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Home - Rules of an Asylum - Insane British - Curious Punishments

Punishments Of Authors And Books

The punishments of authors deserve a separate chapter; for since the
days of Greece and Rome their woes have been many. The burning of
condemned books begun in those ancient states. In the days of Augustus
no less than twenty thousand volumes were consumed; among them, all the
works of Labienus, who, in despair thereat, refused food, pined and
died. His friend Cassius Severus, when he heard sentence pronounced,
cried out in a loud voice that they must burn him also if they wished
the books to perish, as he knew them all by heart.

The Bible fed the flames by order of Dioclesian. And in England the
public hangman warmed his marrow at both literary and religious flames.
Bishop Stockesly caused all the New Testament of Tindal's translation
to be openly burnt in St. Paul's churchyard. On August 27, 1659,
Milton's books were burnt by the hangman; Marlow's translations kept
company. These vicarious sufferings were as nothing in the recital of
the author's woes, for the sight of an author or a publisher with his
ear nailed to a pillory was too common to be widely noted, for anyone
who printed without permission could, by the law of the land, be thus
treated; when the author was released, if his bleeding ear was left on
the pillory, that did not matter. The rise of the Puritans and their
public expression of faith is marked by most painful episodes for those
unterrified men. Dr. Leighton, who wrote Zion's Plea Against Prelacy,
paid dearly for calling the Queen a daughter of Heth, and Episcopacy
satanical. He was degraded from the ministry, pilloried, branded,
whipped, his ear was cut off, his nostril slit; he was fined £10,000 and
languished eleven years in prison, only to be told on his tardy release,
with the irony of fate, that his mutilation and imprisonment had been

In 1664 Benjamin Keach, a Baptist minister, was arraigned for writing
and publishing a seditious book. His arrest was brought about by
another minister named Disney, who, as his fellow-countrymen would say,
"sings small" in the matter. Disney wrote "to his honoured friend Luke
Wilkes, esqre, at Whitehall, with speed, these presents":

"Honour'd Sir And Loving Brother:

This Primmer owned by Benjamin Keach as the Author and bought by my man
George Chilton for five pence of Henry Keach of Stableford Mill neare
me, a miller; who then sayd that his brother Benjamin Keach is author of
it, and that there are fiveteen hundred of them printed. This Benjamin
Keach is a Tayler, and one that is a teacher in this new-fangled-way and
lives at Winslow a market town in Buckinghamshire. Pray take some
speedie course to acquaint my Lord Archbishop his Grace with it, whereby
his authoritye may issue forth that ye impression may be seized upon
before they be much more dispersed to ye poisoning of people; they
containing (as I conceive) schismaticall factions and hereticall matter.
Some are scattered in my parish, and perchance in no place sooner
because he hath a sister here and some others of his gang, two whereof
I have bought up. Pray let me have your speedie account of it. I doubt
not but it will be taken as acceptable service to God's church and
beleeve it a very thankeful obligement to

Honoured Sir,
Your truely Loving Brother,"

As a result of Disney's neighborly and zealous offices, Benjamin Keach
was thus sentenced:

"That you shall go to gaol for a fortnight without bail or mainprise;
and the next Saturday to stand upon the pillory at Ailsbury for the
space of two hours, from eleven o'clock to one, with a paper on your
head with this inscription: For writing, printing and publishing a
schismatical book, entitled 'The Child's Instructor; or, a New and Easy
Primmer.' And the next Thursday so stand, and in the same manner and
for the same time, in the market of Winslow; and there your book shall
be openly burnt before your face by the common hangman, in disgrace to
you and your doctrine. And you shall forfeit to the King's Majesty the
sum of £20, and shall remain in gaol till you find securities for your
good behaviour and appearance at the next assizes, there to renounce
your doctrine and to make such public submission as may be enjoined

Keach stood twice with head and hands set in the pillory, and his book
was burnt, and his fine was paid; but never was he subdued, and never
did he make recantation.

