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<
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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.