Colonial New York

Crimes and Punishments,
page 9 of 17

The annual salary of a burgomaster was fixed at one hundred and forty dollars, and of a schepen at one hundred dollars; but as these salaries were to come out of the municipal chest, which was chronically empty, they never were paid. When funds did come in from the excise on taverns, on slaughtered cattle, the tax on land, the fees on transfers, etc., it always had to be paid out in other ways, — for repairs for the school-room, the Graft, the watch-room, the Stadt Huys. It never entered the minds of those guileless civic rulers, two centuries ago, to pay themselves and let the other creditors go without. The early city schout was also schout-fiskaal till 1660; but the proper duties of this functionary were really a combination of those pertaining now to the mayor, sheriff, and district-attorney. In the little town one man could readily perform all these duties. He also presided in Court. An offender could thus be arrested, prosecuted, and judged, by one and the same person, which seems to us scarcely judicious; but the bench of magistrates had one useful power, that of mitigating and altering the sentence demanded by the schout. Often a fine of one hundred guilders would be reduced to twenty-five; often the order for whipping would be set aside, and the command of branding as well.

Sometimes justice in New York was tempered with mercy, and sorely it needed it when fierce English rule and law came in force. Felons were few, but these few were severely punished. A record of a trial in 1676 reveals a curious scene in Court, as well as an astonishing celerity in the execution of the law under English rule and in the English army. Three soldiers stole a couple of iron pots, two hoes, a pair of shears, and half a firkin of soap. They were tried in the morning, confessed, cast into “the Hole” in the afternoon, and in the evening “the Governor ordered some persons to go to the prisoners and advise them to prepare for another world, for that one of them should dye the next day.” On the gloomy morrow, on Saturday, the three terror-stricken souls drew lots, and the fatal lot fell to one Thomas Weale. The court of aldermen interceded for him and finally secured his reprieve till Monday. The peaceful Dutch Sunday, darkened and shocked by this impending death, saw a strange and touching sight.


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