Sex in Middlesex

As one would imagine from the title, Roger Thompson’s most popular work (see my last post) is Sex in Middlesex, Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699.[1] First, a few words on the differences between academic historians and genealogists. Academic historians are concerned with the “why” of history. They gather large samples of statistical information but usually skim over individual people. Genealogists work from the individual, but usually we leave the bigger picture to the historians while we move on to another ancestor.

Thompson is an historian and Sex in Middlesex was written to gather data and test theories about how seventeenth-century sex and morals were being interpreted in the historical literature of the 1980s. Not all of his fellow historians agree with his conclusions, but not all historians agree with any fellow historian’s conclusions, and you can be your own judge of that. The point here, however, is that for genealogists that’s not the point.

Sex in Middlesex pulls its facts from the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, court records. Eleven chapters discuss court cases by categories such as “Fornication: Detection and Evasion,” “Courtship and Patriarchal Authority,” “Pregnant Brides and Broken Promises,” “Unfaithful Wives,” “Unfaithful Husbands,” and “Community Control.” Statistical charts include “Geographical Incidence of Sexual Misdemeanors [1649–1699]” (the winner is Charlestown with 60, next was Cambridge with 31), and “Incidence of Conviction for Sexual Misdemeanors.”

We genealogists, naturally, will first look in the index to see if any of our ancestors are included – I don’t believe any of mine are, although certainly there are plenty of relatives. If you don’t find any ancestors, either, there are still three reasons to read the book.

The first is the introduction with a detailed description of Middlesex County and its court records. Definitely a must-read for all genealogists looking for ancestors in that county, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and much of the rest of New England.

Second, there are the more than 200 pages of endnotes that contain citations to a virtual reading list of historical works (as of 1986) about this topic (not so much genealogical references; Thompson depended mostly on antiquated compendia such as James Savage’s Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England). If one were to set oneself a goal of thumbing through every one of these sources, one would have a start on a good education in historical writing about early New England – obviously, to be supplemented with more current writings (we will talk more about this in the future).

Finally, and best of all, there is the fun of reading about characters such as William Bucknam, a Malden carpenter in his fifties who is described as “One of the most notorious village Lotharios.” Bucknam was a nuisance, “snatching kisses, feeling legs, grabbing on to laps or round waists.”

Definitely not one of my ancestors!


[1] (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986; reprint 2012).

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

29 thoughts on “Sex in Middlesex

  1. I’ve got some of those. Made me blink the first time I found one. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Court and municipal records can be a great window on contemporaneous society. The New Netherland Institute is translating and digitizing the 1638-1665 Council Minutes of Nieuw Amsterdam (Dutch New York) (, which make for great reading. One can definitely see the change in tone and priorities when Pieter Stuyvesant took over from Willem Kieft as Director General. And yes, there were a number of peccadillos and rowdy incidents among the settlers(!).

  3. Although none of my ancestors were mentioned in this work, I did come across the sexual misconduct of Capt. Daniel Patrick, which occurred in the late 1630s or early 1640 in probably Watertown (before Middlesex County court records were kept), unto my ancestor Elizabeth, wife of Edward Sturges [The Great Migration, Immigrants to New England, 1634-1635, Vol. VI, R-S, p.593-94 by Robert Charles Anderson]. Both Thompson and Anderson give us a sense that not all of the early New England immigrants were totally committed Puritans!

    1. They weren’t! Some were here on their ‘particulers’. as was one of my ancestors (gateway). And I believe it was Yarmouth, that many came to live because of a more relaxed community…..but to read on, there was some adherence to the religion of their mother country……which was really in turmoil religious wise……and some decided to ‘shuck’ it all and find a ‘happy medium……my thoughts only from the readings of the colonies’ inhabitants..

    2. Randy, I briefly ran across Patrick while doing the Elizabeth (Fones) (Winthrop) (Feake) Hallet sketch, but couldn’t take time to read all the details.

  4. We used this work when working on the first three generations of the Brigham family. John Fay (d. 5 May 1690, “age 50”) of Marlborough, husband of Mary Brigham and Susanna (Shattuck) (Morse) Brigham, was likely the subject of this interesting court case that appears in Sex in Middlesex on page 25.

