The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think.
Jury trial was abolished in the Puritan community of New Haven on the grounds that it can’t be found in the Bible. The absence of juries was a big part of what allowed the most extreme examples of Puritan loopiness to occur, and is a useful argument in favour of the jury tradition. In general, the authorities in London struggled to exercise a moderating influence on these remote communities; the Puritans were not fleeing religious persecution so much as trying to establish an environment in which they could persecute others.
However, any loopiness was highly exaggerated by a man called the Reverend Samuel Peters, of Hebron, Connecticut, who was driven out of America. As revenge, he published a book called The General History of Connecticut in London in 1781. It was a diatribe against the colonies which simply invented many of the colonists' alleged excesses. Peters’ tales included an elderly English clergyman who had been brought to trial for combing his hair on the Sabbath, and for running into church to get out of the rain; this influenced public opinion against the colonists. However, many of his tales actually seem to have been inventions.
The Salem witch trials of 1692 are well known, but there were other outbreaks of extreme religious fervour in Puritan New England. One of them was the Bestiality Panic in New Haven, Connecticut. People there were preoccupied by the perceived problem of bestiality, an attack on God’s order which threatened to breed unnatural monsters. This fear wasn’t unique to English Puritans: in 17th century Sweden the same fear made it taboo for a man to enter a milking parlour.
One victim of the panic was the spectacularly unlucky George Spencer. He was ugly, bald and one-eyed, and in February 1641 a sow produced a piglet which was also ugly, bald, and one-eyed. On the basis of his resemblance to the piglet, Spencer was immediately arrested and accused of bestiality. This was a capital offence, and Spencer denied it until he was told by one of the magistrates that 'he yt confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall finde mercie'.
Taking this as an offer to let him off if he confessed, Spencer pled guilty – whereupon he was told that the mercy in question would come from the Lord, as the court was sentencing him to death. He retracted his confession, which left the Court with a problem: capital cases needed at least two witnesses, and in this case there were none. So they came up with an ingenious solution: Spencer himself counted as one witness on the strength of the confession they had tricked out of him, and the pig was the other. On the 8th of April they were both executed.
Another man named Thomas Hogg wore a steel truss for his hernia, and because it kept cutting open his britches, a lot of people in the colony were familiar with the sight of his scrotum. When a sow had two deformed piglets people thought that they looked like Hogg (whose name can’t have helped). In particular they thought that the deformed eyes of one piglet reminded them of his scrotum. He was canny enough never to confess, so they couldn’t hang him – though they did whip him for 'general lewdness'.
The traditional image of a New England puritan is that they were dressed in black, with a steeple hat and lots of buckles. None of these is historically accurate; this is a 19th-century idea of how a puritan would have looked, with the buckles representing a stereotype of quaintness. Actually they normally dressed as colourfully and variably as everyone else. Black suits were for Sunday best, because black dye was expensive and faded fast. If you were having your portrait painted, you wore your best clothes - which is why portraits tend to show them in black. (They are also sometimes depicted as armed with a blunderbuss, but this is another invention: it’s a crowd-control weapon, not a hunting piece.)
Puritans aren’t the same as pilgrims. The Mayflower Pilgrims were a mixture of utopians and fortune hunters, and welcomed dissent. The Puritans, on the other hand, came to America not to find religious freedom so much as to take refuge from it: their party had lost power in England and they wanted to go somewhere that remained free of the taint of religious tolerance. They were active suppressors of religious freedom: for example, a woman named Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston in 1660 for being a Quaker. Those legal measures to promote religious tolerance which did exist were promulgated from England and imposed on the colonies against their wishes.
Plays were banned under the Puritans in England – the ban held for 18 years.
A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things.