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The Whipping-post

John Taylour, the "Water-Poet," wrote in 1630:

"In London, and within a mile, I ween
There are jails or prisons full fifteen
And sixty whipping-posts and stocks and cages."

Church and city records throughout England show how constantly these
whipping-posts were made to perform their share of legal and restrictive
duties. In the reign of Henry VIII a famous Whipping Act had been passed
by which all vagrants were to be whipped severely at the cart-tail "till
the body became bloody by reason of such whipping." This enactment
remained in force nearly through the reign of Elizabeth, when the
whipping-post became the usual substitute for the cart, but the force of
the blows was not lightened.

The poet Cowper has left in one of his letters an amusing account of
a sanguinary whipping which he witnessed. The thief had stolen some
ironwork at a fire at Olney in 1783, and had been tried, and sentenced
to be whipped at the cart-tail.

"The fellow seemed to show great fortitude, but it was all an
imposition. The beadle who whipped him had his left hand filled with red
ochre, through which, after every stroke, he drew the lash of the whip,
leaving the appearance of a wound upon the skin, but in reality not
hurting him at all. This being perceived by the constable who followed
the beadle to see that he did his duty, he (the constable) applied the
cane without any such management or precaution to the shoulders of the
beadle. The scene now became interesting and exciting. The beadle could
by no means be induced to strike the thief hard, which provoked the
constable to strike harder; and so the double flogging continued until a
lass of Silver End, pitying the pityful beadle thus suffering under the
hands of the pityless constable, joined the procession, and placing
herself immediately behind the constable seized him by his capillary
pigtail, and pulling him backwards by the same, slapped his face with
Amazonian fury. This concentration of events has taken more of my paper
than I intended, but I could not forbear to inform you how the beadle
thrashed the thief, the constable the beadle, and the lady the
constable, and how the thief was the only person who suffered nothing."

As a good, sound British institution, and to have familiar home-like
surroundings in the new strange land, the whipping-post was promptly set
up, and the whip set at work in all the American colonies. In the orders
sent over from England for the restraint of the first settlement at
Salem, whipping was enjoined, "as correccon is ordaned for the fooles
back"--and fools' backs soon were found for the "correccon"; tawny skins
and white shared alike in punishment, as both Indians and white men were
partakers in crime. Scourgings were sometimes given on Sabbath days and
often on lecture days, to the vast content and edification of Salem

The whipping-post was speedily in full force in Boston. At the session
of the court held November 30, 1630, one man was sentenced to be
whipped for stealing a loaf of bread; another for shooting fowl on the
Sabbath, another for swearing, another for leaving a boat "without a
pylott." Then we read of John Pease that for "stryking his mother and
deryding her he shalbe whipt."

In 1631, in June, this order was given by the General Court in Boston:

"That Philip Ratcliffe shall be whipped, have his eares cutt off, fined
40 pounds, and banished out of the limits of this jurisdiction, for
uttering malicious and scandalous speeches against the Government."

Governor Winthrop added to his account of this affair that Ratcliffe was
"convict of most foul slanderous invectives against our government."
This episode and the execution of this sentence caused much reprehension
and unfavorable comment in England, where, it would seem, whipping and
ear-lopping were rife enough to be little noted. But the mote in our
brother's eye seemed very large when seen across the water. Anent it, in
a letter written from London to the Governor's son, I read: "I have
heard divers complaints against the severity of your government, about
cutting off the lunatick man's ears and other grievances."

In 1630 Henry Lynne of Boston was sentenced to be whipped. He wrote to
England "against the government and execution of justice here," and was
again whipped and banished. Lying, swearing, taking false toll, perjury,
selling rum to the Indians, all were punished by whipping.

Pious regard for the Sabbath was fiercely upheld by the support of the
whipping-post. In 1643 Roger Scott, for "repeated sleeping on the Lord's
Day" and for striking the person who waked him from his godless slumber
was sentenced to be severely whipped.

Women were not spared in public chastisement. "The gift of prophecy" was
at once subdued in Boston by lashes, as was unwomanly carriage. On
February 30, 1638, this sentence was rendered:

"Anne ux. Richard Walker being cast out of the church of Boston for
intemperate drinking from one inn to another, and for light and wanton
behavior, was the next day called before the governour and the
treasurer, and convict by two witnesses, and was stripped naked one
shoulder, and tied to the whipping-post, but her punishment was

Every year, every month, and in time every week, fresh whippings
followed. No culprits were, however, to be beaten more than forty
stripes as one sentence; and the Body of Liberties decreed that no
"true gentleman or any man equall to a gentleman shall be punished with
whipping unless his crime be very shameful and his course of life
vitious and profligate." In pursuance of this notion of the exemption of
the aristocracy from bodily punishment, a Boston witness testified in
one flagrant case, as a condonement of the offense, that the culprit
"had been a soldier and was a gentleman and they must have their
liberties," and he urged letting the case default, and to "make no
uprore" in the matter. The lines of social position were just as well
defined in New England as in old England, else why was one Mr.
Plaistowe, for fraudulently obtaining corn from the Indians, condemned
as punishment to be called Josias instead of Mr. as heretofore? His
servant, who assisted in the fraud, was whipped. A Maine man named
Thomas Taylour for his undue familiarity shown in his "theeing and
thouing" Captain Raynes was set in the stocks.