    William Hudson, presented in April 1691, bewailed “the dangers that whores accuse rich single men or married men as the father of their bastards.” A man protesting his innocence was often asked if some other other male might be responsible. Hudson produced evidence that “in August [1689] the soldier John Fay had been at the house of Ephraim Roper in Lancaster, in or on the bed with sd. Mercy Rugg lying upon his belly with some violent motions toward her.” Fay had, in the meantime, conveniently or coincidentally died. The protesting Hudson was eventually judged by the court to be the reputed father.

    Through both of his marriages, John Fay is ancestor of a sizable amount of people, including inventor Eli Whitney and the presidential Bush family.

  5. I have at least one of those in my 9th generation back “25 Feb 1692 – John Rider, a child of the church, was publically called before the church and laid under admonition for the sin of fornication committed with Hannah Barnes who was afterward his wife.” I believe they were residing in Plymouth…I suspect the term ‘child’ is not to be taken literally as if my birth date for him is correct he’d have been nearly 30 years old…

  6. RE William Bucknam- was I reading current media reports or ancient text on such conduct? wow- things really never change!!

  7. Times or “people” never change…..the more we know the more we realize it is a matter of knowing these things happen, not IF. They didn’t have twitter, videos, and Facebook back then. Perhaps it was even more common then.

    1. My copy of “Sex in Middlesex” isn’t out on my coffee table for my grandkids to peruse…it’s title is a bit shocking to find in “Grammie’s house!”

    2. When one lives in a small community, where inevitably there are many personal connections between the families, and daily interactions with neighbors, and with people moving from one community to another, I’d think it surprising if anything happened without an awful lot of people knowing. When I read town records with just names and dates and no detail, frustrating as that is to us, I suspect that they just simply assumed it wasn’t terribly important to write it down because everyone already knew anyway. It’s still like that in villages. I know stuff about my neighbors that I didn’t really go looking for, just picked up in passing, so to speak. Small towns still don’t need twitter.

      On another note, I have always enjoyed reading history, particularly social and cultural history, and Thompson’s books are illuminating. I think that genealogy creates a perfect framework with which to explore history. History, after all, is really about people doing things and building up social and political patterns that make it into the academicians’ studies. The academic stuff inevitably becomes rather abstract and removed from the lives of people unless there is an effort to use history as a context for those lives. So history- even the academic stuff- is a large part of my reading, as I enter a new-to-me area or time. I am becoming interested in population studies, which to me are a logical extension of the friends/associates/neighbors method of discovery.

  8. I can also recommend Roger’s “Divided We Stand”, about Watertown, 1630-1680.
    Roger was my tutor in colonial history as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. He was an inspiring and knowledgeable teacher, and I count myself lucky to have studied with him.

    1. Yes. How fortunate you were! I’ve learned so much about my Great Migration ancestors who originally settled in Watertown in the 1630s due to his book. Is he still researching? or teaching? I’d like to write him a note of gratitude and would appreciate locating his address—if possible to share it here. Thank you.

    2. Deborah, yes, I have Divided We Stand on my list as well as From Deference to Defiance. Chris Child is going to do a post on Cambridge Cameos, too. Roger’s work came along after I was out of school, so I am catching up.

  9. Times and places don’t always matter either. One of my ggg grandmothers in Schenectady had a baby at age 17, in 1798. I’ve got her New Testament with just the first name listed. Someone was able to verify the name of the baby’s father on her baptismal record. My ggg grandmother lists the names, including surnames, of all her other children too, beginning in 1803, six months after her marriage. I read “somewhere” that a historian researched baptismal records where the birth dates were also recorded, and discovered that in NY in 1800, about 30% of births were to women who were either unmarried, or had been married less than nine months. Unfortunately, I was a real genealogical newbie, and didn’t have any idea of the importance of recording sources!

      1. Alicia,

        Reading my post again, I could have been clearer. My ggg grandmother did not marry the father of her first child. In fact, within a week of its birth, he married someone else, and their child was baptized several weeks later. New York church records are very clear about whether the parents of a child are married to each other. That’s what made this particular piece of research possible. But, yes, I agree, her next child, born *after* her marriage was probably easily forgiven, even though the “proper” interval wasn’t there. I have a first cousin born three months after his parents’ 1930 marriage. His mother was, according to my mother, terribly upset by the pregnancy, but I’ve seen lots of pictures of her cooing over that baby once her first grandchild was born. And he still talks about their close relationship.


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