The term “prodigy” once meant a monster — a hideous abnormality, an unnatural being. The kind of prodigies that Colonial New England feared the most came from the suspected sexual liasons of men with female beasts, resulting in creatures of the imagination that we now know to be scientific impossibilities, but in the 1600s were sufficiently frightening enough to result in the torture and execution of several men.
The infamous Salem Witch Trials actually arrived on the heels of what Jesse Bering in his book PERV collectively refers to as the “Pig-Men Hunts of New Haven”. These trials of boys and men (the youngest being a sixteen-year-old boy) often resulted in some form of extreme physical punishment, and infrequently in execution.
Colonial New England aspired to religious idealism — John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.” The Puritans wanted their colonies to be an example for others to follow. In such a push for outer perfection, fear of secretly sinning or harboring evil preoccupied many colonists. These latent anxieties created a grim setting, indeed. It is important to remember that the “pig-men” were being tried for intentionally bringing evil into the world, and that they were completely innocent — no animal could have been impregnated by them.
When these men were determined by law to be guilty, they were all dispatched of in a similar manner: the animal a man was found guilty of impregnating was killed in front of him just before his own execution. This serial killer-esque ritual was performed again and again as a strict interpretation of Leviticus from the Bible.
1641 marked the first recorded act of bestiality (or “buggery,” as it was then called) in Colonial New England. Young William Hackett, who was thought to be around eighteen years of age, was discovered attempting to have sex with a cow. He was placed on trial for potentially creating prodigies, and found guilty even when he protested that he had been unable to perform the sex act due to the interruption of being discovered. Despite this, the cow in question was killed in front of him, as per Leviticus, and the young man was hanged.
George Spencer was an openly atheist servant who did not pray, and only read the Bible when forcibly required to by his master. He was not well-liked by his Puritan neighbors, and when a sow gave birth to a deformed, one-eyed fetus, they decided that the father was clearly George Spencer, who coincidentally had a missing eye. On April 8th of 1642, having been found guilty by trial, George was made to witness the pig’s slaughter, and then promptly hanged.
In 1647 another man was incriminated due to the “evidence” of a deformed pig’s fetus. This time the townsfolk felt that the fetus strongly resembled a man named Thomas Hogg — one can only speculate that his last name didn’t help his cause. Thomas was forced to fondle the pig in question, and then another sow (for comparison), while onlookers tried to determine if the pig that had given birth to the deformed fetus appeared to be aroused. He denied the charges, despite the fact that the pertinent pig apparently urinated (which the Puritans decided was something an aroused pig would do). Eventually he was whipped, and incarcerated with a sentence of semi-starvation and hard labor.
Perhaps the most famous trial of the Pig-Men Hunts is that of Thomas Granger. Accused of fornicating with a menagerie of animals — which included sheep, goats, and a turkey — of course the sixteen-year-old boy was forced to meticulously identify them all and watch their slaughter before his own execution. The townsfolk believed they were practicing the law of God.
In 1681 in Plymouth, Thomas Saddeler pled not guilty on the charges of forcibly buggering a mare. Lacking evidence of an actual prodigy, he was found guilty of attempting to perform buggery. He was whipped, then forced to sit in the gallows with a rope around his neck while his forehead was branded with the Roman letter “P” for “pollution.” His scarlet letter was a bloody and rather permanent one.
In 1692 the Salem Witch Trials began — in an environment already ripe with sexual suspicion and shame. The evil that the Puritans hunted for among deformed fetuses, and later in young women, already stained the hands of these anxious “do-gooders.” While fear-based trials continued in Colonial New England, one can only imagine the Lady Macbeth-ian permanence of those stains.