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Forgotten and Overlooked: Queer Trials of the Early Modern Period

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The following is a guest post by Jeremy Gainey, Lead Library Technician in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress.   

For LGBTQI+ month, here are three forgotten and overlooked trials of queer people in early modern European and American history.

Katherina Hetzeldorfer

The case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer in 15th-century Germany illustrates what historian Helmut Puff has dubbed “female sodomy,” or same-sex eroticism between women. It also provides fascinating information about the role of court records during the early modern era. (Puff, 41.) This is because the court represented one of the few places where same-sex behavior could be described, since courts “represented verbally what was considered unspeakable.” (Puff, 42.) It is significant that Hetzeldorfer’s crime could not even be named, not because of how transgressive it was, but because there simply was no name for it. Hetzeldorfer’s case launched an era of violent persecution of “female sodomy” in Germany – even though this persecution revolved around behaviors and identities for which there was no term (Puff, 51-52.)

Hetzeldorfer and a female companion she presented as her sister lived in the town of Speyer from approximately 1475 to 1477, at which point her true relationship to the female companion became known. The trial of Hetzeldorfer focused on the masculinity of her behavior and appearance, which included not just dressing as a man, but also her agency in finding lovers. The testimony of Else Muter is the main surviving document recording this trial. Muter stated that Hetzeldorfer came to her home, harassed her, propositioned her, and attempted to sexually assault her; on other occasions, Hetzeldorfer had sexually harassed her in public.

Hetzeldorfer’s trial document inverts the traditional presentation of women as sexually passive because of her agency, aggression, and the fluidity with which she moved between male and female identities. Yet this agency is also problematic because women’s sexual passivity (or the perception thereof) was weaponized against her: Several witnesses who had had sexual relations with Hetzeldorfer implicated her for her masculinity but seem to have escaped legal trouble for themselves by repeatedly stating that Hetzeldorfer deceived them about her true biological sex (Puff, 44-46.)

Hetzeldorfer was drowned in the Rhine as punishment for her transgressions, even though these crimes and transgressions were never named in the court documents. This gave her the inglorious distinction of being the first lesbian known to be executed in Germany. It also made her the first victim of a death sentence in German history whose crime was not even named. The court record retains continued importance because of how it circulates around the unspeakable, unnamable crime. Puff also believes that Hetzeldorfer’s exclusion from lesbian history in the modern day emphasizes the role of “legal categories” in creating lesbian history itself. (Puff, 52.)

Sarah White Norman

Early modern England had strict laws against bestiality and penetrative sodomy, but no formal means of prosecuting non-penetrative erotic conduct, which is the category that female-female sex would fall under. Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon’s affair became “…the only known record of sexual relations between seventeenth century female English colonists in North America.” (Borris, 107.) Therefore, this case has significance for lesbian history. Compared to the case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer, which relied on descriptions of behaviors rather than a formally named charge, this case represents a change because of how the erotic relationship was categorized: as a misdemeanor, a “lewd” behavior, and with an element of speech or the spoken word involved. The case remains significant because even though little is known about either woman, it is clear that the trial had a much more severe impact on Sarah White Norman than it did on Mary Hammon.

Sarah White Norman and Mary Hammon were initially charged with “lewd behavior…upon a bed” in 1649 and again in 1650. The official charge was “misdemeanor and lewd behavior…with divers [sic] lascivious speeches by her also spoken…” (Shurtleff, 2:163).  Mary was significantly younger than Sarah White Norman, perhaps even under the age of consent as she was probably not even 16 years old. For this reason, Mary was only admonished for the transgression. However, Sarah White Norman was charged, with her trial continued to 1650. In that year, Sarah White Norman appeared twice in the Plymouth court records: once for a charge of unclean conduct that was ultimately dropped, and again in October of that year for the original charge of lewd conduct.

In 1649, Mary Hammon was “cleared with admonition.” (Shurtleff, 2:137.) Sarah White Norman was given a warning and was forced to publicly confess to the crime. Her husband deserted the family during her trial, and what became of Sarah White Norman and her children remains a historical mystery. However, her husband’s desertion and the subsequent records of his life in England suggest that his desertion impoverished the family. The trial was therefore an indirect cause of a major decline in Sarah White Norman’s standard of living.

