“I Did Playe the Foole with You Yesterdye”

Published:June 7, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

A reader asked us to take more care in highlighting issues of sexuality in Encyclopedia Virginia, and as an example he pointed to the absence of one Richard Cornish. Our contributor Martha W. McCartney includes Cornish in her Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers: 1607–1635: A Biographical Dictionary (2007). She writes:

On November 30, 1624, Richard Cornish alias Williams was identified as master of the ship Ambrose when William Crowse (Crouse), a cabin boy, appeared before the General Court. Cowse accused Cornish of sexually assaulting him while the Ambrose was anchored in the James River. He testified that afterward, Cornish continued to make advances toward him and threatened to punish him, if he resisted.

Below, you can read the testimony as it was preserved in the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia. It is not, I should say, for the terribly squeamish. (Cod peece?)

McCartney continues:

On January 3, 1625 [New Style—Ed.], the ship’s boatswain, Walter Mathew, testified in the case, verifying some of Crowse’s allegations.

Again, you can read the details below, which are a little confusing at first, but the gist is that something clearly happened but the cabin boy told the witness that “the master would have Bugard him or to that effect, but did not confess that the master did the fact.”


Sometimes prior to February 8, 1625, Richard Cornish was hanged and William Crowse was ordered to choose another master. Cornish’s debts were to be paid from sale of his goods or earnings derived from the hire of Crowse, an indentured servant.

To be clear, Cornish was hanged prior to February 8, but it was on February 8 that Crowse was ordered to “come upp from Hogg Islande” and appear in court (below).

The story does not end there. In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund S. Morgan writes:

Afterwards, on a voyage to Canada, one Edward Nevell met up with Cornish’s brother, and upon the latter’s inquiry as to how the execution came about, Nevell replied, “he was put to death through a scurvie boys meanes, and no other came against him.” For this statement, made aboard ship off Canada where the governing council of Virginia could scarcely claim jurisdiction, Nevell upon his return to Virginia was required to “stand one the pillory with a paper one his head shewinge the cause of his offence in the markett place, and to loose both his Ears and to serve the Colony for A yeere, And forever to be incapable to be A ffreeman of the Countrey.”

This was pre–First Amendment, you understand. The first bit of text below is from December 12, 1625, the second from January 3, 1626.

You thought that perhaps now the story was through. Not quite. Morgan continues:

A month later Thomas Hatch was heard to say in a private house in James City “that in his consyence he thought the said Cornishe was put to death wrongfully.” Hatch had the misfortune to be a Duty Boy, and his seven-year period of service was nearly up. The court therefore ordered “that Thomas Hatch for his offence shalbe whipt from the forte to the gallows and from thence be whipt back againe, and be sett uppon the Pillory adn there to loose one of his eares, And that his service to Sir George Yardley for seaven years Shalbegain [again] from the present dye.”

Elsewhere, Morgan explains the unhappy lots of so-called Duty Boys: “After their seven years’ service, they were to be tenant for another seven years”—which required them to give over half of everything they earned. “If, however, a Duty Boy committed a crime at any time during the first seven years, his term as a servant was to begin again for another seven years.” Anyhow, the testimony is below:

So there you have it. But what does the sad, ugly story of Richard Cornish mean? Morgan places it in the context of how ruthless the governing men of Virginia could be, “guard[ing] their authority jealousy” and often using it to remain rich. Even Jonathan Katz, who wrote about the case in his landmark Gay American History, noticed more than a whiff of “colonial class politics.” Others, however, are much more interested in projecting today’s conflicts onto colonial Virginia:

The charge [against Cornish], as chronicled in the minutes of the Virginia court, sounds today like a case of sexual harassment—Cornish wanted to have sex with Cowse, who refused and then was given extra work by Captain Cornish. On the basis of the testimony of another crew member who overheard Cornish proposition Crowse, Cornish was tried and hanged. Two men who publicly objected to the execution as unjust were pilloried and had their ears cut off for questioning the religious authorities. I wonder if today’s fundamentalist Christians remember this shameful history when they call for a return to our Puritan roots.

Puritan roots? The ruling men of Virginia mostly were not Puritan, with folks like Richard Bennett serving as the exception rather than the rule. And within a couple decades of the Cornish case, Virginia had actually become virulently anti-Puritan.

Anyway. Based on the reactions of some Virginians, and the forceful way in which they were silenced, Cornish’s death was brutal even by the day’s standards. And as our reader tells us, we should do a better job of remembering.

IMAGEThe Merchant Shipping Anchorage in the Texel with Texel Island and Oude Schild to the North West by Ludolf Bakhuizen (National Maritime Museum Greenwich)