults dressed up as Pilgrims coming to the brave new world for religious liberty, but we never think of the children and the servants. That was part of Colonial society, too.
IDEAS: Did these children find justice in court?
BLUE: Children who were accused of crimes were treated savagely. First, they were hung if they had committed capital crimes, and if they committed noncapital crimes, even little children were publicly whipped and sold into servitude. [One of the last cases was] about this little girl, a servant who wanted nothing more than to go back to her own family, so she set fire to a barn to get some attention and was just savagely treated. It makes you want to strangle these judges.
IDEAS: Women didn’t fare well either. You write about Goodwife Fancy, who wound up being whipped alongside her tormenters after reporting ongoing sexual harassment.
BLUE: That case really tugs at your heartstrings. It’s about this lower class woman who lives in a basement. She’s a servant, and everybody’s grabbing at her. She can’t do anything about it. She has a modest criminal record, and nobody’s going to believe her. That particular case and those particular scenes could probably be played out in any society at any stage of human history.
IDEAS: On the other hand, you outline some cases where the New Haven courts could be “surprisingly progressive” compared to their contemporaries.
BLUE: Right. In [what I call] the Case of the Exploding Gun, for example, one Colonist sells another a gun that explodes and puts out the poor fellow’s eye. He sues for damages, and he actually gets them. Which would be perfectly routine now because we have product liability laws, but that was not the case in England or elsewhere in America in the 1600s, or even in the 1900s, where it would have been, “let the buyer beware.” With the child apprentices, the courts were far from perfect, but they insisted that their masters teach them a trade, and they appointed supervisors to make sure that that was the case. That made them a lot more progressive than anything else that was going on in the Western world.
IDEAS: You’ve been presiding over Connecticut trials as a superior court judge for 26 years. Has your historical research provided insights on your day job?
BLUE: It helps to remind us, lawyers and judges, that the law is older than us. We each play our part at our time in history. It’s easy for us to look back at these people 400 years ago and say what idiots they were — and in some cases they were indeed, by our standards, idiots! It also helps for us to remind ourselves that 400 years from now, when people look back at us, they’ll probably conclude that we did some things wrong, perhaps disastrously wrong, and that some of the values and scientific assumptions we have are just plain wrong. Being fallible is part of the human condition. Most of us judges don’t necessarily excel in humility, and I’m no exception, but it does help to have a little humility in this business.
Amy Crawford has written for Boston Magazine, Smithsonian, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.