Sodomy Case: Nicholas Sension, Connecticut, May 22, 1677
Last edit: June 15, 2022, 6:42 AM ET
Nicholas Sension, a wealthy, respected, married citizen of Windsor, Connecticut, was brought to trial under that colony's sodomy law of 1672.(1)
The testimony against Sension is the most detailed known to exist in any colonial sodomy case. Extensive excerpts from the original manuscripts, transcribed by Jonathan Ned Katz and Lisa Duggan, were first published in Katz's Gay/Lesbian Almanac.(2)
Daniel Saxton, a servant of Sension's, was his primary accuser, testifying that he saw Sension commit sodomy with another servant, Nathaniel Pond. Saxton also claimed that Sension attempted sodomy with him. Numerous other townsmen testified to Sension's repeated attempts at sodomy with them or other young men (most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties). Sension apparently pleaded guilty to attempted sodomy, asserting his innocence of any completed act.
"Goodman" Sension arrived from England on the ship Elizabeth and Ann and settled in Windsor about 1640. The only reference to Sension in Windsor court records before 1677, is a report of his refusal to testify, in 1640, against Aaron Starke; accused and convicted of "buggery" with a heifer--a refusal significant in terms of Sension's own illegal sexual proclivity.
In 1643, Sension bought a lot and built on Silver Street, opposite Pigeon Hill Road. He married his wife Isabell on June 12, 1645. In 1648, he received a bequest from Edward Chalkwell of a gun, sword, bandoliers, vest, hat, and forty shillings. Isabell Sension was admitted to the Windsor Church on January 22, 1649.
A tax list of 1675 divided the Windsor population into five classes: Nicholas Sension was in the first class -- those with "a family, a horse [and] four oxen."
Sension became prosperous: Of five income groups in Windsor in 1676 he was in the second richest. In June 1676, Sension was listed among those voluntary contributors who gave to "the poor in want in other colonies" -- his donation was two shillings, six pence. In 1680, after thirty-five years of marriage, the Sensions were reported to have had no children. Nicholas Sension died on September 18, 1689.
In 1677, the testimony at Sension's trial revealed that his sodomy attempts had begun over thirty years before, about 1646-47.
George Griswold testified that thirty-one or thirty-two years earlier
I was in the mill house ... and Nicholas Sension was with me, and he took me and threw me on the chest and took hold on my privy parts.(3)
William Phelps testified that about thirty years earlier (about 1647) because of the "abuse" which Sension had offered to Phelps's brothers and many others, Phelps and "my friends were exceedingly troubled," fearing how God might punish such abuse, The "hazard" of Sension "infecting the rising generation," said Phelps, made him complain to a member of the court about Sension's "Sodomitical actings towards my brethren." Phelps said that when he confronted Sension about his activity, Sension had "acknowledged he took [it] up at the school where he was educated," admitting to Phelps "how long" he had pursued "this trade."(4)
Although Phelps indicated that court members discussed the matter in the late 1640s, Sension was not brought to trial at that time. He was instead privately confronted by individual court members. But even after this private confrontation Sension continued his "sodomitical" ways.
Jacob Gibs testified that about 1648 Sension had made overtures to him. Gibs said that "many times, ifnot all times," when he and Nicholas Sension were alone. Sension had made advances. Once Sension had tried "hugging" Gibs "in his arms & fell a trembling with his body" -- reaching "his hands within my breeches, laboring to handle the low part of my body in an uncomely manner." Another time when they were working in a marsh, Gibs said that Sension suggested
to keep our clothes clean let us roll off our stockings and breeches, and so we both did ....
Later, "when we sat down to drink and smoke," Sension
came to me and ... untied my shirt and uncovered me, being uncovered himself, [and] strove to close his body with mine. After much striving I told him that if he would not let me alone, I would cry for help....(5)
Josiah Holcombe testified that about 1658 Sension made three separate overtures to him. One night Holcombe and Sension were on the watch together, and Holcombe suggested that they go to a house, apparently to sleep. Sension instead suggested that they go to his "haymow" (or haystack). "Thither we went," testified Holcombe,
and when we were there, when I was almost asleep, ye said Sension did endeavor to untie my breeches and I, perceiving what he was about, wondered what he meant; and I was quiet and let him alone till he had unloosed my breeches and heaved them down over my breech [behind], and with his mouth and nose rubs about my breech, and being about to get upon me, I shoved him off and he promised me to be quiet.
"Another time the same year," says Holcombe, "I was mowing for my father," and
Sension came to me and lighted his pipe and smoked by me, and I having an open pair of drawers, the said Sension thrust up his hand into them and at last went to untie my drawers.
