Branding And Maiming
There is nothing more abhorrent to the general sentiment of humanity
to-day than the universal custom of all civilized nations, until the
present century, of branding and maiming criminals. In these barbarous
methods of degrading criminals the colonists in America followed the
customs and copied the laws of the fatherland. Our ancestors were not
squeamish. The sight of a man lopped of his ears, or slit of his
nostrils, or with a seared brand or great gash in his forehead or cheek
could not affect the stout stomachs that cheerfully and eagerly gathered
around the bloody whipping-post and the gallows.
Let us recount the welcome of New England Christians to the first
Quakers on American soil. In 1656 the vanguard, two women, Ann Austin
and Mary Fisher, appeared in Boston, from the Barbadoes. They were
promptly imprisoned and speedily sent back whence they came; and a
premonitory law was passed to punish shipmasters who presumed to bring
over more Quakers. Others immediately followed, however, and fierce laws
and cruel sentences greeted them; within four years after that first
appearance scores of Quakers had been stripped naked, whipped,
pilloried, stocked, caged, imprisoned, laid neck and heels, branded and
maimed; and four had been hanged in Boston by our Puritan forefathers. I
know nothing more chilling to our present glow of Puritan
ancestor-worship in New England than the reading of Quaker George
Bishop's account of New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord. Page
after page of merciless cruelty is displayed in forcible, simple
language. Here is an account of a Quaker's treatment in New Haven for
worshipping God in his chosen way:
"The Drum was Beat, the People gather'd, Norton was fetch'd and stripp'd
to the Waste, and set with his Back to the Magistrates, and given in
their View Thirty-six cruel Stripes with a knotted cord, and his hand
made fast in the Stocks where they had set his Body before, and burn'd
very deep with a Red-hot Iron with H. for Heresie."
Quaker women were punished with equal ferocity. Bishop says of Mary
"Her tender Body ye unmercifully tore with twenty stripes of a
three-fold-corded-knotted whip; as near as the Hangman could all in one
place, fetching his Stroaks with the greatest Strength & Advantage."
The constables of twelve Massachusetts and New Hampshire towns were
notified of four "rougue and vagabond Quakers" named Anna Coleman, Mary
Tompkins, Alice Andrews and Alice Ambrose.
"You are enjoined to make them fast to the cart-tail & draw them through
your several towns, and whip them on their naked backs not exceeding ten
stripes in each town, and so convey them from Constable to Constable on
These women were whipped until the blood ran down their shoulders and
breasts, and the men of the town of Salisbury rose in righteous wrath
and tore them away from the cart and the constables. Quakers were
ordered never to return after being banished from any town. In the
"Massachusetts Colonial Records" of the year 1657 read the penalty for
"A Quaker if male for the first offense shall have one of his eares cutt
off; for the second offense have his other eare cutt off; a woman shalbe
severely whipt; for the third offense they, he or she, shall have their
tongues bored through with a hot iron."
They were also to be branded with the letter R on the right shoulder.
They were called "blasphemous hereticks" by the magistrates, and any who
read books of their "devilish opinions" were to be punished with
severity. New York and Virginia were likewise intolerant and cruel to
the Quakers, but were less visited by them than Massachusetts.
In the despotism of early Virginia, under the Code of Martial Law
established by Sir Thomas Dale, the fierceness of punishment was
appalling; possibly the arbitrariness was necessary to control the
turbulent community, but the cruelty shocked Dale's successor, Governor
Yeardly, who proclaimed that the "cruel laws by which the Ancient
Planters had been governed" should be abolished. Under the laws
proclaimed by Dale, absence from church was a capital offense. One man
was broken on the wheel, one of the few instances known in the colonies.
Blasphemy was punished by boring the tongue with a red hot bodkin; one
offender was thus punished and chained to a tree to die. A Mr. Barnes of
Bermuda Hundred, for uttering detracting words against another Virginia
gentleman, was condemned to have his tongue bored through with an awl,
to pass through a guard of forty men, and be butted by every one of
them. At the end to be knocked down and footed out of the fort, which
must have effectively finished Mr. Barnes of Virginia. Yet Dale was an
ardent Christian, beloved by his pastor, who said he was "a man of great
knowledge in divinity and a good conscience in all things." He is an
interesting figure in Virginia history--a sturdy watch-dog--tearing and
rending with a cruelty equal to his zeal every offender against the
In Maryland blasphemy was similarly punished. For the first offense the
tongue was to be bored, and a fine paid of twenty pounds. For the second
offense the blasphemer was to be stigmatized in the forehead with the
letter B and the fine was doubled. For the third offense the penalty was
death. Until the reign of Queen Anne the punishment of an English
officer for blasphemy was boring the tongue with a hot iron.
A curious punishment for swearing was ordered by the President of the
pioneer expedition into Virginia as told by Captain John Smith. The
English gallants who came to the colony for adventure or to escape
punishment were very tender-handed. They were sent into the woods to cut
down trees for clapboard, but their hands soon blistered under the heavy
axe helves, and the pain caused them to frequently cry out in great
oaths. The President ordered that every oath should be noted, and for
each a can of water was poured down the sleeve of the person who had
been guilty of uttering it. In Haddon, Derbyshire, England, is a relic
of a similar punishment, an iron handcuff fastened to the woodwork of
the banqueting hall. A sneak-cup who "balked his liquor" or any one who
committed any violation of the convivial customs of that day and place,
had his wrist placed in the iron ring, and a can of cold water, or the
liquor he declined was poured up his sleeve.
