Unusually talented at navigating the lethal Mediterranean Sea, dense in the early 17th century with pirates, British Master of merchant ships, Richard Williams alias Cornish, was one of a handful of ship captains who repeatedly returned from the Mediterranean with his crew and cargo intact.
While in London, on the night that one of their own was sought by King James’ messenger for piracy, the maritime community turned to Cornish to personally intervene and save the condemned man. The mob marched through the streets and broke down his door hoping to locate him – knowing he would do what he could to save the man. They were right. He did.
Months later, across the Atlantic, while riding aboard his merchant vessel at anchor in the James River, he was accused of a heinous crime. When the transgression reportedly happened, only three men were aboard ship. Though the sole witness testified he heard no one cry out, not even a scuffle, Cornish was hanged.
It would seem justice was done. However, a year later, at great risk, four sailors separately, and without knowing others had done the same, insisted publicly that Cornish never should have hanged. These men risked their lives speaking out publicly against the colonial Governor (a crime at the time).
The truth about what happened, never before unearthed, rewrites American colonial history. Today, Cornish is believed to be the first person put to death in America for being found guilty of the crime of sodomy. As such, he has become no less than a modern day folk hero to the American LGBTQ community and others. The College of William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae Association (GALA) created the Richard Cornish Endowment Fund in his name, demonstrating his importance.
The Fish of Other Men (a working book title) is an historical nonfiction account of Richard Williams alias Cornish’s life – based on Arlene’s findings, the first ever about him.
Published in Global Maritime History, my piece, Sodomy, Justice, and Folk Heroes: Richard Cornish ‘…was put to death wrongfully’ puts Cornish’s execution into greater historical context.