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Crime and Punishment
Gossips, thieves and other criminals find harsh treatment under colonial laws

By Ellen Yan
Staff Writer

Stocks was a common form of punishment in colonial America.
Stocks was a common form of punishment in colonial America. (The Granger Collection)

Dunking was a second public form of punishment.
Dunking was a second public form of punishment. (The Granger Collection)


On his way to a waterfront tavern one Saturday night, an Oyster Bay native named Adam Smith fell into bad ways.

He broke into the cabin of a boat moored at Peck's Slip, now part of South Street Seaport, slipping away with the captain's chest, bedding and 6 pounds in cash. He went into a nearby watering hole, where the bundle under his coat raised suspicion. The next day, he was arrested.

Smith, not yet 23, explained he had joined up with villainous folks despite having poor, honest parents who taught him the principles of Christianity.

But remorse didn't help. He was hung in front of the townspeople. Just like adultery and the dastardly filching of apples in Southampton, burglary was a capital offense in colonial times.

``The idea of punishment was not only to punish wrongdoing, but it was also intended to set an example to others,'' said Ted Burrows of Northport, a history professor at Brooklyn College. ``There was really nothing standing between the community and lawlessness than its ability to inflict those kinds of exemplary punishments.''

What was considered a crime in colonial times hinged upon community morals. Gossiping, not going to church, and breaking a marriage proposal were crimes in some places. In one case, a servant went to court for making a face behind a landowner's wife. Fathering a child out of wedlock was against Southampton law, so servant George Wood was fined 10 pounds in 1641.

Beating up someone in East Hampton was punishable by a 10-shilling fine while beating up on someone's reputation cost more, 5 pounds. In Newtown, now part of western Queens, Isaac Gray accused Thomas Wandall of defaming him. ``The plaintiff declares that the defendant charges him `for wearing a scarf his cousin Richard lost.'''

Punishment came swiftly after verdicts: lopped-off ears, banishment and water-dunking. Others deemed guilty hunched for hours at the pillory, a wood plank with holes for the neck and wrists, while townspeople pelted them with food. Flogging could be a road show, with the convicted tied to a cart and led to various street corners to be whipped.

It wasn't enough to just brand someone. The disfigurement was best visible on the cheek or forehead -- ``T'' for thief and ``R'' for rogue. A cross-like mark on the muscle of the thumb meant those branded had averted one execution because of their ability to read but could not be pardoned a second time if they committed another capital offense.

``Our ancestors were not squeamish,'' wrote Alice Morse Earle in her 1896 book ``Curious Punishments of Bygone Days.'' ``Truly long hair and wigs had their ulterior uses in colonial days when ear-cropping was thus rife . . . Life was dull and cramped in those days, but there were diversions; when the breeze might lift the locks from your friends or your lover's cheek and give a glimpse of ghastly hole instead of an ear, or display a burning letter on the forehead . . . ''

Southampton's public whipping post and stock -- a plank with holes for the ankles and sometimes wrists -- was at the village's center, currently trendy Job's Lane and Main Street. In 1641, the wages of the local whipper were 12 pence per whipping, to be paid by the whipped in money or work.

The punishment for each crime was not always stipulated by law, and colonists tried to suit the sentence to the crime. The tongue of a gossiping woman was kept out of her mouth with a wedge or ``forked stick'' at the pillory, said Southampton Town historian Robert Keene. ``They kept it on there long enough to read the charges.''

Spanking was too good for unruly Southampton children: ``Rebellious children, whether they continue in Riot or Drunkeness, after due correction from parents, or whether they curse or Smite their parents Are to bee put to death,'' the law read. But although the death penalty was on the books for many crimes, it was not always handed down because of a shortage of labor.

Drunkenness was considered the most vexatious threat to community morals. Those who drank too freely were whipped or forced to sit with hangovers for hours in the stock.

The white settlers of Long Island drafted laws aimed at blacks, Indians and strangers. Some towns forced settlers to reclaim horses they had sold to Indians. Other laws required blacks to hold candles when they walked the streets at night, and slaves to carry written permission to leave their master's house or else be whipped.

A 1689 Hempstead Town meeting made it a crime to entertain or house any ``unresident Person'' more than 48 hours without official sanction or face fines. The next year, the town elected two men to ``find any settled on ye towns Land without ye towns Consent and in ye towns behalfe to give notis to them forthwith to desert ye same otherwise they may Exspect to be sued.''

Although different places had different laws, the justice system mirrored England's. People often represented themselves. Town courts met about once a month. There was a Court of Sessions for Suffolk and another for Queens and what is now Nassau; both met about twice a year and were composed of the towns' justices of the peace, the sheriff and other officials. The Court of Assizes, overseen by the governor, his designees and town magistrates, met yearly to hear important trials and appeals.

Problems plagued the fledgling justice system. Court proceedings were sometimes postponed because no one, from the sheriff to jurors and litigants, showed up. Collectors of court-ordered fines were known to keep the money. Judges as well as jurors were often unlearned in the ways of the law.

Bribes could be had, and Thomas Jarvis, a Suffolk justice of the peace who held court at his tavern, found himself on trial after allowing a litigant to buy liquor for the jury to sway its verdict, wrote Douglas Greenberg in his book ``Crime and Law Enforcement in the Colony of New York 1691-1776.''

Townspeople frequently flouted authority. They cursed judges and attacked constables trying to make arrests. Some men chosen as jurors or constables against their will preferred to pay fines rather than serve. In one election for constable, Greenberg wrote, a man charged that he had been ``maliciously chosen he being unacquainted with the English dialect.''

Imprisonment made little sense in a society that saw punishment as a community matter, said Eli Faber, a professor of history and criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

``Why bother to put people in an expensive institution that they can break out of?'' he said. ``Picture a person who commits fornication. He's going to be whipped in front of his mother, his sister. He's going to have to live with these people . . . If you lock people up, why would there be shame? Nobody would see them.''

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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