Sodomy Law: New Haven, March 1, 1656

"if any woman change the natural use" she will be put to death

The New Haven law of 1656 was based largely on a code drawn up by John Cotton but not earlier enacted.(1)

The New Haven "sodomy" statute is unique among American colonial legislation in extending the death penalty to acts of women "against nature," male-female anal intercourse, and, in certain circumstances, masturbation.

Capital Crimes

This New Haven law listed fourteen capital offenses in the following order:

(1) idolatry, (2) witchcraft, (3) blasphemy, (4) willfull (premeditated) murder, (5) murder in a state of sudden anger, (6) murder "with guile," (7) bestiality (men or women), (8) men lying with men as with women (and under the same provision), acts of women "against nature," and some kinds of masturbation, (9) adultery, (10) man-stealing, (I I) false witness (perjury) for the purpose of taking a man's life, (12) invasion, insurrection, or public rebellion (treason), (13) children over sixteen smiting or cursing their parents, and (14) rebellious sons over sixteen.


The sodomy provision prohibited, but did not specifically define, what was meant by women changing the "natural use into that which is against nature." Anal intercourse of males and females was separately and explicitly prohibited.


Public masturbation and incitement to masturbation were explicitly prohibited; solitary masturbation seems to have been prohibited in the injunctions against a man defiling or corrupting himself. The explicit stress on public masturbation and masturbatory incitement seems indicative of the Puritans' concern about social corruption, and individual corruption as it effected the polity. The law's reference to masturbation in the presence of others as a kind of "sodomy" was an early expression of a link between self-stimulation and illicit same-sex relations which became more common in the 1800s.

The Statute

Although this statute text is rather lengthy, and its language difficult, it does well convey a sense of the early Puritans' response to sex. The New Haven statute of 1656 read:

If any man lyeth with mankind, as a man lyeth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death. Lev. 20:13. And if any woman change the natural use, into that which is against nature, as Rom. I :26 she shall be liable to the same sentence, and punishment....

The act also prohibited

any other kind of unnatural and shamefull filthiness, called in Scripture the going after strange flesh, or other flesh than God alloweth....

Specifically prohibited was

carnal knowledge of another vessel than God in nature hath appointed to become one flesh....

This was further specified as "abusing the contrary part of a grown woman, or child of either sex." It also included carnal knowledge of the "unripe vessel of a girl," an act which involved leaving

the natural use of the woman ... which God hath ordained for the propagation of posterity....

When nature was so "forced, though the will were enticed,”

Sodomitical filthiness (tending to the destruction of the race of mankind) is committed by a kind of rape, [and] every such person shall be put to death.

The law also prohibited "any man" to

act upon himself, and in the sight of others spill his own seed, by example, or counsel, or both, corrupting or tempting others to do the like, which tends to the sin of Sodomy, if it be not one kind of it…

Or, added the law, if a man

shall defile, or corrupt himself and others, by any other kind of sinful filthiness; he shall be punished according to the nature of the offense.

Finally, if in any of the above cases, a man's acts,

considered with the aggravating circumstances, shall according to the mind of God revealed in his word require it, he shall be put to death, as the court of magistrates shall determine....

The statute also provided that if, in any of the above cases

one of the parties were forced, and so abused against his or her will, the innocent person (crying out, or in due season complaining) shall not be punished....

Or, said the law,

if any of the offending parties were under fourteen year[s] old, when the sin was committed, such person shall be severely corrected, as the court of magistrates considering the age, and other circumstances shall judge meet.

This law remained in force ten years, until January 1665, when Connecticut annexed the colony; then New Haven presumably came under the Connecticut law of May 1650.




  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p.101-2, citing New Haven's Settling in New England and Some Lawes for Government (London: printed by M. S. for Livewell Chapman, 1656), in J. Hammond Trumbull, ed., The True-Blue Laws of Connecticut and New Haven . . .(Hartford: American Publishing Co.. 1876), pp. 198-201. In {GAH}, p. ?, this law was apparently mistakenly listed as passed in 1655, with the source cited as J. Hammond Trumbull, The True-Blue Laws of Connecticut and New-Haven (Hartford: American Pub. Co., 1879), p. 201. See the Discuss section of the present document.