Slander and name-calling were punished by whipping. On April 1, 1634,
John Lee "for calling Mr. Ludlowe false-heart knave, hard-heart knave,
heavy ffriend shalbe whipt and fyned XIs." Six months later he was again
in hot water:

"John Lee shalbe whipt and fyned for speaking reproachfully of the
Governor, saying hee was but a lawyer's clerk, and what understanding
hadd hee more than himselfe, also takeing the Court for makeing lawes to
picke men's purses, also for abusing a mayd of the Governor, pretending
love in the way of marriage when himselfe professed hee intended none."

In the latter clause of this count against John Lee doubtless lay the
sting of his offenses. For Governor Winthrop was very solicitous of the
ethics of love-making, and to deceive the affections of one of his
fen-county English serving-lasses was to him without doubt a grave

Those harmless and irresponsible creatures, young lovers, were menaced
with the whip. Read this extract from the Plymouth Laws, dated 1638:

"Whereas divers persons unfit for marriage both in regard of their yeong
yeares, as also in regarde of their weake estate, some practiseing the
inveagling of men's daughters and maids under gardians contrary to their
parents and gardians likeing, and of maide servants, without the leave
and likeing of their masters: It is therefore enacted by the Court that
if any shall make a motion of marriage to any man's daughter or mayde
servant, not having first obtayned leave and consent of the parents or
master soe to doe, shall be punished either by fine or corporall
punishment, or both, at the discretions of the bench, and according to
the nature of the offense."

The New Haven Colony, equally severe on unlicensed lovemaking, specified
the "inveagling," whether done by "speech, writing, message,
company-keeping, unnecessary familiarity, disorderly night meetings,
sinfull dalliance, gifts or, (as a final blow to inventive lovers) in
any other way."

The New Haven magistrates had early given their word in favor of a
whipping-post, in these terms:

"Stripes and whippings is a correction fit and proper in some cases
where the offense is accompanied with childish or brutish folly, or
rudeness, or with stubborn insolency or bestly cruelty, or with idle
vagrancy, or for faults of like nature."

In the "Pticuler" Court of Connecticut this entry appears. The
"wounding" was of the spirit not of the body:

"May 12, 1668. Nicholas Wilton for wounding the wife of John Brooks, and
Mary Wilton the wife of Nicholas Wilton, for contemptuous and
reproachful terms by her put on one of the Assistants are adjudged she
to be whipt 6 stripes upon the naked body next training day at Windsor
and the said Nicholas is hereby disfranchised of his freedom in this
Corporation, and to pay for the Horse and Man that came with him to the
Court to-day, and for what damage he hath done to the said Brooks His
wife, and sit in the stocks the same day his wife is to receive her

In New York a whipping-post was set up on the strand, in front of the
Stadt Huys, under Dutch rule, and sentences were many. A few examples of
the punishment under the Dutch may be given. A sailmaker, rioting in
drink around New Amsterdam cut one Van Brugh on the jaw. He was
sentenced to be fastened to a stake, severely scourged and a gash made
in his left cheek, and to be banished. To the honor of Vrouw Van Brugh
let me add that she requested the court that these penalties should not
be carried out, or at any rate done in a closed room. One Van ter Goes
for treasonable words of great flagrancy was brought with a rope round
his neck to a half-gallows, whipped, branded and banished. Roger
Cornelisen for theft was scourged in public, while Herman Barenson,
similarly accused was so loud in his cries for mercy that he was
punished with a rod in a room. From a New York newspaper, dated 1712, I
learn that one woman at the whipping-post "created much amusement by her
resistance"--which statement throws a keen light on the cold-blooded and
brutal indifference of the times to human suffering.

May 14, 1750, New York Gazette.

"Tuesday last one David Smith was convicted in the Mayor's Court of
Taking or stealing Goods off a Shop Window in this City, and was
sentenced to be whipped at the Carts Tail round this Town and afterwards
whipped at the Pillory which sentence was accordingly executed on him."

In the same paper, date October 2, 1752, an account is given of the
pillorying of a boy for picking pockets and the whipping of an Irishman
for stealing deerskins. Another man was "whipt round the city" for
stealing a barrel of flour. In January, 1761, four men for "petty
larceny" were whipped at the cart-tail round New York.

