Posts Tagged ‘George Spencer’

In a Pig’s Eye

December 29, 2009 6 comments

George Spencer’s fate

On April 8, 1642, the gallows of New Haven Colony swung for George Spencer, servant and all-around reprobate, if the records of the General Court are to be believed. On the same day, Spencer’s accomplice, as unwitting as she might have been – though Spencer said she, with her beguiling eyes and a touch of evil upon her, tempted him beyond self-control – also faced the ultimate punishment for her part in the crime. An unnamed executioner ran her through with a sword as Spencer watched, his former lover slaughtered, much to the community’s approval.

Who was Spencer’s unfortunate lover and partner in crime? A sow that farmer John Wakeman had recently bought from Henry Browning, Spencer’s master.

Yes, a sow.

A pig.

Yes, one can understand the temptation…


The crime, of course, should be clear. But if it’s not, consider the evidence that gave away Spencer’s guilt, at least in the mind of his Puritan neighbors. Spencer had only one good eye; in the other socket, a milky false device called a pearl filled the hole. And his partner, the sow, had months before given birth to piglets. One of them, a “monster” to the colony’s officials, had just one eye – a cloudy, grayish mass just like Spencer’s pearl!

I first came across the bestiality of George Spencer in a footnote. I’m doing research for a book on capital punishment – a historical overview, with arguments for and against. Of course, until the Enlightenment (as I wrote here earlier at the The History Nerd), not many people spoke out against the death penalty. After all, it has been public sport and spectacle since at least the Romans, and widely practiced for centuries before them. Whether seen as vengeance, deterrent, or a communal balancing of karma, the death penalty has long been a popular form of punishment.

New Haven in the good old days

And a scant three or so miles from where I write this, few excelled at killing the guilty like the Puritans of  New Haven, along with their spiritual brethren across New England. Of course, as was often the case in Europe, just because capital offenses were on the books, not everyone found guilty shook hands with the hangman (an allusion to perhaps the greatest anti-death penalty song of all time.) Still, you look at the law codes of New England and the list of capital crimes is long, most taken from the Mosaic law of the Old Testament.  Some examples: adultery, witchcraft, blasphemy, sodomy, certain crimes against property, and of course, George Spencer’s barnyard recreation.

Knowing what I did about the New Haven Puritans, I wasn’t surprised that he died for his crime. But I was intrigued to learn more about him. Thankfully, the early records of the colony are online, and they provide more details about him and his abominable offspring.

It seems a few years before, Spencer started his life of crime when he tried to rouse some other servants to steal a boat and sail to Virginia. (The vessel – you can’t make this stuff up, folks – was called the Cock.) He was whipped and sent out of the plantation, but evidently found his way back and came under Henry Browning‘s roof (most likely he was Browning’s  indentured servant).

Early in 1641, the Wakemans noticed something odd as they examined the piglets borne by the sow they had recently bought from Browning. In addition to the telltale Cyclopsean eye noted above, the animal was hairless, with reddish white skin like a child‘s. And above that single eye – a detail I did not see described in the secondary sources – “a thing of flesh grew forth and hung down, it was hollow, and like a man‘s instrument of generation.” If that‘s not a sign of devilish interspecies coupling, I don’t know what is!

Forced to confront the monster and the similarity of its deformity and his (the eye: I‘m not suggesting George also had a a man‘s instrument of generation dangling from his forehead), Spencer admitted his guilt. But then recanted. Then admitted, and back and forth. At one point, he said the sow came to him while he worked, after “the temptation had been upon his spirit” for several days.  Then after sunset, he took her in the sty, sealing his fate.

Reading the records, it seems Spencer’s playing fast and loose with the truth and his general unChristian demeanor bugged (hmm, bad choice of words?) the Puritan fathers almost as much as the crime itself. They accused him of mocking God, after he put up a broadside asking the community to pray for him, then denying his original confession. The court found him guilty, though Spencer languished in prison for months before the sentence was carried out.

The time spent contemplating his mortality seemed to soften the former profaner and “abettor of others to sin”; at the gallows, he told some youth present “to take warning by his example.” Yet Ol’ George still had some fight in him too, as he tried to blame a sawyer named Harding for giving him bad counsel – namely to recant his first confession. Harding denied it. Then the sow was slain, and with the rope around his neck, Spencer seemed to find God at last: “God opening his mouth before his death, to give him the glory of his righteousness, to the full satisfaction of all then present.”

Spencer’s case was part of what historian John Murrin called “the bestiality panic of 1641-43.” Another case came after the panic passed, again in New Haven. And again, portents too strong to ignore seemed to point out another soul guilty of consorting with a sow. Not only did one of two deformed piglets from the sow look like this servant, but he had a telling name:

Thomas Hogg.

God, I love history.