And on another occasion, while Holcombe was bathing in the river, he recalled that
I went out upon the bank to dry myself, and the said Sension came to me with his yard or member erected in his hands, and desired me to lie on my belly, and strove with me, but I went away from him.(6)
About 1667, twenty years after his first warning, Sension was privately confronted a second time about his behavior. At this time, Sension's indentured servant, the seventeen-year-old Nathaniel Pond, complained to his brother, Isaac Pond, about Sensiori's advances. Isaac Pond brought the complaint to John Griffen, asking for his advice and counsel.
Griffen testified that Nathaniel Pond had "made known his grievance," telling his brother
what temptations he was liable unto by reason of his master Sension's grossly lascivious carriages towards him, who did often in an unseemly manner make attempts tending to sodomy, so that [Nathaniel] was forced by violence to throw [Sension] off from him, and yet his said master did often, and at the same times when he was resisted, reiterate his attempts of that nature so that, though Nathaniel was grown, and somewhat stronger than his master, yet [Sension's] attempts were so violent and constant that [Nathaniel] found it difficult work to keep [Sension] off. I advised [Isaac Pond] to use all means to procure his brother's release from Goodman Sension, and that if he and some friends could not attain it ... , then to make his application to authority.(7)
Isaac Pond went immediately to Timothy Phelps for advice. Phelps, one of Windsor's wealthiest citizens, went with Isaac Pond to see Sension, and spoke with him in Nathaniel Pond's presence. John Griffen related the surprising result. Sension agreed
to let the said Nathaniel Pond at liberty, but the young man, after his way was made for him, out of his ingenuity (as I did judge when I heard of it), said that his Uncle Sension (as he styled him), having been the man that had brought him up from a child in his orphan state, and now being grown up, he was loath to leave him who had the trouble of his education in his minority, now he was fit to do him service . . . .
After Nathaniel Pond refused to leave his master, Sension offered to give Pond a year off his service, and forty shillings, "for his abuse. "(8)
Nathaniel Pond's refusal to leave Sension, even though troubled by his master's sodomy attempts, suggests the emotional and economic complexity of these relationships. John Griffen referred to Nathaniel Pond's "ingenuity" in refusing to leave his "Uncle" Sension, suggesting, perhaps, that Pond stayed on in hopes of an inheritance from Sension's sizeable estate. Sension, though married, was childless, and Pond having been raised in the household may have hoped to receive some tangible benefit from his master's interest. Pond may have also truly felt gratitude and affection for Sension, in spite of his troubling "sodomitical" overtures.
Robert Renwert was apparently one of those who investigated the matter, questioning Nathaniel Pond about his master. Renwert later recalled that Pond "spoke very low the first time so that I could hardly understand him." Pond finally said that Sension "would have committed that Sin of Sodomy with me." Then Pond "Expressed the same words again, somewhat Louder." Renwert asked Pond
if his master used any Loving Expressions to him to persuade him to it. He said "no, not any." I asked him if his master's clothes were on or no. He said his master's clothes were on.
Renwert also recalled one of the Enno family asking Pond ifhis master spoke with him "to persuade him to his wish." Pond answered no. Renwert recalled that Sension's wife "complained much how stubborn and disobedient" Pond was, how he would not obey lawful commands.)
In the late 1600s Windsor townspeople permitted Nathaniel Pond to remain in the Sension household, though both master and servant were subject to sodomitical "temptation." The matter of Sension's sodomitical advances was apparently resolved by a reduction in Nathaniel Pond's term of service, and Sension's payment to him of forty shillings.
Samuel Willson testified that about 1671 he had slept overnight with Nathaniel Pond and that, in the morning, Sension had "come up to the bedside and did put his hands into that bed. Nathaniel Pond and I lay back to back." When Sension put his hand "to Nathaniel Pond's breech," Willson "turned about" and Sension "pushed his hand out of the bed, and said he'd come for some tobacco."(10)
At the trial, in May, 1677, Daniel Saxton, the major witness against his master Nicholas Sension, testified that "he saw Nicholas Sension come to bed to Nathaniel Pond and make the bed shake." Saxton concluded that Sension "had committed the Sin of Sodomy with Nathaniel Pond."
Saxton also testified that, in April, the month before the trial, Sension hadcome up to his (Saxton's) room early in the morning. Saxton says he had resolved
to see what [Sension's] intention was, thinking with myself whether he would commit the same wickedness with me as I had seen him commit with Nathaniel Pond.
Saxton said that Sension "turned me on my belly and took up my shirt, and with his lips kissed my tail[?] twice: and then got on me with his body, with that [end] of persuing his tricks[?]." Saxton violently "thrust him off, warning his master "that he would not leave this Devilish sin till he was hanged."(11)
Another witness, Josiah Gilbert, testified that "in the chamber overhead" he "overheard" the words, "You'll never leave this Devilish sin till you are hanged."(12) Gilbert's brother also testified that Josiah often said he had heard Daniel Saxton tell "his Uncle Sension that he would never leave his old trade till he was brought to the gallows."(13)
Other instances of attempted sodomy by Sension, some of more recent date, were testified to in 1677 by a series of witnesses.
