Crimes and Punishment

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Crimes and Punishment


The Condemned. The surviving court records from the New England area offer a glimpse of what crimes were being committed and punished during the colonial period. From 1630 to 1644 ninety-nine people were charged with drunkenness in Massachusetts, seventy-three of whom received a fine. For the fifty charged with theft, the most common punishment was whipping. About half of the twenty-two charged with fornication were whipped, while nineteen of the twenty-two servants charged with running away were whipped. The twenty-four accused of cursing or swearing received a fine or whipping. There were only nine assaults, three attempted rapes, one rape, and one murder. Of the four people executed, one cause was unspecified, two were for adultery, and one was for murder.

Fines and Humiliation. Crimes like drunkenness, fornication, and theft dominated most New England courts throughout the 1600s. Fines were common, but for more serious or repeated offenses bodily punishment like whipping was inflicted. It was also common to humiliate the offender. Such was the purpose of the bilboes, a bar and shackles used to raise an offenders legs off the ground in a position both uncomfortable and embarrassing. Over time these were replaced by the less expensive wooden stocks which did physical harm to the offender only if left on for too long. Colonies limited the number of hours in the stock, usually no more than three or four, though Rhode Island allowed six. The first man placed in the stocks in Boston was the carpenter Edward Palmerfor overcharging the town after building the stocks.

Public Spectacles. Punishment most often was a public affair because it also served, in theory at least, to deter others from committing the same crimes. In England this did not work well. Pickpockets, for example, were known to ply their trade aggressively during public hangings. In New England sermons often were preached before executions, and prisoners were known to offer moral advice to the crowd before meeting their deaths.

Capital Offenses. Colonial laws often appeared harsher on paper than in life. Adultery could be punished by death, but it seldom was so. Plymouths laws of 1671 created twenty-one capital offenses, including cursing ones natural parent and profaning the Sabbath provocatively. Massachusettss list of 1686 was longer, including the return of a Jesuit or a Quaker after banishment and heresy. From 1641 on, Massachusetts allowed the death penalty not only for crimes such as murder and manslaughter but also for idolatry, blasphemy, and witchcraft.

Quakers. Exceptions to the violence of colonial punishments were found in Pennsylvania and East and West Jersey, all due to varying degrees of Quaker influence. William Penn and the Quakers who settled Pennsylvania had experienced much persecution in England. Quakers had their ears cropped or were executed in Massachusetts in the 1650s (usually for returning repeatedly after being banished), and thousands of Quakers languished in English jails in the 1670s. Seen as dangerous radicals at the time, they believed passionately that each human, though sinful, nonetheless possesses a spiritual inner light that must be nurtured. Just as this affected their child-rearing, making them more concerned about nurturing the child than rooting out his or her sinfulness, so too it committed them to emphasize reform more than punishment in criminal law. Pennsylvania criminalized social deviancy as did the other colonies, but in doing so its punishments were much less severe than those in any other area of the empire.

New Netherland. In the Dutch colony of New Netherland little violent crime occurred in the 1600s; death sentences were rarely pronounced and carried out. Often a pardon or order of banishment was announced just before the execution was to occur, in order to create a maximum effect upon the populace without actually killing the offender.


Crime and Law Enforcement, in Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, edited by Jacob E. Cooke (New York: Scribners, 1993);

Peter Charles Hoffer, Law and People in Colonial America, volume 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992);

Edgar J. McManus, Law and Liberty in Early New England: Criminal Justice and Due Process, 1620-1692 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993).