1633: An “outrage to decency” as a man attends a lying-in


In late 1633 the Anglican archdeaconry in Oxford ordered an investigation into an incident in Great Tew. According to informants a male servant, Thomas Salmon, committed an “outrage to decency” by entering the bedroom of a Mrs Rymel, just six hours after she had given birth. Salmon had gained access to the room by wearing women’s clothing. Several persons were ordered before an archdeacon’s court, including the attending midwife, Francis Fletcher. She testified that:

“Thomas Salmon, a servant, did come to the labour of the said Rymel’s wife… disguised in women’s apparel… she confesseth he did come into her chamber some six hours after she had been delivered so disguised, but she sayeth at his first coming that she knew him not… and was no way privy to his coming or to his disguise.”

Testimony from other witnesses revealed that Salmon was a young servant employed by Elizabeth Fletcher, daughter in law of the midwife. According to Salmon’s own testimony, his mistress had encouraged him to cross-dress and attend Mrs Rymel’s lying-in, suggesting there would be food, drinking and “good cheer”. After outfitting him in women’s clothing, Fletcher took him to the Rymel house and told other women he was “Mrs Garrett’s maid”. Salmon admitted staying only briefly in Mrs Rymel’s bedroom – however he remained in women’s clothes for another two hours. His testimony was confirmed by Elizabeth Fletcher, who admitted helping Salmon enter the room as “a jest”. The archdeacon’s court absolved the midwife of any blame, ordered Elizabeth Fletcher to apologise and handed Salmon a strong talking-to and a formal penance.

Source: Oxford Archdeaconry Archives, 1633, fol.75, 151. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1633: Women actors are “notorious whores”, writes Prynne


William Prynne (1600-1669) was an English lawyer and writer, famous for his provocative and controversial essays. One of the most Puritan of the Puritans, Prynne was not afraid to take aim at popular conventions, culture or leaders. One of his earliest and best known works was Histriomastix, a 1633 attack on just about anything considered fun. Historiomastix strongly criticised parties, masquerade balls, country fairs, mixed dancing, feast days, wakes, sports, even hairstyles and colourful stained-glass windows. But much of this particular text is a condemnation of theatrical performances and those responsible for them. Plays, Prynne claims are “the chief delight of the Devil”, wanton and immoral displays of debauchery filled with:

“…amorous smiles and wanton gestures, those lascivious complements, those lewd adulterous kisses and embracements, those lustful dalliances, those impudent, immodest painterly passages… they are the very schools of bawdery, real whoredoms, incests, adulteries, etc.”

As to those who regularly attend the theatre, they are:

“…adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons.”

Histriomastix was especially severe on actors and actresses. The ranks of male actors, Prynne claimed, were filled with “Sodomites” who spent their time writing love letters and “chasing the tails” of “players boys”. As for actors of the opposite gender, Prynne offered a simple but biting four-word assessment:

“Women actors, notorious whores.”

A drawing of William Prynne, right, being reacquainted with his ears
A drawing of William Prynne, right, being reacquainted with his ears

This anti-thespian tirade soon got William Prynne into trouble. One woman who quite enjoyed masked balls, mixed dancing and the occasional acting role was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. The queen, who appeared in a speaking role in a prominent play not long after the publication of Histriomastix, took his slurs personally. In 1634 Prynne was hauled before the star chamber, charged with seditious libel against the queen and others and found guilty. He was fined £5000, stripped of his academic degrees, given two days in the pillory and sentenced to have the tops of his ears clipped off with shears. And if that wasn’t enough, hundreds of copies of Histriomastix were rounded up and burned before Prynne’s eyes as he languished in the pillory.


Source: William Prynne, Histriomastix, London, 1633. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1816: Pious teen avoids rope swing – just like Jesus


James Walter Douglas was born in Virginia in November 1797. After completing his primary education Douglass moved to the village of Christiana, Delaware, where he obtained a position as a trainee clerk. The teenaged Douglass also became a pious and active member of the local church. The extent of his faith is evident in Douglass’s personal diary. In its pages he explains his reasons for not using a rope swing, popular with numerous other young men in Christiana:

“A very high and quite expensive swing was put up in the village by the young men [and has become] a great resort for the young people of the town. I was very much in doubt whether I ought to attend it, and at length determined that I ought not, for these reasons:

1. It takes time and we must account for our time.

2. It is setting an example of levity.

3. The Lord Jesus would not attend such a place.

4. Nor [would] his apostles.

5. Nor [would] our minister Mr Latta…

6. Please when carried to excess is criminal. Is this not excess?

7. What good can I get [from the swing]. Will I be more virtuous? Wiser? Better tempered? More full of grace? No, no I will not…”

In October 1816 Douglass had another moral dilemma when he visited New York. Out walking, he found himself continually drawn towards the printed handbills of the theatre, which threatened to “inflame [his] imagination”. But Douglass triumphantly reported being able to return to his lodgings without passing the theatre and looking inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly Douglass later entered the church. By 1823 he was preaching in North Carolina and in 1833 he married a woman from Virginia. He died prematurely in August 1837, just weeks before his 40th birthday.

Source: Diary of James W. Douglass, July 1st 1816. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1757: Farmer whipped, fined for venting his frustration with women


In 1757 Samuel Rhodes, a yeoman farmer from Stoughton, Massachusetts, was charged with “wilfully and maliciously” uttering “false and blasphemous words”. According to witnesses Rhodes was overheard saying to another person:

“God was a damned fool for ever making a woman.”

The court found Rhodes guilty and sentenced him to be:

“…set upon the gallows with a rope about his neck for the space of one hour; that he be publicly whipped twenty-five stripes; and that he become bound by way of recognisance in the sum of twenty pounds… for the term of twelve months and that he pay [the] costs of prosecution.”

Source: Minutes of the Superior Court of Judicature of Massachusetts Bay, Suffolk County, November 1757. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1866: Clergyman blames the French for masturbation in England

Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) was an Anglican theologian and Oxford professor, known for his austerity and social conservatism. In mid-1866 Pusey launched a letter-writing campaign, penning missives to several English newspapers and journals to warn of the deadly peril of teenage masturbation. Just 50 years before, Pusey argued, the “despicable sin” was hardly known in England, and was:

“…unknown at most of our public schools. Now, alas, it is the besetting trial of our boys; it is sapping the constitutions and injuring in many the fineness of intellect.”

Pusey offered a cause for this alarming increase in masturbation – the restoration of diplomatic relations, trade and travel with France since the Napoleonic Wars. Pusey suggested that self-pollution had crossed the Channel from the schools, barrack-houses and tenements of France, where:

“…it has for centuries been practised with a contemptible openness, often in groups.”

Source: Dr E. B. Pusey, letters to The Times and the Medical Times and Gazette, June 1866. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.