Cornish was master of the merchant ship Ambrose in 1624 and the following year was tried, condemned, and hanged for forcibly sodomizing William Couse, a nineteen-year-old member of the crew. Apart from the name of Cornish’s brother and the controversial aftermath of the trial, nothing else is known about him. He may have been from Devonshire, England, where families named Cornish and Couse lived in the 1590s.
On November 30, 1624, Couse testified before the governor’s Council that on the afternoon of August 27, 1624, “Richard Williams als Cornushe” had forcibly sodomized him aboard the ship, then riding at anchor in the James River, and caused him “payne in the fundament” that left him “sore 3 or 4 dyes.” He also reported that Cornish had apologized but later put his hands inside Couse’s codpiece “many tymes … and plaid and kiste him.” The testimony indicated that on one occasion when Cornish called Couse to him but Couse refused to go, Cornish stood him “before the maste and forbad all the shipps Company to eate with him” and made him “Cooke for all the rest.”
On January 3, 1625, Walter Mathew, the boatswain’s mate on the Ambrose, testified that he had overheard part of a conversation between Cornish and Couse when the two were in the master’s locked cabin. Mathew stated that Couse had protested that what Cornish proposed “would be an overthrow to him both in soule and bodye” and that Couse had cited scripture in opposition to the proposal. When Mathew later questioned Couse about what had taken place, Couse “replied he would keepe that to himself till he cam into England.” He later told Mathew only that Cornish “would have Bugard him” but refused to state whether the captain “did the fact.”
Perhaps what began as a forced act of sodomy became a consensual relationship, but a ship’s master had considerable authority over a cabin boy, and Couse may have had few means of effective resistance. His comment to Mathew about not mentioning what Cornish had done until they returned to England hints that Couse may have intended to lodge a complaint with the English authorities. Perhaps Couse’s humiliation in front of the rest of the crew prompted him to leave the ship in Virginia, charge Cornish with forcible sodomy, and take his complaint directly to the governor and Council. The two depositions of Couse and Mathew are all that survive in the Council’s fragmentary records that predate Cornish’s trial and execution.
Cornish may have been tried summarily before the governor or, more likely, the governor and Council. He was convicted and executed on an unrecorded date, probably not long after Mathew’s testimony on January 3, 1625 (). The few references to the case do not mention a jury. Perhaps Cornish unsuccessfully threw himself on the mercy of the court.
Several mariners and Virginia residents later asserted that Cornish, an excellent mariner, had been unjustly hanged, and they blamed the governor, Sir Francis Wyatt. Criticism of the trial reverberated throughout the maritime community for more than a year. During the winter of 1625–1626, the Council heard testimony from several mariners indicating that aboard the Swan in far-off Canadian waters, Edward Nevell, who stated that he had been present at the trial and hanging, had told Jeffrey Cornish that his brother had been wrongfully condemned and executed. William Foster informed the Council that Nevell had reported that Richard Cornish “was hangd for a rascally boye wrongfully,” and Arthur Aveling testified that Nevell had said that Cornish was executed “through a scurvie boys meanes, & no other came against him.”
Jeffrey Cornish swore to kill those responsible for Richard Cornish’s death, but he did not avenge his brother. Instead, for Nevell’s offense of insulting the governor, the Council ordered that he lose both of his ears, serve the colony for a year, and be incapable of ever becoming a free man in Virginia. Thomas Hatch, a young Virginiawho also had criticized the governor, was sentenced to be whipped from the fort to the gallows and back, lose one ear, and begin an additional seven-year term of service.
Henry Read McIlwaine published the surviving documents relating to Cornish in the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia in 1924 but erroneously transcribed Couse’s age as twenty-nine, rather than nineteen. No historian discussed the case until 1971, when Edmund S. Morgan mentioned it in an article that formed the basis of a chapter in his American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975). Focusing on the arbitrary punishments imposed on Wyatt’s critics, Morgan analyzed the controversy as evidence of the colony’s increasing tendency to reduce servants to the status of chattels, but other scholars have subsequently emphasized the sexual aspects of the case. America’s gay community discovered the episode. Jonathan Katz reprinted the documents in modernized form in Gay American History (1976), and more recently several websites have highlighted the case. In 1993 the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae, Inc., created the Richard Cornish Endowment Fund for Gay and Lesbian Resources, which within a decade raised more than $66,000 to purchase materials for the college library. After the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the summer of 2003 that sodomy between consenting adults was a constitutionally protected right of privacy, one man left a small, informal memorial to Cornish at(“In memoriam RICHARD CORNISH, First American Sodomite. Rest in Peace.”) and recounted the case in a New York Times op-ed piece.
Between 1637 and 1652, at least one woman and four men named Cornish (Mary, Robert, William, and two Johns) immigrated to Virginia, and by 1662 a William Cornish owned land in Northampton County, but no evidence links any of them to Jeffrey or Richard Cornish.