Richard Cornish, also known as Richard Williams, an English ship captain is reported to have been one of the earliest people, if not the first person, to have been hanged for sodomy in what would eventually become the United States.
In 1624 Cornish was ship master of the Ambrose, which was harbored in the James River of the Virginia colony in August of that year. During this time indentured servant, William Couse worked on the Ambrose and was ordered to put clean sheets on Cornish’s bed, upon which point Couse alleged that his master had been drunk and made a sexual advance upon him. Despite Couse’s refusal, Cornish was then reported to have forcibly sodomized Couse. Crouse also claimed that Cornish later sexually fondled him on numerous occasions and also humiliated him in front of the rest of the crew.
Cornish was given a trial, during which one of his crew members reported overhearing a conversation between Couse and Cornish that corroborated part but not all of Couse’s claims. The trial ended with Cornish being found guilty and sentenced to hang, which happened on an unspecified date in early 1625.
William Couse’s Testimony
William Couse [or Cowse], aged 29 years or thereabouts, sworn and examined sayeth, that the 27th day of August last, past about one or 2 of the clock in the afternoon, being aboard the good ship called the Ambrose, then riding at anchor in James River, Richard Williams, also [known as] Cornish, master of the said ship called the Ambrose, being then in drink, called to this examinee to lay a clean pair of sheet into his bed, which this examinee did, and the said [Richard] Williams went into the bed, and would have this examinee come into the bed to him, which this examinee refusing to do, the said Richard Williams went out of the bed and did cut this examinee’s cod piece . . , and made this examinee unready [unsteady?], and made him go into the bed, and then the said Williams also Cornish went into the bed to him, and there lay upon him, and kissed him and hugged him, saying that he would love this examinee if he would now and then come and lay with him, and so by force he turned this examinee upon his belly, and so did put this examinee to pain in the fundament, and did wet him, and after did call for a napkin which this examinee did bring unto him, and [Cornish did] sayeth that there was but one man aboard the ship, which was Walter Mathew, the boatswain’s mate, being [passage missing]. And further sayeth that he was for 3 or 4 days after, and that after this, the next day after, in the morning, the said Williams also Cornish said to this examinee, “Though [I did] play the fool with you yesterday, make no wonder.” Further he sayeth that after this, many times, he [Cornish] would put his hands in this examinee’s cod piece and played [with him] and kissed him, saying to this examinee that he would have brought them [sic] to sea with him, if he had [passage missing] him, that would have played with him. And after this examinee being called and refusing to go he … [took?] him before the mast and forbade all the ship’s company to eat with him, and made this examinee cook for all the rest.
This conviction and execution was challenged by several people – most notably Edward Nevell and Thomas Hatch, both of whom were indentured servants. Both men felt that Cornish was innocent and that his death was wrongful on the part of Virginia’s governor, Nevell going so far as to tell Cornish’s brother of his beliefs. These remarks were seen as offensive as they put the blame for Cornish’s death on the Virginian governor Sir Francis Wyatt and both men were severely punished for their comments. Nevell had both of his ears cut off and was unable to become a free man in Virginia while Hatch only lost one ear, but was whipped and his service contract was extended for an additional seven years.
In 1993 the College William and Mary’s Gay and Lesbian Alumni created the Richard Cornish Endowment Fund for Gay and Lesbian Resources.