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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Rex: Crimes Against the Crown

by Sarah Morin on 2022-01-11T08:30:00-05:00 in Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Women's History | 0 Comments

For our first post of 2022, we examine a trio of court cases where men, women, and youth of colonial Connecticut were prosecuted for committing crimes of “sin.” As noted in a previous post, these offenses were prosecuted under Rex, a formal Latin title for the King of England, due to the government being answerable to the British Crown at the time.

When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at In certain circumstances, we will add missing letters to abbreviated words or substitute modern spelling in brackets to enhance reader comprehension.

Why and what “sins” were prosecuted

New Haven was founded as its own colony in 1638 by a group of English Puritans led by the Reverend John Davenport and the merchant Theophilus Eaton. However, because New Haven had sheltered regicidal judges who fled England after condemning King Charles I to death, King Charles II merged the colony with Connecticut Colony in 1664, a few years after the restoration of the English monarchy (Wilson H. Faude, Hidden History of Connecticut, p. 65;, A Separate Place: The New Haven Colony, 1638-1665;, New Haven: History).

According to American historian Perry Miller, “New Haven was the essence of Puritanism, distilled and undefiled; the Bible Commonwealth and nothing else” (Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America, p. 9). As such, New Haven’s legal system adhered to Biblical law. In his examination of the colony’s earliest court cases, Judge Jon C. Blue wrote, “The judges, who consulted with the local clergy, were not wholly secular magistrates. Their task was to execute the law of God, and part of that task was to punish the wicked” (The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials from the New Haven Colony, 1639-1663, p. 20). While Puritanism gradually diminished in New England with each subsequent generation, this retributive mentality persisted in the New Haven County Courts well into the eighteenth century.

The most common type of Rex prosecution was for fornication. Not even married couples were immune to such charges, as the authorities kept careful note of how soon full-term babies appeared after weddings. If a child was born before nine months had passed and appeared to be full-term according to the testimony of the attending midwife, the couple was summoned to court. There are several cases in the New Haven County Court records of women being “delivered of a perfect child” too soon after marriage, including Rex vs. Aaron and Elisabeth Morris (1745), Rex vs. Timothy and Luce Plant (1746), and Rex vs. Lemual and Huldah Moffet (1765), to name a few.

Other Rex offenses included illegitimacy, adultery, lascivious carriage (which was prosecuted in Connecticut all the way up to 1971), swearing, drunkenness, breaking the peace, and profaning the Sabbath. There was also a myriad of other interesting, unusual, and outrageous crimes a colonist could be charged with—some of which are still illegal today—as we will see in the in the cases profiled below.

Rex vs. Sarah Humervile

In November 1767, widow Sarah Humervile (or Humphrevile) of New Haven was prosecuted for running a bawdry house (another term for brothel).

The complaint claimed that Humervile “is of Evil Name and Fame generally for Maintaining in s[ai]d New Haven an House suspected to be an House of Bawdery and Incontenency, contrary to the Peace and the Statute of this Colony entitled an Act against Breaking the Peace.”

Humervile pleaded not guilty to John Hubbard, the justice of the peace who examined her. However, he stated in his report that “On due Consideration I am of Opinion she is guilty,” and subsequently had Ebenezar Lines of New Haven bound on recognizance of 20 pounds for her good behavior until she could appear at Court.

Most interestingly, when Humervile’s case came to trial, “no Person appeared to inform against her.” Given this amazing lack of witnesses—perhaps potential informants did not wish to be implicated for lascivious deeds of their own—the Court released her from paying for the costs of her prosecution (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 7, 1767 to 1773, p. 57).

single page of paper with handwriting

Presentment for Rex vs. Sarah Humervile

Rex vs. John Leach

In November 1772, John Leach of New Haven was reported to the County Court for attempted drugging of unmarried women with Spanish flies.

The complaint alleged that he “did procure a Quantity of Spanish Flies, Sufficient to Infest & poison many Persons, with Intent in a Secret manner to communicate the same to certain young unmarried ladies in said New Haven, them therewith to stimulate them to exceed the Rules of that Virtue & Chastity, which are the Ornament of Glory of the Female Sex, & so having procured s[ai]d Spanish Flies, the said Leach then and there being Seduced by the Instigation of the Devil & destitute of Sentiments of Virtue & Honour, did communicate said Spanish Flies to several young unmarried Ladies, without their Privity or Knowledge, being good subjects of our Lord the King, & with Intent to poison & enflame s[ai]d Ladies, in order to facilitate the Ruin of their Virtue; against the Peace of our Lord the King and to the manifest Destruction of Good manners & that Virtue which is the Glory of a People.”

Unfortunately, the only evidence of this offense is the report submitted to the Court by James Abraham Hilhouse (variant spelling of Hillhouse), “Attorney of our Lord the King for the County of New Haven.” No further information as to the outcome of this case appears in the County Court Record Book.

It is possible that the Court did not deem it necessary, for whatever reason, to follow up on this report. Or perhaps the case was moved up to the Superior Court, due to the gravity of the crime. Indeed, such poisoning would be frowned on today, not only for the use of date rape drugs, but also because this particular substance is dangerous to ingest. Spanish flies are made of blister beetle and contain a toxic compound called cantharidin, which can cause a myriad of unpleasant and deadly side effects, including kidney, bladder, and intestinal tract damage; extremely painful urination; blood in urine and vomit; difficulty swallowing; priapism; organ failure; convulsions; seizures; coma; and death.

single page of paper with handwriting

Report for Rex vs. John Leach

Rex vs. Ezekiel Porter Belden and Isaac Baldwin

In April 1774, Ezekiel Porter Belden and Isaac Baldwin, “Members of Yale College in New [H]aven Now resident in said New [H]aven,” were prosecuted for vandalism and destruction of property.

The complaint stated that they “did brake the Glass Windows of James Blaksly... Whitmore & Thomas Bills all of said New Haven and did also pull down break & deface many Grave Stones & monuments in the Burying Ground in said New Haven.”

One wonders what prompted these young men to engage in such desecration and destruction. While no motive is mentioned in the court records, Belden and Baldwin’s audacity did not persist once they were charged. During their trial, they “pleaded guilty and put themselves on the mercy of the Court.” Perhaps because of their display of humility, the Court sentenced them to pay a fine of only four pounds, plus court costs (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 8, 1774 to 1783, p. 57).

two pages of paper with handwriting

Complaint and plea for Rex vs. Ezekiel Porter Belden and Isaac Baldwin

As noted in a previous post, the records for these cases, as well as several of the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

logo of eagle with text National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

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