The Trial of Richard Cornish

The following excerpts from the trial of Richard Cornish usefully illustrate the commonplace nature of a homosexual invitation in early seventeenth-century America. According to the testimony of the 29-year-old cabin boy William Couse (or Cowse), on 27 August 1624 Richard William Cornish, Master of the ship Ambrose, then anchored in the James River,

Called to this Examinat [i.e. examinee, witness], to lay A Cleane payre of sheete into his bed, wch this Exam[inee] did, And the said Wm went into the bed, and wold have this Exam com into ye bed to him, wch this Exam refusinge to doe the said Richard Williams went owt of the bed and did cut this Exam cod peece . . ., and made this Exam unredy [i.e. removed his clothing], and made him goe into ye bed and then ye said Williams als[o] Cornush went into ye bed to him, and there lay Vppon him, and kist him and hugd him, sayinge that he wold love this exam yf he would now and then come and lay wth him and so by force he turned this exam uppon his belly, And so did putt this Exam to payne in the fundement and did wett him [i.e. ejaculated] and after did cale for A napkin wch this Ex. did bringe vnto him, and sayeth that there was but one man A boarde the shipp, wch was Walter Mathew the boatswains mate beinge . . . [passage missing, probably censored] And further sayeth yt he was sore 3 or 4 d[a]yes a[fter] and that after this ye next dye after in ye morning [the] said Williams als[o] Cornish said to this Exam though [I did] playe the foole wth you yesterdye, make no woondr[;] further he sayeth yt after this many tymes he wou[ld] putt his hands in this Exam[inee's] Cod peece and plaid a[nd] kiste him, saying to this Exam yt he could have brought them to sea wth him, yf he had . . . [passage missing] him, that would have plaid wth him, And after this Exam beinge caled and refusinge to go he . . . [passage missing] him before the maste and forbad all the shipps Company to eate wth him, and mad[e] this Exame Cooke for all the rest. (30 November 1624)

Walter Mathew the boatswain's mate testified that he overheard some of this incident, and heard William Cowse saying that he would be "overthrown in both soul and body," "but of what it was that the M[aste]r did urge him to he knoweth not, nor h[e]ard not the boy cry owt for help after this." Richard William Cornish was hanged.

Nearly a year later his brother Jeffrey Cornish stirred up trouble by alleging that his brother had been put to death wrongfully. This "new light on the case" was examined in December 1625, but the court concluded that the two men who alleged the innocence of Cornish were lying, and they were punished.

Yt is ordered yt Edward nevell for his offenc[e] [i.e. lying] shall stand one ye [one time in the] pillory wth 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. (3 January 1625/6)

Thomas Hatch for his offence shalbe whipt from the forte to the gallows and from thence be whipt back againe, and be sett vppon the Pillory and there to loose one of his eares, And that his sirvice to Sr George Yardley for seaven yeers Shalbegain from the present dye, Accordinge to the Condicion of the dewtie boyes he beinge one of them. (6 February 1625/6)

SOURCE: Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia 1622-1623, 1670-1676, ed. H.R. McIlwaine (1924). An account in modernized English can be found in Jonathan Katz's Gay American History (1976).

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Trial of Richard Cornish, 1624", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 15 June 2008 <>.

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