In 1638 a whipping post was set up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as a
companion to the cage. For "speaking opprobriously," and even for
"suspitious speeches," New Haven citizens were whipped at the "carts

Rhode Island even under the tolerant and gentle Roger Williams had no
idle whip. "Larcenie," drunkenness, perjury, were punished at the
whipping-post. In Newport malefactors were whipped at the cart-tail
until this century. Mr. Channing tells of seeing them fastened to the
cart and being thus slowly led through the streets to a public spot
where they were whipped on the naked back. Women were at that time
whipped in the jail-yard with only spectators of their own sex.

In Plymouth women were whipped at the cart-tail, and the towns resounded
with the blows dealt out to Quakers. In 1636, on a day in June, one
Helin Billinton, was whipped in Plymouth for slander.

There was a whipping-post on Queen Street in Boston, another on the
Common, another on State Street, and they were constantly in use in
Boston in Revolutionary times. Samuel Breck wrote of the year 1771:

"The large whipping-post painted red stood conspicuously and prominently
in the most public street in the town. It was placed in State Street
directly under the windows of a great writing school which I frequented,
and from there the scholars were indulged in the spectacle of all kinds
of punishment suited to harden their hearts and brutalize their
feelings. Here women were taken in a huge cage in which they were
dragged on wheels from prison, and tied to the post with bare backs on
which thirty or forty lashes were bestowed among the screams of the
culprit and the uproar of the mob."

The diary of a Boston school-girl of twelve, little Anna Green Winslow,
written the same year as Mr. Breck's account, gives a detailed account
of the career of one Bet Smith, through workhouse and gaol to
whipping-post, and thence to be "set on the gallows where she behaved
with great impudence."

Criminals were sentenced in lots. On September 9, 1787, in one Boston
court one burglar was sentenced to be hanged, five thieves to be
whipped, two greater thieves to be set on the gallows, and one
counterfeiter set on the pillory.

Cowper's account of the tender-hearted beadle is supplemented by a
similar performance in Boston as shown in a Boston paper of August 11,
1789. Eleven culprits were to receive in one day the "discipline of the
post." Another criminal was obtained by the Sheriff to inflict the
punishment, but he persisted in being "tender of strokes," though
ordered by the Sheriff to lay on. At last the Sheriff seized the whip
and lashed the whipper, then turned to the row of ninepins and delivered
the lashes. "The citizens who were assembled complimented the Sheriff
with three cheers for the manly determined manner in which he executed
his duty."

So common were whippings in the southern colonies at the date of
settlement of the country, that in Virginia even "launderers and
launderesses" who "dare to wash any uncleane Linen, drive bucks, or
throw out the water or suds of fowle clothes in the open streetes," or
who took pay for washing for a soldier or laborer, or who gave old torn
linen for good linen, were severely whipped. Many other offenses were
punished by whipping in Virginia, such as slitting the ears of hogs, or
cutting off the ends of hogs' ears--thereby removing ear-marks and
destroying claim to perambulatory property--stealing tobacco, running
away from home, drunkenness, destruction of land-marks; and in 1664
Major Robins brought suit against one Mary Powell for "scandalous
speaches" against Rev. Mr. Teackle, for which she was ordered to
receive twenty lashes on her bare shoulders and to be banished the
country. Of course, for the correction of slaves the whip was in
constant use till our Civil War banished slavery and the whipping-post
from every state save Maryland and Delaware. This latter-named
commonwealth has been much censured for countenancing the continuance of
whipping as a punishment. It is, however, stiffly contended by Delaware
magistrates that as a restraint over wife-beaters and other cruel and
vicious criminals, the whipping post is a distinct success and of marked
benefit in its influence in the community. It should also be remembered
that these are not the only civilized states to approve of whipping for
certain crimes. About thirty years ago, when garroting became so
frequent and so greatly feared in England, the whipping-post was
reestablished in England, and whipping once more became an authorized

There was one hard-hearted and unjust use of the whip which was
prevalent in London and other English cities in olden times which I wish
to recount with abjuration. At the time of public executions parents
were wont to whip their children soundly to impress upon them a lesson
of horror of the gallows. As trivial offenses, such as stealing anything
in value over a shilling, were punishable by death, and capital crimes
were over three hundred in number, executions were of deplorable
frequency; hence the condition of children at that time was indeed
pitiable. Whipped by most illogical parents, whipped by cruel
teachers--even Roger Ascham used to "pinch, nip and bob" Queen Elizabeth
when she was his pupil--whipped by masters, whipped by mistresses, it
would seem that the moral force of the whipping-post for adults must
have been very slight, after so many castigory experiences in youth.

Next: The Scarlet Letter

Previous: Punishments Of Authors And Books

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