The Punishment of Crimes in Colonial New York

The Stocks,
page 6 of 7

The constable was the occasion of all this transgressing the bounds of his office, and that in six things. 1. In fetching a man out of his lodging that was asleep upon his bed, and without any warrant from authority. 2. In not putting a hook upon the stocks, nor setting some to guard them. 3. In laying hands upon the Frenchman that had opened the stocks when he was gone and quiet. 4. In carrying him to prison without warrant. 5. In delivering him out of prison without warrant. 6. In putting such a reproach upon a stranger and a gentleman when there was no need, for he knew he would be forthcoming and the magistrate would be at home that evening; but such are the fruits of ignorant and misguided zeal . . . But the magistrates thought not convenient to lay these things to the constable’s charge before the assembly, but rather to admonish him for it in private, lest they should have discouraged and discountenanced an honest officer.”

Truly this is a striking and picturesque scene in colonial life, one worthy of Hogarth’s pencil. The bronzed English sailor, inflamed with drink, ear-ringed, pigtailed, with short, wide, flapping trousers and brave with sash and shining cutlass; the gay, volatile Frenchman, in the beautiful and courtly dress of his day and nation, all laces and falbalas; and the solemn pragmatic Puritan tipstaff, with long wand of black and white, and horn lanthorn, with close-cropped head, sad-colored in garments, severe of feature, zealous in duty; and the spectators standing staring at the stocks; Indian stragglers, fair Puritan maidens, fierce sailor-men, a pious preacher or sober magistrate — no lack of local color in that picture.

It is interesting to note in all the colonies the attempt to exterminate all idle folk and idle ways. The severity of the penalties were so salutary in effect, that as Mrs. Goodwin says in her Colonial Cavalier, they soon would have exterminated even that social pest, the modern tramp. Vagrants, and those who were styled “transients,” were fiercely abhorred and cruelly spurned. I have found by comparison of town records that they were often whipped from town to town, only to be thrust forth in a few weeks with fresh stripes to another grudged resting place.


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