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Anxieties of Early America Reveal Themselves Through Historian’s Research


At the heart of a new book co-authored by Doron Ben-Atar, Ph.D., is a striking and unusual case of history repeating itself.

Doron Ben-Atar
Photo by Angie Chen

In New England in 1796, a man in his eighties was convicted of bestiality and sentenced to death by hanging. Then, three years later, this same scenario repeated itself 70 miles away.

“The similarities were so striking that this could not just be coincidence, because nothing like this has ever happened before or since—the charging of two men in their eighties with such an act,” said Ben-Atar, a Fordham history professor who specializes in early America.

The significance of the two cases is detailed in Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), published April 4. Ben-Atar’s co-author is Richard Brown, Ph.D., Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut.

The two cases reflect larger tensions and anxieties about changes in American society, such as challenges to religious orthodoxy, cultural changes regarding sexuality, and a market revolution that was changing traditional economic arrangements, Ben-Atar said. In the New England interior, where both cases occurred, a sort of flashback to Puritan times was spurred by the spread of cosmopolitanism and Enlightenment ideals.

Also reflected in the cases was the political divide between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians, who were more sympathetic to France and the French Revolution. In one of the cases, Federalists did the prosecuting and the defense was handled by Jeffersonians.

The cases occurred in 1796 in Hampshire County, Mass., and in 1799 in Litchfield County, Conn. In addition to the charge, the sentence, and the age of the accused, the cases share other similarities, Ben-Atar said. Both men lived in farming communities adjacent to rising metropolitan areas, and both were marginal members of society. (One was a cancer doctor, a profession that commanded far less respect than it does today, and the other had spiraled downward financially throughout his life.)

Also surprising was the rush to prosecute two men who were at a stage of life that few people living in that century reached at all. “You would expect these people in their eighties to be kind of respected,” he said.

Ben-Atar characterizes the book as “microhistory,” or an effort to look in between the big events of the past to examine episodes that reveal things about society at a given time. Because of the obscurity of the cases, he said, researching them was a challenge.

The good kind, that is.

“It’s one of those fun detective things that you do as a historian,” he said.


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