It is interesting to note in the statutes of Virginia and Maryland the
honor that for decades hedged around the domestic hog. The crime of hog
stealing is minutely defined and specified, and vested with bitter
retribution. It was enacted by the Maryland Assembly that for the first
offense the criminal should stand in the pillory "four Compleat hours,"
have his ears cropped and pay treble damages; for the second offense be
stigmatized on the forehead with the letter H and pay treble damages;
for the third be adjudged a "fellon," and therefore receive capital
punishment. In Virginia in 1748 the hog-stealer for the first offense
received "twenty-five lashes well laid on at the publick whipping-post;"
for the second offense he was set two hours in the pillory and had both
ears nailed thereto, at the end of the two hours to have the ears slit
loose; for the third offense, death. Were the culprit in either
province a slave, the cruelty and punishment were doubled. For all
hog-stealers, whether bond or free, there was no benefit of clergy,
which was the ameliorating plea, permissible in some felonies of being
able to read "clerkly."
It is evident that in early days this plea could not extend to a very
large number in any community. It was originally a monkish privilege
extended to English ecclesiastics in criminal processes in secular
courts. It was granted originally in 1274 and was not abolished in
England till 1827. The minutes of the Court of General Quarter Sessions
in New York bear many records of criminals who pleaded "the benefit,"
and instead of hanging on a gallows, were branded on the brawn of the
left thumb with T in open court and then discharged. Benefit of clergy
existed and was in force in New York state till February 21, 1788.
In Salem men and women offenders constantly pleaded commutation through
benefit of clergy. In 1750 a counterfeiter of that time was sentenced
to death. He pleaded benefit of clergy, and was respited, and instead of
his original sentence was burnt in the hand. A woman for polyandry was
similarly benefited by the same plea. This power of claiming
amelioration of sentence lasted in Massachusetts till the year 1785,
when it was forever nullified by the laws of Massachusetts under the new
United States. In Virginia, benefit of clergy was a constant plea, and
was recognized in all cases save, as has been said, in hog-stealing.
In Maryland branding was legal, and every county was ordered to have
branding-irons. The lettering was specifically defined and enjoined.
S. L. stood for seditious libel, and could be burnt on either cheek. M.
stood for manslaughter, T. for thief, and could be branded on the left
hand. R. was for rogue or vagabond, and was branded on the shoulder.
Coiners could for the second offense be branded on the cheek F. for
Burglary was punished in all the colonies by branding. By the Provincial
laws of New Hampshire, of 1679, a burglar was branded with a capital B
in the right hand for the first offense, in the left hand for the
second, "and if either be committed on the Lord's Daye his Brand shall
bee sett on his Forehead." By Governor Eaton's Code of Laws for the
Connecticut colonists the punishment was equally severe.
"If any person commit Burglary or rob any person on the Lord's Day he
shalbe burned and whipped and for a second offense burned on the left
hand, stand in the Pillory and wear a halter around his neck in the
daytime visibly as a mark of infamy."
A forger of deeds could be branded in the forehead with the letter F;
while for defacing the records the offender could be disfranchised and
branded in the face. A forger was branded in Worcester in 1769. A man
who sold arms and powder and shot to the Indians was branded with the
letter I. Counterfeiters were branded and often had the ears cropped.
A conviction and sentence in Newport in 1771 was thus reported in the
"William Carlisle was convicted of passing Counterfeit Dollars, and
sentenced to stand One Hour in the Pillory on Little-Rest Hill, next
Friday, to have both Ears cropped, to be branded on both Cheeks with the
Letter R, to pay a fine of One Hundred Dollars and cost of Prosecution,
and to stand committed till Sentence performed."
In Virginia many offenses were punished by loss of the ears or by
slitting the ears. Among other penalties decreed to "deceiptful bakers,"
dishonest cooks, cheating fishermen, or careless fish dressers was "to
loose his eares."
Truly long hair and wigs had their ulterior uses in colonial days when
ear-cropping was thus rife. Romantic old tales of life on the road tell
of carefully hidden deformities, of mysterious gauntleted strangers,
whose hands displayed when revealed the lurid brand of past villainies.
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; when his shoulder under his lace collar
might be branded with a rogue's mark, or be banded beneath his velvet
doublet with the scars and welts of fierce lashes of the cat-o'-nine
Brand and brank have passed away, the stocks and pillory no longer grace
our village greens. We pride ourselves on our humanity, our justice.
Therefore it may be well to note that we have now in the United States
the most extreme code in the entire world in regard to capital
punishment--sixty-two crimes punishable by death. A bill is before the
Senate to strike sixteen offenses from our brutal list. Belgium,
Holland, Brazil, Italy, Portugal, Gautemala, Venezuela and Costa Rica
have wholly abolished the death penalty. In cruel Russia the death
sentence has been since 1753 never pronounced save for treason, while
China has only eleven capital offenses. We have adhered to obsolete
English laws while England has done away with them and has now only four
capital crimes. It is certainly surprising and even mortifying to know
that in Maryland setting fire to a hay-rick is to this day punishable by
Previous: Military Punishments