Pope wrote a well-known, oft-quoted, yet false line:

"Earless on high stood unabashed De Foe."

The great Daniel De Foe did stand on high on a pillory, but he was not
earless. He was by birth and belief a Dissenter, and he wrote a severe
satire against the Church party, entitled The Shortest Way with the
Dissenters, which so ironically, and with such apparent soberness,
reduced the argument of the intolerant to an absurdity, that for a short
time it deceived zealous church-folk, who welcomed and praised it, but
who turned on him with redoubled hatred when they finally perceived the
satire. It was termed a scandalous and seditious pamphlet, and fifty
pounds reward was offered for him. He was arrested, tried, pilloried in
three places, and imprisoned for a year; but the Queen paid his fine for
his release from prison, and his pillory was hung with garlands of
flowers, and his health was drunk, and scraps of his vigorous doggerel
from his Hymn to the Pillory passed from lip to lip.

"Men that are men in thee can feel no pain
And all thy insignificants disdain
Contempt that false new word for shame
Is, without crime, an empty name.

The first intent of laws
Was to correct the effect and check the cause
And all the ends of punishment
Were only future mischiefs to prevent.

But justice is inverted when
Those engines of the law
Instead of pinching vicious men
Keep honest ones in awe."

Williams, the bookseller, set in the pillory in the year 1765 for
republishing the North Briton was also treated with marks of
consideration and kindness. He held a sprig of laurel in his hand as he
stood, and a purse of two hundred guineas for his benefit was collected
in the crowd.

As times changed, so did opinions. The Bishop of Rochester denounced
Martin Luther and all his works, and Luther's books were burned in the
public squares. Puritan publications by the hundreds fed the flames;
Quaker and Baptist books took their turns. Then the Parliamentary
soldiers burned the Book of Common Prayer. In France, in the year 1790,
the monasteries were ransacked and their books burned. In Paris eight
hundred thousand were burned; in all France over four million: of these
twenty-six thousand were in manuscript.

Crossing the Atlantic to a land void of printing presses could not
silence Puritan authors. They still had pen and ink, and manuscripts
could be sent back across the ocean to a land full of presses and type.

A rather amusing episode of early Massachusetts history anent authors
happened in 1634, as may be found in Volume I, page 137, of the
Colonial Records.

"Whereas Mr. Israel Stoughton hath written a certain book, which hath
occasioned much trouble and offence to the Court; the said Mr. Stoughton
did desire of the court, that the said book might be burnt, as being
weak and offensive."

Such extraordinary and unparalleled modesty on the part of an author did
not save Mr. Stoughton's bacon, for he was disabled from holding any
office in the commonwealth for the space of three years. Winthrop said
he used "weak arguments," all of which did not prevent his being a brave
soldier in the Pequot Wars, and serving as a colonel in the
Parliamentary army in England.

A fuller account of the trials of a Puritan author in a new land is told
through notes taken from the court records. First may be given a
declaration of the Court:

