Spotlight: Richard Cornish

Published:June 7, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

If you read this post from earlier today, then you know all about Richard Cornish, a merchant-ship captain who was tried, convicted, and hanged for forcibly sodomizing a member of his crew in 1624. Now we’ve just published our entry on the man, and if anything it’s a great example of how you take a lump of primary sources and turn it into a pretty interesting narrative.

What interested me most in the entry was this, from the end:

America’s gay community discovered the episode. Jonathan Katz reprinted the documents in modernized form in Gay American History (1976), and more recently several websites have highlighted the case. In 1993 the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae, Inc., created the Richard Cornish Endowment Fund for Gay and Lesbian Resources, which within a decade raised more than $66,000 to purchase materials for the college library. After the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the summer of 2003 that sodomy between consenting adults was a constitutionally protected right of privacy, one man left a small, informal memorial to Cornish at Jamestown (“In memoriam RICHARD CORNISH, First American Sodomite. Rest in Peace.”) and recounted the case in a New York Times op-ed piece.

Recall that the charge against Cornish was not simply being gay, or having gay sex, but of raping a man. Four hundred years later, it’s impossible to tell if the testimony against him was reliable, or whether he was the victim of homophobia (to the extent that such a thing existed then, at least in the strictly modern sense). Of course, the trial, the punishment, and the subsequent treatment of those who protested was grisly by any standard. Still, Cornish seems like an imperfect figure to honor with an endowment fund. And what about that “one guy” who memorialized him in the Times?

Turns out he was actually Adam Goodheart, author most recently of 1861: The Civil War Awakening. He wrote:

Last Thursday, when I heard the news of the Supreme Court’s decision ruling a ban on homosexual conduct unconstitutional, I happened to be traveling near Jamestown, now a historical and archaeological park. So I bought a bottle of Virginia chardonnay, sneaked into the site (it had been closed for the day), sat down on the grass next to a wall of crumbling brick, and drank a silent toast in Cornish’s memory.

It’s telling, perhaps, that Goodheart did not offer any details of the charges against Cornish, writing only that “his case was the first recorded sodomy prosecution in American history.” Cornish, I think, is more complicated than that and, therefore, more interesting.