A colonist by the name of Mary Latham is mentioned in the journal of Massachusetts’ first colonial governor, John Winthrop, which in itself is an ominous portent, for Winthrop’s writings detailed, among other things, the early criminal history of the colony.
Mary’s father “had brought her up well,” Winthrop noted. And yet the young woman, rejected by her preferred suitor and on the rebound, married an old man -- an “ancient man,” Winthrop notes, “who had neither honesty nor ability.”
Mrs. Latham did not love her husband. But she had the appetite of a woman of her age, which was eighteen, and, unencumbered by Puritan inhibition, she began to entertain “divers young men” who “solicited her chastity.”
This had a predictible effect on her marriage. At one point, she accosted her husband with a knife, “threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold.” And if that wasn’t proof enough that she was an adulteress, she fell into what Gov. Winthrop calls “a drunken revel,” and during her revelry she was caught “upon the ground” with a young man named James Britton.
Had Mary Latham paid more attention to current events, she may have exercised more prudence before placing herself in a situation she couldn’t get out of. Eleven years before, the authorities had passed and published an act making adultery punishable by death. A year or two before, another woman came close to being hanged for the offense. Mrs. Sarah Hales, wife of William, was suspected of committing adultery. She became pregnant but miscarried. Apparently the authorities could not quite prove the crime in whole, so Mrs. Hales found herself punished in this manner:
[She was] carried to the gallows with a rope about her neck, and to sit an hour upon the ladder; the rope's end flung over the gallows, and after [she was] banished.
Perhaps these events escaped Mary Latham’s notice. Or perhaps she knew the law but was unable to comply. In either case, she was caught in flagrante delicto with a man who was not her husband. The law’s answer to this was a sentence of death. Mary is reported to have accepted this sentence with the “hope of pardon by the blood of Christ.”
The repentant sinner and her paramour were hanged together for adultery on March 21, 1643, in the Plymouth Colony. Hers was the fourth recorded execution of a female in the New World. James and Mary are the only persons known to have paid the highest price for adultery in the colonies. Today, one must classify adultery as its own punishment.
For an excellent overview of colonial death penalty laws, see this excerpt from "The Death Penalty: An American History" by Stuart Banner.