7 Bizarre And Cruel Colonial Punishments

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7 Bizarre And Cruel Colonial Punishments

7 Bizarre And Cruel Colonial Punishments

Rough justice ruled the American colonies and punishment was both brutal and public – from the pillory to branding, from branks, stocks and ducking stools to riding the wooden horse. Communities doled out these punishments in the heart of town, as a warning and as a strange form of public spectacle.

#1 Pillory

Erected in the public square this was an all-purpose punishment option, dealing with treason, arson, blasphemy, theft, witchcraft, perjury, wife-beating, cheating, forgery, gaming, libel, conjuring, fortune-telling, and even the bizarre crimes of ‘delivering false dinner invitations’ and selling quack medical cures.

#2 Branding

In Maryland, branding with burning hot metal was common. The clear lettering system left onlookers in no doubt of the culprit’s crimes: SL – seditious libel, M – manslaughter, T -thief, R – rogue, F – forgery and B for burglary. Burglars had the letter B branded on their hand, but if the crime was committed on a Sunday it was branded onto their forehead.

#3 Stocks

Time in the stocks was earned by swearing, stealing, blasphemy, bigamy, brawling or trading with the natives. With head and hands fastened to a plank, convicts were pelted with rotten food by a baying crowd. Ironically, the first occupant of Boston’s stocks was the man who built them, carpenter Edward Palmer, convicted of overcharging for his services!

#4 Ducking Stool

This contraption offered spectators some variety by dunking convicts underwater. Occupants of the ducking stool ranged from: nagging women, bickering couples, brawlers, brewers of bad beer to bakers of bad bread. Simply being ‘poor’ or ‘unruly’ could also earn you an unwanted dip!

#5 Brank

This was a pretty shocking punishment for women who talked, nagged or gossiped – also called the “gossip’s bridle” this was an iron cage around the head which forced a piece of iron onto the tongue that would cut you if you spoke.

#6 Maiming

Cutting off the ears also smartly marked a wrong-doer to anyone who came into contact with them. In Virginia, a hog stealer was pilloried and also had his ears cropped.

#7 Riding The Wooden Horse

This punishment was reserved for soldiers for the crimes of rioting, drinking or even stealing chickens. A thin horizontal pole was erected some 12 feet high and the upper edge sharpened. Convicts were forced to ‘ride it’ for extremely painful hours or days at a time.

But sometimes just one punishment was not enough – in 1771 one poor soul convicted of counterfeiting received: an hour in the pillory, both ears cropped, was branded on both cheeks with an R and had to pay a $100 fine!

(From Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, by Alice Morse Earl (1896), now a free Public Domain Book.)

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