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

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

your Perill?"

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

disobediently returning:

"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

daily newspapers:

"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