The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity

The 1642 bestiality trial of New Haven colonist George Spencer reveals the horrifying growing pains of our modern justice system.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Excerpted from The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials From New Haven Colony, 1639–1663 by Jon C. Blue. Out now from Wesleyan University Press. 

On Feb. 14, 1642, a planter of New Haven Colony named John Wakeman informed the magistrates that a sow he had recently purchased had given birth to a “prodigious monster.” The monster had been born dead, but Wakeman brought its body for inspection. The dead piglet was vividly described:

It had no hair on the whole body, the skin was very tender, and of a reddish white color like a child’s. The head was most strange. It had but one eye in the middle of the face, and that large and open, like some blemished eye of a man. Over the eye, in the bottom of the forehead, which was like a child’s, a thing of flesh grew forth and hung down. It was hollow and like a man’s instrument of generation. A nose, mouth, and chin deformed, but not much unlike a child’s. The neck and ears had also such resemblance.

The most fateful attribute of the dead piglet, however, was a resemblance (or so it was thought) to one George Spencer, formerly a servant to Henry Browning, the man who had sold the sow to Wakeman. Spencer, as it happened, had only one good eye. His other eye was deformed, “and his deformed eye being beheld and compared together with the eye of the monster, seemed to be as like as the eye in the glass to the eye in the face.”

Ten days later, on Feb. 24, Spencer was “examined concerning this abomination.” He understandably denied paternity of the deformed piglet. The New Haven magistrates, however, committed him to prison “on strong probabilities of this fact.” That same evening, one of the magistrates, Stephen Goodyear went to the prison where he found Spencer talking with two other men. Goodyear asked Spencer “if he had not committed that abominable filthiness with the sow.” Spencer denied it. Goodyear then asked whether Spencer noticed his likeness in the piglet. Spencer was silent at first but then asked the magistrate whose sow it was. At this, Goodyear apprehended “some relenting” in the prisoner and reminded him of the scriptural admonition, “He that hides his sin shall not prosper, but he that confesses and forsakes his sins shall find mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Goodyear asked Spencer if he wasn’t sorry that he had “denied the fact which seemed to be witnessed from heaven against him.” At this, Spencer said he was sorry and confessed that he had done it.

The next day, both New Haven magistrates went to the prison “with divers others,” urging Spencer to give glory to God and freely confess his sin. Spencer initially denied wrongdoing, but Robert Seely, the marshal, reminded him of his previous confession. At this point, Spencer confessed again. He said that while he was working in Browning’s service, “the sow came into the stable, and then the temptation and his corruption did work,” whereupon he did the wicked deed.

Modern judges are expected to be neutral and detached professionals. Their task is to listen to testimony and arguments with open minds and to render judgment only after hearing all of the facts in the case. The New Haven courts had an entirely different view of the judicial task. Criminal cases began with a presumption of guilt. The court’s task was to question the defendant and confront him with the evidence against him until a confession was forthcoming.

Toward the end of the colony’s history, the Court of Magistrates did finally acquit a defendant of the murder crime of which he had been accused. But this was such a novel event that the court was at a loss what to do. It felt compelled to find him guilty of something, and it ended up finding him “guilty of suspicion.”

Spencer was now attracting attention in high places. On Feb. 26, Theophilus Eaton, the governor of the colony, and John Davenport, the minister of the church, visited Spencer. In the presence of these august persons, Magistrate Goodyear questioned Spencer “more particularly concerning the bestiality, namely how long the temptation had been upon his spirit before he committed it.” Spencer answered that “it had been upon his spirit two or three days before.”

On Wednesday, March 2, Spencer was brought to trial before the General Court. The vague list of charges pending against him was now augmented by a more specific charge: bestiality. The court urged Spencer once again “by confession to give glory to God.” Spencer declined to do so. Instead, we are told, “he impudently and with desperate imprecations against himself denied all that he had formerly confessed.”

Witnesses were called. Ezekiel Cheevers affirmed that on Monday, Spencer told him that “the Lord had given him a sight of his sin, and he hoped he would let him see it more.” Richard Malbon affirmed that Spencer had “confessed the fact to him.” Other witnesses testified that Spencer had confessed to them as well. Spencer was now asked what he had to say for himself. He responded that “the witnesses did him wrong and charged things upon him which he had not spoken.” Given this response, the court—although “abundantly satisfied in the evidence”—“began to examine the witnesses upon oath.”

After four witnesses had confirmed their former testimony “and others were ready to do the like,” Spencer “stopped the course.” He admitted that he had made the confessions to which the witnesses had testified. But he “obstinately and impudently persisted to deny the fact.”
With this evidence before it, the court found Spencer “guilty of this unnatural and abominable crime of bestiality, and that he was acted by a lying spirit in his denials.” By the “rule” of Leviticus 20:15, both the prisoner and the sow were sentenced to death.

This horrifying case is a sad reflection on the credulity of mankind and the shortcomings of a legal system that had jettisoned any pretense of fairness to the accused.

Some traces of legality remained. The vague charges of bad character originally levied against Spencer were augmented (albeit at the outset of the trial) by the more specific charge of bestiality. The witnesses in the case testified in the presence of the accused. Spencer was allowed to speak in person to the tribunal deciding his fate, although that tribunal had little interest in hearing anything from him other than a confession. The sentence was decided according to a “rule” of (biblical) law. And there was a record of the proceeding.

Both the process and the outcome, however, bear little resemblance either to modern notions of justice or even to contemporaneous notions of English justice. There were no jurors or attorneys to be found.

But the record of Spencer’s trial is of particular legal interest for the light it sheds on the use of the oath. The testimony originally given against Spencer was unsworn. After Spencer had heard this testimony and denied it, the witnesses were sworn and testified again, this time under oath. This practice stands in contrast to long-standing tenets of English law, requiring prosecution (although not defense) witnesses to be sworn. Perhaps due to the memory of English legal repression directed against them, the early Puritan colonists were reluctant to use oaths. It appears that oaths were used only as a last resort, in cases where attempts to obtain a full judicial confession from the accused had failed.

After finding him guilty, the court “demanded” whether Spencer “would yet give glory to God in a free acknowledgment of his sinful and abominable filthiness in the bestiality.” Spencer responded that “he would leave it to God, adding that he had condemned himself by his former confessions.”

The court found itself “abundantly satisfied” of Spencer’s guilt and the correctness of his sentence. It ordered that Spencer should be hanged “but that first the forementioned sow at the said place of execution shall be slain in his sight, being run through with a sword.” The terrible sentence was carried out on April 8, 1642. In then traditional English fashion, Spencer was brought to the place of execution on a cart and allowed to deliver a gallows address to the waiting crowd. He was once again urged to acknowledge his crime, and he once again denied it. But when the halter was fitted to his neck, “he fully confessed the bestiality in all the circumstances.” Though “much pressed,” he would not speak further of his sin. With this, the sentence was carried out on Spencer and the sow, “leaving him a terrible example of divine justice and wrath.”

Excerpted from The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials From New Haven Colony, 1639–1663, copyright 2015, by Jon C. Blue, courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.