“Take heed of evil company”
In the days before the United States of America came into being there was a different morality in place. In 1641 Massachusetts, basing its laws on the Ten Commandments, made adultery a capital offence.
Mary Latham was 18-years-old, well brought up, and her only crime was to fall in love with the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place. Latham fell in love but her affections were not returned and she determined to marry the first man who came along. Unfortunately, he was three times her age, “had neither honesty nor ability” and the match was not a happy one.
Mary soon began to entertain “divers young men”, both married and unmarried, who “solicited her chastity.” One of her paramours was James Britton, a 30-year-old professor and playboy, who had recently arrived from England. The two were at a party one day when, having had a lot to drink, they sneaked away to have sex. After he had sex with Mary, Britton fell ill with “a deadly palsy and a fearful horror of conscience” and, believing that it was a punishment from God, confessed his “sin”.
Both he and Mary were arrested the next day. She admitted that Britton had tried to have sex with her but said that he did not succeed. However, they had been seen having sex and when confronted, Mary confessed. Adding to her poor behaviour, it was reported that “she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull”.
The magistrates decided that there was not enough evidence against her to convict but the jury found against her and Mary confessed to sex with 12 men (five of them married). Five of her lovers were arrested, the rest having fled but since their accuser was herself now a felon the case against them was dropped.
Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, America
Tuesday 21 March 1643
Both Mary Latham and James Britton were sentenced to death — the only couple to be hanged in America for adultery. Mary “had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and… was willing to die in satisfaction to justice”. Britton “was very much cast down for his sins, but was loath to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it”. On 21 March 1643 they went to their deaths “both… very penitently, especially the woman, who… gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company”.