Justice of Olde by Ellen Onorato

Though we often think that we are in the middle of the most litigious society that ever existed, history tells us of the early colonial days when even a disparaging murmur against man, government or church could quickly trigger personal libel cases in the court. In fact, badmouthing was often punished as harshly as stealing or assault. Public humiliation and degradation were usally the aim of most punishments to varying degrees.


Alice Morse Earle, a Worcester native, researched many of the customs and punishments of colonial days. Her work is thoroughly showcased in several books on colonial times, including Curious Punishments of Bygone Days published in 1896. Set in the bilboes was a common punishment for fairly minor infractions such as swearing or drunkeness. The bilboes had two sliding shackles and a long bar attaching bound ankles to an iron hook on a post, turning the offender upside down and restrained in public for further ridicule. This mechanism was derived from Bilboa but was well-known in England prior to colonial days.


By 1639, the bilboes were replaced by the familiar wooden stocks we all remember from early history lessons. The first public building in early colonies was always the meeting house, used for town and court matters. But often before any church was even thought of, the stocks were built and placed before the meeting house or market in a very conspicuous place. Two heavy timbers with holes for legs being restrained was very uncomfortable and humiliating for crimes ranging from idleness to pilfering to bigamy. Sometimes whippings preceded placement in the stocks. Another punishment was the ducking stool used to dunk offenders into a river while tied to a chair. This was generally used to punish scolding women or begging paupers until the early part of the 18th century. 
Often, "justice" was meted out on suspicion or hearsay rather than the proof required today. A Frenchman was suspected of setting a fire and was ordered in the pillory, ordered to pay a grave fine and had both his ears cut off. The pillory was similar in concept to the stocks, but head and arms were bound instead of legs.


Crimes included sedition, perjury, blasphemy, slandering, impudence, drunkenness or cheating. Practical jokes often ended with pillory sentences. One of the most deplorable crimes in early days was "forestalling" or buying a cargo soon to arrive to re-sell. The fear of dearth or high prices are found throughout historical archives and many early laws forbid merchandise brokers from controlling incoming shipments. When criminals were being punished, it was common for the public to add insult by throwing stones, rotten eggs or garbage at the captive prisoner. 


One crime that is not often mentioned is that of early authors. Any criticism of the court, the government or religion was met with quick judgement and punishment. Burning of the books, heavy fines, pillory and even slit ears occurred. Many Quaker books were burned along with some of the more forward thinking idealists’ works. 


The whipping cart or whipping post also played a major part in early colonial life. Vagrants were whipped until bloody as were others for shooting fowl on the Sabbath, swearing at their Mother or selling Carribean rum to the natives. In some cases, social standing allowed servants or apprentices to be punished in place of the accused. We all remember Nathaniel Hawthorne's very telling book, The Scarlet Letter, which earnestly portrayed times which sought to humiliate and publicly disdain unacceptable behavior. 


One of the English punishments never arrived in America, that of the brank, a torturous iron headpiece of great weight and pain strapped on the head to quiet outspokenness. Though cleft sticks were used here in America, a more humane approach evolved eventually over what was occurring in many other homelands. But public humiliation was fully accepted by both the Church and state. Walking the gantlope and receiving beatings, being stripped of most clothes and beaten, or riding the wooden horse sharpened to add to the pain while the culprit was weighted down for days at a time sometimes led to death. 


The treatment of Quakers migrating to the New World was particularly cruel and heinous. Four Quakers were hung in Boston, others were stripped, beaten, branded or maimed. In 1657 in "Massachusetts Colonial Records" , taken from Earle’s Curious Punishments book, the penalties listed the following " A Quaker if male for the first offense shall have one of eares cutt off: for the second offense have his other eare cutt off; a woman shall be severely whipt; for the third offense, they, he or she, shall have their tongues bored through with a hot iron." Branding was used often for all sorts of crimes. In Worcester in 1769, a forger was branded on his forehead with an F.