John Parsons testified that Sension suddenly "clapped his hands about me and unbuttoned or unclaspted my breeches." Parsons told Sension to leave him alone, but "accidentally [Sension] got me down" and tried "to get upon me with his Yard in his hands."(14)
Samuel Barboe testified that Sension "proferred me a bushel of corn if I would put down my breeches." Another time, said Barbee, Sension "put his hands in my breeches to my bare skin."
Peter Buoll testified that once, in Sensiori's barn, Sension
told me if I would let him have one bloo [blow?] at my breech he would give me a charge of powder. And when my breeches was down he threw me upon my belly and would have committed the Sin of Sodom with me; but when I perceived what he was about I resisted him out of shame, not knowing the use of the thing....(15)
Nathaniel Pond's Death
At the trial of 1677 Nathaniel Pond's own testimony was unavailable; he had been killed a year or so before in King Philip's War (1675-76 -- fought by the English against several tribes of Indians led by Philip, chief of the Wampanoags).
Joshua Holcombe testified that, "a little after the news came of Nathaniel Pond's death," Sension
told me that he was afraid that it fared the worse to him for his foolish and fond [and Sinful] affections which he had toward him.(16) [The words "and Sinful" were crossed out in the manuscript.]
Twenty-two year-old John Moses testified that when he lodged at Sension's he (Moses) slept in the same bed with Nathaniel Pond. Moses said that toward morning Sension came
to the bedside where I lay and put his hands to my Secret parts, aggravating all about those parts, so making me ought [?] of love….
Then Sension stopped, and Moses thought he had left, "but he Returned back again to the other side of the bed where Nathaniel Pond lay, and called softly to the said Nathaniel Pond...."(17)
Thomas Barber's testimony indicates that Sension's behavior was widely known in the community, at least among the young men. Barber said that, while working as a servant, he made a trip to Hartford during which he and Sension "were appointed to lie together in a trundel bed," In the room there was also
a standing high bed wherein lay two members of the General Court at that time, And [Barber] saith that he was unwilling and afraid to lodge with [Sension] because of some reports he had heard formerly concerning him, but being that the gentlemen lay in the chamber, and they were in a foreign place, he hoped no hurt would come of it, and therefore submitted and yielded to lodge with [Sension] without making disturbance in a strange house. But not long after, [Barber] being in bed with [Sension] and turning his back parts toward Goodman Sension, the said Goodman Sension soon after strove to turn [Barber's] back parts upwards and attempted with his yard to enter his body.... [Barber], being awakened, and feeling what [Sension] was about, was in a great strait, fearing to disturb the courtiers in the other bed, and more, fearing he should be wronged. And [Barber] further saith that ... to hinder [Sension] from prosecution of his devilish design, he turned his elbow back to Sension's belly with several blows which caused him to desist for that time. And so [Barber] slept in fear all night, and in [the] morning told his master ... that he would lie no more with Goodman Sension....(18)
Barber apparently felt some conflict about his incriminating testimony against Sension; he testified that he was "much beholden" to Sension for "entertainment in his house" during an earlier "time of troubles," when Barber and his wife were first married. Barber was "therefore ... much troubled" that his testimony should "in the least measure" weigh against Sension. "But," added Barber, during the "time he and his wife [were] lodging in the middle room between Goodman Sension and his wife," Sension, "early in the morning, used to come out of his bed chamber with his shoes on, and so passed through [Barber's] room." Afterward, Barber said, "he heard a noise" of a bed "creeking"
as he suspected and thought-but never saw any such thing-only he knows that the said Sension was very familiar with Nathaniel Pond.(19)
Sension, it seems, was considered a good neighbor by Barber, and a kind master by Nathaniel Pond, even though both were troubled by his "sodomitical" attempts.