"The Generall Court, now sittinge at Boston, in New England, this
sixteenth of October, 1650. There was brought to or hands a booke
writen, as was therein subscribed, to William Pinchon, Gent, in New
England, entituled The Meritorious Price of or Redemption,
Justifycation, &c. clearinge it from some common Errors &c. which booke,
brought ouer hither by a shippe a few dayes since and contayninge many
errors & heresies generally condemned by all orthodox writers that we
haue met with and haue judged it meete and necessary, for vindicatio of
the truth, so far as in vs lyes, as also to keepe & pserue the people
here committed to or care & trust in the true knowledge & faythe of or
Lord Jesus Christ, & of or owne redemption by him, and likewise for the
clearinge of orselves to or Christian brethren & others in England,
(where this booke was printed & is dispersed), hereby to ptest or
innocency, as being neither partyes nor priuy to the writinge,
composinge, printinge, nor diuulging thereof; but that, on the contrary,
we detest & abhorre many of the opinions & assertions therein as false,
eronyous, & hereticall; yea, & whatsoeuer is contayned in the sd booke
which are contrary to the Scriptures of the Old & New Testament, & the
generall received doctrine of the orthodox churches extant since the
time of the last & best reformation & for proffe and euidence of or
sincere & playne meaninge therein, we doe hereby condemne the sd booke
to be burned in the market place, at Boston, by the common executionor,
& doe purpose with all convenient speede to convent the sd William
Pinchon before authority, to find out whether the sd William Pinchon
will owne the sd booke as his or not; which if he doth, we purpose (Gd
willinge) to pceede with him accordinge to his demerits, vnles he
retract the same, and giue full satisfaction both here & by some second
writinge to be printed and dispersed in England; all of which we thought
needfull, for the reasons aboue aleaged, to make knowne by this short
ptestation & declaration. Also we further purpose, with what convenient
speede we may, to appoynt some fitt psn to make a pticuler answer to all
materiall & controuersyall passages in the sd booke, & to publish the
same in print, that so the errors & falsityes therein may be fully
discoued, the truth cleared, & the minds of those that loue & seeke
after truth confirmed therein p curia."

"It is agreed vppon by the whole Court, that Mr. Norton, one of the
reuend elders of Ipswich, should be intreated to answer Mr. Pinchon's
booke with all convenient speed."

The sentence of this book to be burned by the common hangman was changed
to be burned by some person appointed to the duty who would consent to
perform it. It was not always easy to get a hangman.

In 1684 a man in Maryland "of tender years" was convicted of
horse-stealing and sentenced to death. A "private and secret" pardon was
issued by the Assembly, but he was given no knowledge of it until he was
conveyed to the place of execution and the rope placed round his neck,
when he was respited on condition that he would perform the part for
life of common hangman, which he did.

The hangman was usually some respited prisoner under sentence of death.
In some shires in England, he had to be hung at last himself, else the
power of possessing a hangman lapsed from the town. One hangman,
mortally sick, was bolstered up by his friends with a shoemaker's bench
and kit in front of him, pretending to work, and when the sheriffs came
to seize him and carry him to the gallows, he did not seem very sick and
they left the house without him. He died that night peaceably in bed.
All these doings seem too barbarous for civilized England.

Thomas Maule was a Salem Quaker and an author. His book was ordered to
be burned in 1695 in Boston market place. The diary of the Reverend Dr.
Bentley says of him:

"Tho's Maule, shopkeeper of Salem, is brought before the Council to
answer for his printing and publishing a pamphlet of 260 pages entitled
"Truth held Forth and Maintained," owns the book but will not own all,
till he sees his copy which is at New York with Bradford who printed it.
Saith he writt to ye Gov'r of N. York before he could get it printed.
Book is ordered to be burnt--being stuff'd wth notorious lyes and
scandals, and he recognizes to it next Court of Assize and gen'l gaol
delivery to be held for the County of Essex. He acknowledges that what
was written concerning the circumstance of Major Gen. Atherton's death
was a mistake, was chiefly insisted on against him, which I believe was
a surprize to him, he expecting to be examined in some point of
religion, as should seem by his bringing his Bible under his arm."

In 1654 the writings of John Reeves and Ludowick Muggleton, self-styled
prophets, were burned in Boston market-place by that abhorred public
functionary the hangman. Other Quaker books were similarly burned, and
John Rogers of New London, who hated the Quakers, but whom the Boston
magistrates persisted in regarding and classifying as a Quaker, had to
see his books perish in the flames in company with Quaker publications.
In 1754 a pamphlet called The Monster of Monsters, a sharp criticism
on the Massachusetts Court which caused much stir in provincial
political circles, was burned by the hangman in King Street, Boston. We
learn from the Connecticut Gazette that about the same time another
offending publication was sentenced to be "publickly whipt according to
Moses Law, with forty stripes save one, and then burnt." The true
book-lover winces at the thought of the blood-stained hands of the
hangman on any book, even though a "Monster."

Next: The Whipping-post

Previous: The Pillory

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