Although the recent attention given to Mary Hammon and Sarah White Norman in pride timelines and LGBTQ historical studies is a step forward for lesbian history, the power dynamics involved in their age discrepancy may be worthy of more nuanced discussion. Mary Hammon was old enough to be married, but not considered old enough to face the charges.


Photograph of two pages from a 1641 book depicting the hanging of John Atherton.

Frontispiece from The Life and Death of John Atherton Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lysmore Within the Kingdome of Ireland, Borne Neare Bridgwater in Somersetshire. Who for Incest, Buggery, and Many Other Enormous Crimes, after Having Lived a Vicious Life, Dyed a Shamefull Death and Was on the Fifth of December Last Past, Hanged on the Gallows Greene at Dublin, and His Man Iohn Childe…was Hanged in March Following at Bandon Bridges, Condemned Thereunto at the Assises Holden at Corke. 1641. [Newberry Library, No Rights Reserved (CC0).]
John Atherton

The case of John Atherton (1598-1640) is somewhat unusual because he was a cleric and because he and his lover, John Childe, were only the second gay couple to be executed in English history. This is partly because of some legal quirks: English common law required an establishment of proof to bring this type of charge, neither party was likely to confess to the crime because both would be criminally liable, and torture was prohibited for criminal investigations. Therefore, sodomy was rarely tried in England.

However, Atherton was a “special [target] railroaded for exemplary retribution, partly on account of political motives and purposes” due to his stature in the church. (Borris, 77.) Contemporary accounts of the incident presented him as penitent, sorrowful, and at peace with his God; his persecution and death were rendered into a morality story, a ballad shaming him, and many other accounts that are indicative of how gay history has been erased and how LGBTQI+ people have been marginalized. He became a pawn in the larger game between the competing churches in Ireland and their desire for a mandate (Borris, 77).

John Atherton was an unpopular bishop in the heavily Catholic area of Waterford and Lismore, Ireland. The church expended serious efforts to cover up his apparent affair with John Childe, his steward. However, Atherton and Childe were accused of sodomy; Atherton denied this charge publicly up until the moment of his death. Perhaps because of widespread hatred of the Irish Reformed Church, the public was galvanized and excited about his conviction and execution (Aldrich, 32).

The bigger story in Atherton’s case was how this relationship between two men, which was already unlikely to be prosecuted, was rhetorically leveraged by the Irish Reformed Church. The lengthy account of the hours leading up to his execution, as well as the “large and elegant Speech” he made from the gallows, are subsumed into the author’s narrative and his voice is heavily editorialized, if not erased entirely. (Barnard, 25.) For the cleric who met with him prior to his execution, the most important information was that Atherton alluded to having committed the sexual act, not the long and apparently moving speech he gave from the gallows.

Atherton was executed on December 5, 1640. John Childe was executed the following March, 1641. The contemporaneous documentation of his trial and execution emphasizes Atherton’s life as an immoral abdication and as a distinct departure from the church, as well as his apparent last-minute confession (King, p. [i].


BX5595 .A7 B4 The penitent death of a vvoefull sinner / By Nicholas Barnard Deane of Ardagh in Ireland.

F68 .N55 Records of the colony of New Plymouth, in New England / Printed by order of the legislature of the commonwealth of Massachusetts; edited by Nathaniel B Shurtleff. 

HQ75.7 .W488 2002 Who’s who in gay and lesbian history : from antiquity to World War II / edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon.

HQ76 .H652 1985 Historical perspectives on homosexuality.

HQ76.3.G4 P84 2003 Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600 / Helmut Puff.

KD371.S48 S63 1986 Sodomy trials: seven documents.

PR428.H66 S36 2004 Same-sex desire in the English Renaissance: a sourcebook of texts, 1470-1650 / edited by Kenneth Borris

PS508.W7 S54 Sinister wisdom

King, John.  1710. The Case of John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford in Ireland: Fairly Represented.  Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Gale.  

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  1. Interesting Read!

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