One Way to the Gallows

To appreciate due process, consider the story of a simple man named George Spencer who was accused, of all things, of impregnating a pig in puritan New England. His story takes place in 1642, and it’s excerpted from the book, The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials from New Haven Colony, 1639-1663, by Jon C. Blue, a Superior Court judge in Connecticut.

One day, a local farmer complained to the colony’s magistrates that a female pig he’d just bought had birthed a deformed stillborn, and what’s more, the dead piglet looked like Spencer, a former servant of the man who sold him the sow. I’m sure that alone was tough to hear for Spencer, who may not have been a looker. He had one good eye and one deformed eye, and apparently, his bad eye in particular resembled that of the piglet.

The resemblance caused such consternation that, ten days later, the magistrates questioned Spencer about “this abomination.” Not surprisingly, Spencer denied being the father, but the magistrates committed him to prison based on “strong probabilities.”

That night, one of the magistrates went to the prison, found Spencer talking with two other men, and asked him “if he had not committed that abominable filthiness with the sow.” But Spencer again denied it. The magistrate then pointedly asked whether he didn’t notice a family resemblance—ouch—and recited to him Proverbs 28:13: “He that hides his sins shall not prosper, but he that confesses and forsakes them shall find mercy.”

The magistrate pressed, asking Spencer if he regretted denying “the fact which seemed to be witnessed from heaven against him.”

Spencer then relented, said was he was sorry, and confessed to the deed.

It sealed his fate.

The following day, the magistrates returned to the prison with a throng of others. They confronted Spencer and urged him to confess his sin. He initially denied it, but when he was reminded of his prior confession, he confessed again.

Then people really got riled up. The next day, the colony’s governor joined the magistrates to question Spencer personally. The authorities asked him “how long the temptation had been upon his spirit before he committed it.” Spencer replied that “it had been upon his spirit two or three days before.”

Within a week, Spencer was put on trial. He had no time to prepare his defense or the means to do it. He had no right to a lawyer, a jury, or a presumption of innocence. The court urged him again “to give glory to God” by confessing, but Spencer wouldn’t do it. Instead, he reportedly cursed himself and desperately denied all that he’d formerly confessed.

It was too late. The court called a series of witnesses who testified to his prior confessions. Spencer answered that “the witnesses did him wrong and charged things upon him which he had not spoken,” and he again denied committing the act.

But the die was cast. The court found him guilty of the “unnatural and abominable” crime and, by the rule of Leviticus 20:15, sentenced him and the sow to death.

After the verdict, the court demanded that Spencer acknowledge “his sinful and abominable filthiness,” but Spencer replied that “he would leave it to God, adding that he had condemned himself by his former confessions.” The court declared itself “abundantly satisfied” of his guilt, and it ordered his sentence carried out.

George Spencer was hanged on April 8, 1642. Paraded before a crowd that had gathered at the gallows, he was urged to acknowledge his crime, and he again denied it. As the noose was fitted to his neck, the poor man fully and desperately confessed again, but as the mob pressed him to speak further of his sin, he fell silent, until the sentence was carried out.

Here’s to a constant march of progress.

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