Crimes and Punishments,
page 4 of 17
It would appear to a casual observer glancing over the court-records of those early years of New York life under Dutch supremacy, that the greater number of the cases brought before the magistrates were these slander and libel cases. We could believe that no other court-room ever rang with such petty personal suits; to use Tennyson’s words, “it bubbled o’er with gossip and scandal and spite.” But in truth slander was severely punished in all the colonies, in New England, Virginia, Pennsylvania; and it is not to the detriment of the citizens of New Netherland that they were more sharp in the punishment of such offences, for it is well known, as Swift says, that the worthiest people are those most injured by slander.
The slander cases of colonial times seem most trivial and even absurd when seen through the mist of years. They could scarce reach the dignity of Piers Plowman’s definition of slanders:—
To bakbyten, and to bosten, and to bere fals witnesse
To scornie and to scolde, sclaundres to make.”
To show their character, let me give those recorded in which Thomas Applegate of Gravesend, Long Island, took an accused part. In 1650, he was brought up before the Gravesend court for saying of a fellow-townsman that “he thought if his debts were paid he would have little left.” For this incautious but not very heinous speech he paid a fine of forty guilders. The next year we find him prosecuted for saying of a neighbor that “he had not half a wife.” Though he at first denied this speech, he was ordered “to make publick acknowledgement of error; to stand at the publick post with a paper on his breast mentioning the reason, that he is a notorious, scandalous person.” This brought him to his senses, and he confessed his guilt, desired the slandered “half a wife” to “pass it by and remit it, which she freely did and he gave her thanks.” Next Mistress Applegate was brought up for saying that a neighbor’s wife milked the Applegate cows. She escaped punishment by proving that Penelope Prince told her so. As a climax, Thomas Applegate said to a friend that he believed that the Governor took bribes. The schout in his decision on this grave offence said Applegate “did deserve to have his tongue bored through with a hot iron; “but this fierce punishment was not awarded him, nor was he banished.