New England's Cruel and Unusual Punishments

The Stocks,
page 7 of 7

Such entries as this of the town of Westerly, Rhode Island, might be produced in scores:

“September 26, 1748. That the officer shall take the said transient forthwith to some publick place in this town and strip him from the waist upward, & whyp him twenty strypes well layd on his naked back, and then be by said officer transported out of this town.”

The appearance of crime likewise had to be avoided. In 1635 Thomas Petet “for suspition of slander, idleness and stubbornness is to be severely whipt and kept in hold.”

More shocking and still more summary was the punishment meted out to a Frenchman who was suspected only of setting fire to Boston in the year 1679. He was ordered to stand in the pillory, have both ears cut off, pay the charges of the court, and lie in prison in bonds of five hundred pounds until sentence was performed.

These Massachusetts magistrates were not the only ones to sentence punishment on suspicion. In Scotland one Richardson, a tailor, being “accusit of pickrie,” or pilfering, was adjudged to be punished with “twelve straiks with ane double belt, because there could be nae sufficient proof gotten, but vehement suspition.”

Writing of punishments of bygone days, an English rhymester says:

                “Each mode has served its turn, and played a part
                    For good or ill with man; but while the bane
                Of drunkenness corrupts the nation’s heart—
                    Discrediting our age - methinks the reign
                    Of stocks, at least, were well revived again.”

There is, in truth, a certain fitness in setting in the stocks for drunkenness; a firm confining of the wandering uncertain legs; a fixing in one spot for quiet growing sober, and meditating on the misery of drunkenness, a fitness that with the extreme of publicity removed, or the wantonness of the spectators curbed, perhaps would not be so bad a restraining punishment after all. Some of the greatness and self-control of the later years of Cardinal Wolsey’s life may have come from those hours of mortification and meditation spent in the stocks. And over the stocks might be set “a paper” as of yore, bearing in capital letters the old epitaph found in solemn warning of eternity on many an ancient tombstone but literally applicable in this temporal matter.

                    “All Ye who see the State of Me
                    Think of the Glass that Runs for Thee.”


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