Most people want their lives to be significant. We want to be remembered after we leave this world. It is downright depressing to consider the possibility of making so little of an impact that future generations give no thought at all to you.
Then again, history has produced some characters who remind us that there are worse things than anonymity. Consider, for example, the historical legacy of George Spencer.
George Spencer was born around 1600 somewhere in the area of Boston, Massachusetts. Nature was not kind to him. Nearly every historical record about the man describes his grotesque appearance. The most flattering descriptions say that he was “ugly and balding.” To make matters worse, he had only one eye. Rather than wear an eye patch or do something to hide his deformity, George crafted an obviously-fake eye decorated with a pearl. The result was that people were simultaneously repelled by his appearance, but unable to tear their eyes away from the unnatural sight.
We are cautioned not to judge a book by its cover. Frequently, those of the most homely appearance more than compensate with a sweet disposition. Alas, this was not true of George. He was a cantankerous chap, almost from the beginning. He earned a reputation as a “habitual troublemaker,” in part because of his personality and partially because of his brushes with the law.
While in Boston, George was convicted of receiving stolen goods and was sentenced to receive a flogging. This was enough to convince him that he had outworn his welcome in Massachusetts, so he moved to the New Haven Colony in Connecticut.
His attempt at starting with a clean slate was a decisive failure. He regained his reputation as a “habitual troublemaker” and was unsuccessful in winning the hearts and minds of his new neighbors.
As we said, nature was unkind to George, so he returned the favor. He was an atheist. He made no secret about his disdain of religion and his refusal to pray. This was not a popular choice of lifestyle anywhere, but in the Puritan community in which he settled, his irreverence was at least as revolting as his physical appearance.
If our story ended here, it is doubtful that history would remember George Spencer at all. Yes, he was ugly, but he wasn’t the ugliest person of all time. He was miserable and unpleasant, but that hardly earns him a place in recorded memory.
The defining moment in George’s life took place in 1641 when another unnaturally-ugly creature entered the world. One of the citizens of the community, Mrs. Wakeman, checked on her sow and was horrified by what she found. The animal had given birth to the ugliest piglet she had ever seen. It was stillborn, malformed, had one eye, and hideous human-like features. The Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven, 1641 describe the creature:
“The monster was come to the full growth as other pigs, but brought forth dead. It had no hair on the whole body, the skin was very tender and of a white colour, like a child’s; the head was most strange, it had one eye, in the bottom of the forehead, which was like a child’s… a thing of flesh grew forth and hung down, it was hollow and like a man’s instrument of generation. A nose, mouth and chin deformed but no much unlike a child’s, the neck and ears also had such a resemblance…”
It will give you an idea of just how grotesque George Spencer’s appearance was when the first thing people said upon seeing the disgusting little piglet was, “Why, that looks just like George Spencer!”
After several people made the same observation, the local elders began to consider an almost-unimaginable possibility:
“A strange impression was also upon many that saw the monster (guided by the near resemblance of the eye) that one George Spencer… had been an actor in unnatural and abominable filthiness with the sow.”
Centuries before DNA testing, the primary method of determining paternity was to look for similarities between the offspring and the putative father. In this case, the evidence was overwhelming.
George was arrested and charged with “prophane, atheistical carriage, in unfaithfulness and stubbornness to his master, a course of notorious lying, filthiness, scoffing at the ordinances, ways and people of God.” To put it in modern and polite terminology, he was accused of — shall we say — practicing animal husbandry.
George did not have a lot going for him at this point. He spent his entire life wading in the shallow end of the gene pool. As we have mentioned, he had not exactly endeared himself to his neighbors. His reputation for being a rule breaker showed his propensity toward doing bad things. His open atheism and mocking of anything religious certainly suggested that if anyone was going to defy the natural order of things, it would be him. On top of all of this, he was not overly clever. His contemporaries described him as “simple.” As one Commonplace Fun Facts writer said, “He wasn’t the brightest potato in the drawer.”
The authorities urged George to come clean. Actually, what they said was, “He that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall finde mercie.” George, who was no Einstein to begin with and clearly had a deficiency of understanding of theological matters, may not have entirely understood from whence the mercy would come. He had recently seen a repentant child molester sentenced to a whipping after he confessed. Perhaps that prompted him to decide that his best legal strategy would be to confess. Whatever the reason, George admitted that he had, indeed, “forced himself” upon the sow.
Only after confessing to impregnating a pig did it dawn on him that this particular crime carried a death sentence. Upon sober reflection, he withdrew his confession.
Did we mention that George was not a candidate for Mensa? Shortly after retracting his confession, he had another change of heart, and he once again confessed to “atheistical carriage.” And once again, he had second thoughts and recanted the confession.
Yes, George had a problem, but so did the local elders. With George maintaining his innocence, they would have to put him on trial. There were plenty of witnesses who could testify that George was deceitful, had bad manners, sometimes mocked religious holy days, and refused to pray. Unfortunately, the law was quite clear that there must be two witnesses to a crime. No one had stepped forward to say they had seen George and the sow together on their alleged night of passion. On the other hand, the situation was too egregious to be left unaddressed.
Legal experts hit upon a solution to the two-witness dilemma. George’s two confessions, although recanted, could serve as one of the witnesses against him. As for the other, the prosecutors called the stillborn piglet to the stand. This was clearly a time when appearances speak louder than words. The deceased animal offered little by way of testimony, but the magistrates had only to take one look at the hideous creature, and George’s fate was sealed.
On April 8, 1642, the community gathered to witness two executions. Despite pleas for leniency, George Spencer met his fate at the gallows. The other sentence that was carried out was the death of the sow that gave birth to the deformed piglet. She was executed with a sword.
As George Spencer left this veil of tears, he entered into the pages of history for reasons we suspect he would not have welcomed. We remember him for his extreme ugliness, sociopathic behavior, and for being the second person executed in Connecticut and the first non-Native American to bear that distinction.
We cannot end this article without mentioning a contemporary of George Spencer who almost suffered the same fate. In 1645, another resident of New Haven was arrested and charged with the same offense. A sow had given birth to two deformed piglets who bore a striking resemblance to the man in question. Having learned from the experience of George Spencer, this man did not confess to the crime. Consequently, he was released, since the two-witness rule could not be met. We share this tale with you because of the wonderfully-ironic fact that the defendant, in this case, was named Thomas Hogg.