At a small farm in Ohio, I once found myself outside a hog pen. It was a muddy, cloistered, chaotic space bustling with so many pink pounds of edible flesh. Two things struck me about these animals. The first was that some of these snorting beasts had such eminently slap-able bottoms that I could hardly keep myself from reaching over and giving them a good spanking. The other was that there was a lot of intelligence behind this façade of meat; piglets were playing jubilantly with each other that spring day, and bloated sows, reposed in the warm sunlight, were eyeing me with as much curiosity as I was eyeing them. That scene made such an impression on me that I’ve been meaning to write about the minds of swine ever since.
But that column will have to wait a little longer, because in examining the vast literature on cognitive studies of farm animals—and from all appearances, scientists’ understanding of pig cognition is in a woeful state of disarray—I got distracted (as I often do) by matters of sexual deviance. Between writing my columns for Slate, you see, I’m often scouring the holdings of the Cornell University Library, doing my own research for a book on the psychology of moral outrage and its relation to human sexuality. (Ithaca, after all, was the birthplace of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.) So, with those unsettled pigs still prancing about in my mind, it was only natural that my eyes would settle on a rather tangential nod to the genus Sus in a study of crime and punishment in Colonial New England. Social historian Robert Oaks had, like me, been interested in hogs—and for reasons that were, oddly enough, not altogether distinct from my earlier observation of their very humanlike rumps. It seems these animals were valued not so much for their minds or their meat, by some residents of early America, but as lovers. At least, that’s what many people thought at the time.
Now, I’ve written before about the fascinating research underway on the phenomenon of zoophilia and the reported 1 percent of the human population that feels a primary erotic attraction to other species. Yet I’d absolutely no idea about the brutal oppression that not only zoophiles faced in centuries prior, but also the animals themselves that had been involved in their sordid affairs. Today, I think, most people would feel sympathy for an animal that had been violated by a human being, but in the past, they were seen as being just as morally culpable as their sexual partners. And while today’s zoophiles continue to face, as they always have, irreparable stigma for acts of bestiality—along with perhaps some jail time and fines—the “buggers” of the past were burned alive. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this period of our history, however, is the paranoia over human-animal sex. Indeed, a panic over porking pigs grew so intense in Colonial New England that it became, for a time, the “other” witch-hunt.
One of the most sensational of the bestiality trials occurred not far from Yale University, in the colony of New Haven. Today’s New Haven, Conn., is known for its high concentration of genius, yet long ago it was notorious for breeding prodigies of a very different sort. "Prodigies," according to Thomas Aquinas, that medieval anti-kink who was especially concerned about other people’s private behaviors, were those hybrid monsters sprung from the loins of another species but borne of human seed. These creatures could also be conceived through having sex with atheists, but apparently there were fewer of those milling about old New Haven than there were solicitous swine.
In 1646, Oaks tells us, a servant by the name of George Spencer, who was notorious for having “a prophane, lying, scoffing and lewd speritt” (sounds like my kind of man), was executed for making love to his master’s pig. He swore that he didn’t do it, but, unfortunately for Spencer, the sow happened to give birth to a deformed fetus (“a prodigious monster”) that resembled George a bit too closely for most people’s comfort. The critical piece of evidence held against him was the uncanny fact that, just like the pig fetus, this grumpy old man also had “butt one eye for use, the other hath (as itt is called) a pearle in itt, is whitish and deformed.” And so off to an imaginary hell he was cast.
If anyone could commiserate with George Spencer and his troubles, it was a fellow New Haven citizen with the ridiculously unfortunate name of Thomas Hogg. Like Spencer, Hogg found himself at the center of an intense buggery investigation when a neighborhood sow bore a deformed fetus with “a faire & white skinne & head, as Thomas Hogg is.” Needless to say, with so many of its male residents being reminiscent of aborted pig fetuses, we might also pity the women of New Haven.
The allegations made against Hogg were so serious, in fact, that the governor and deputy governor personally frogmarched him out to the barnyard toward the sow in question and ordered him to “scratt” (fondle) the animal before their eyes. This was done to gauge just how intimately familiar Hogg and hog might be. “Immedyatly there appeared a working of lust in the sow,” the court records recount for us, “insomuch that she powred out seede before them.” When Hogg reluctantly titillated the teats of a different sow, that animal showed no sign of returning his affections.
It wasn’t just pigs. In the nearby colony of Plymouth, a similar witch hunt for buggers was underway, and according to Oaks it reached fairly dramatic heights with the 1642 trial of a 16-year-old boy named Thomas Granger. This randy adolescent had been indicted for taking indecent liberties with what seems an entire stable full of animals, including “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” I realize the turkey part is a bit distracting (and how one goes about having sex with a large clawed bird is perhaps better left unexamined); but even more remarkable, not to mention infinitely more absurd than fouling a fowl, is the legal diligence and sobriety with which this case was prosecuted.
There was little question in these righteous minds that the boy should be dispatched to the flames for his egregious violations of God’s natural law, but there was a lot of head-scratching on the bench over which sheep, exactly, he’d been defiling. This was vital to sort out, because if they executed the wrong sheep, they risked the unthinkable happening: a monstrously bleating, hoofed prodigy might drop undetected onto Plymouth. So, naturally, a line-up of busily masticating victims was staged for Granger. With one trembling finger, the boy pointed out those five naïve, amber-eyed ruminants that had been targets of his secret woolly lust. Court records indicate that the animals were then “killed before this face, according to the law, Leviticus xx. 15; and then he himself was executed.”