The testimony of twenty-two-year-old John Enno indicates that Sension felt remorse about his behavior, and worried about its public disclosure. Enno said that when he lodged one night with Daniel Saxton, Nicholas Sension came into the room, took the bed clothes off the sleeping Saxton, lay down in the bed by him, "and caused the bed to rock much." Sension "then rose up ... , wiped something off from Daniel," and "went into the next room ... and prayed to God to save him from this wicked sin that he had lived in a long time.”(20)
Arthur Henberry testified that John Enno had told him that, after Sension had lain in Daniel Saxton's bed, Enno had seen what Sension "left behind him on the thighs of Daniel Saxton." Enno and Saxton had also told Henberry of "Sension's proffering to give Nathaniel Pond his black horse," apparently as an enticement for sexual favors.(21)
Another time, John Enno testified, he was sleeping with Nathaniel Pond. Toward morning Sension "came to the bedside and uncovered me, and seeing that it was me, he went to the other side of the bed and ... lay down by Nathaniel Pond." Enno had many times found Sension lying by Pond's side of the bed. Enno swore that Sension "desired me to say nothing of these things for one thousand pounds. . .."(22)
Another witness, Arthur Hennerick, also once heard Sension plead with John Enno:
Oh John, do not speak anything to my prejudice; I would not have thee speak of it for a thousand pounds. I love you and your mother and all the family.(23)
According to colonial custom, proof of completed sodomy legally required two witnesses (or. possibly, one witness and evidence equaling a second witness), and Daniel Saxton alone testified to have "seen" Sension commit sodomy with Nathaniel Pond. The court, therefore, had legal grounds for finding Sension guilty of only attempted sodomy. As punishment, Sension's entire estate, his "lodging and land in Windsor, and all his cattle and swine and household stuff of all sorts," worth 300 pounds, were held in bond for his good behavior during his lifetime. If Sension behaved, he received no material punishment. Sension lived for twelve years after the trial, and there are no further records of legal proceedings against him.
Sension's relatively lenient sentence, despite the abundant evidence of his sodomy attempts, may be due to his wealth, high status, and personal favor in the community, as much as to the colonists' apparent reluctance after the 1660s to enforce the harsh penalty provided by their capital sodomy law. The fact that Sension's attempted sodomy was known in the community, and continued for over thirty years before any legal charge was brought, indicates that American colonists, by the late 1600s at least, were sometimes more tolerant of sodomy (and attempted sodomy) than their still harsh legal codes implied.
Historian Linda Bissell, who discussed the Sension case in her thesis on seventeenth-century Windsor, Connecticut, suggested that before Sension was finally prosecuted under the sodomy law, the community tried other social means to control his conduct. The community, concluded Bissell, used the law "to enforce obedience only when other means had failed and violations of norms were flagrant.”
- The testimony in this case was first detailed in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 111-118, citing original manuscript depositions in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," vol. I, document numbers 87-103, Manuscript Division, Connecticut State Archives, Connecticut State Library, Hartford. These records of testimony in the Sension case are written in various almost illegible hands. The transcriptions given here thus sometimes constitute a guess at the exact wording.
A fascinating, detailed subject and name index exists for the 2,410 manuscript documents contained in the six volumes titled Connecticut Archives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1662/63-1789. For example, see headings: "Adultery," pp. 3-4; "Fornication," pp. 153-55; "incest," p. 222; "insane," p. 223; "Punishments. Castration," and "Death," p. 328; "Punishments. Mutilation," p. 329; "Rape," p. 332. For Nicholas Sension, see pp. 361-62.
For biographical details on Nicholas Sension, Nathaniel Pond, and others see Henry R. Stiles, The History and Genealogy of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut ... 1635-1891, vol. I, History (Hartford: Lockwood & Brainard, 1891), Sension, pp. 88, 166, 229, etc.; vol. 2, Genealogies and Biographies (same: 1892), N. Pond, p. 620; N. Sension, p. 676.
Also see Linda A. Bissell, "Family, Friends, and Neighbors: Social Interaction in Seventeenth Century Windsor, Connecticut," Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1973, pp. 123-28. Jonathan Ned Katz is deeply indebted to Lyle Koehler for first informing him of Bissell's work and the Sension case.
Thanks also to Lisa Duggan for help in transcribing and understanding the documents. The transcriptions. were made from photostatic copies and from a personal examination of the original manuscripts.
For the most recent and thorough discussion of the Sension case see Richard Godbeer, and Douglas L. Winiarski, eds., "The Sodomy Trial of Nicholas Sension, 1677: Documents and Teaching Guide," Early American Studies 12, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 402-43.
- Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 111-118.
- Document 88a.
- Document 98.
- Document 94.
- Document 87a.
- Document 89.
- Document 89.
- Document 88b. Renwert's testimony is among the most illegible.
- Document 91.
- Document 93.
- Document 87a.
- Document 95.
- Document 88a.
- Document [101.
- Document 95b.
- Document 97.
- Document 99.
- Document 99.
- Enno's testimony: Document 96a. Daniel Saxton also testified that John Enno had, on the above occasion; "waked him and told him Nicholas Sension had been with him and had wiped something off of him." Enno "showed him the sheet & there was something left wet on the sheet." Saxton "heard Sension pray God to turn him from this Sin he had so Long lived in...." Document 96b
- Document 90.
- Document 96a.
- Document 88a.