[Cross-posted from New Books in Law] Bestiality is more often the subject of jokes than legal cases nowadays, and so it was in late eighteenth-century western New England, when, strangely, two octogenarians were accused in separate towns in the space of a few years. Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown each discovered one case while they were researching other books, but when they began talking to one another, they realized the cases might be at the root of something bigger. Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) explores two New England accusations of bestiality crimes, the trials, and the death sentences imposed upon the defendants.
In post-revolutionary America, in the Age of Reason, how could two old men face the gallows on charges that seemed more appropriate to the early 1640s? Ben-Atar and Brown unravel the personal, political, and religious entanglements that the cases represent. They provide a history of bestiality and its connection to sodomy or “crimes against nature,” and show the consequences of keeping laws on the books that may have outlived the culture that introduced them. Ben-Atar and Brown examine a struggle between Federalists and evangelicals, on the one hand, against Jeffersonian Republicans and rational religionists on the other, to define morality in the emerging new republic. The book puts the accusation of bestiality squarely in the midst of a cultural cataclysm in America. Taming Lust combines riveting historical narrative with a compelling analysis. Even the footnotes are not to be missed. These two isolated cases help us understand not only the local history of western New England, but the national political struggles, the evangelical movement that bridged the New Divinity with the Second Great Awakening, and the transatlantic influences from England and France that so affected the lives of Americans in the 1790s.