Crime And Punishment In Colonial America

In colonial America, troublemakers were punished in the center of town for all to see.

Long ago in colonial America, the troublemakers were punished in the center of town for the entire public to see. Locked in wooden frameworks in the town square, they served their time while the town people scoffed at them. Two types of framework punishment were:

· Pillory - this framework had holes for the criminal's head and hands to stick through while they stood up. Once locked in they might get rotten fruit or other items thrown at them. The wrongdoer was condemned to carry out his punishment in rain or shine or freezing weather.

· Stocks - it had holes in it which the troublemaker's ankles were locked while setting down.

· Whipping posts - where a criminal might be whipped before the whole town.


In Williamsburg, Virginia you can see a pillory, stocks and a whipping post and even have your picture taken while inside of one. Williamsburg was once the capital of the Virginia Colony. Many of the beautiful buildings have been rebuilt, and today colonial Williamsburg looks much as it once did. The people who work there dress in colonial outfits giving you a better feel of what it must have been like.

Colonial people:

Colonial Americans looked upon themselves as moral and religious people. But not all of the people felt this way, for there were many wrongdoers in early America. They had a strict moral code and violators were handed bizarre punishments. In most of the colonies it was against the law to swear, be caught in a state of public drunkenness, not attend church services, inappropriate behavior on the Sabbath, and unacceptable conduct between members of the opposite sex.

Any such offenses were punishable before the town people. This was a method of shaming the wrongdoer so that they would not commit the act again. Generally adulterers were forced to wear the letter A sewed on their clothes and counterfeiters wore the letter C. Others might have their ears clipped or actually be branded. Public executions were regularly attended by thousands of people among them women and children.

If a wrongdoer broke the moral code, he was required to confess his sins before the church. During the colonial period towns grew rather quickly and soon many citizens developed great wealth. This brought along many criminals in search of another man's wealth. Where did the criminals come from? The colonists steadily blamed the English for transporting some of Britain's criminals to the colonies.

England was concerned with getting the criminals out of the mother country and declared that they be shipped to the colonies. There were many different kinds of criminals including counterfeiters, highwaymen, and pickpockets. At that time in the American colonies there were no police forces to put a stop to them. In 1744 a New York City newspaper wrote "it seems to be now becoming dangerous for the good people of this city to be out late at night without being sufficiently strong or well armed."


Blasphemy was a crime, which warranted harsh punishment. At the courts discretion blasphemers could be whipped, put in the pillory, have his tongue bored out with a hot iron or be forced to stand in the gallows with a rope tied around his neck. In 1699 a Virginia statute was designed to eliminate "horrid and Atheistic principles greatly tending to the dishonor of Almighty God . . . "Blasphemers might deny God or the holy Trinity, declare that there are more than one God, or worship another god or goddess.

In Boston in 1656, Captain Kemble was forced against his will to sit in the stocks for two hours. He was charged with "lewd and unseemly behavior" on the Sabbath. All Captain Kemble did was kiss his wife upon returning home after three long years at sea. In Massachusetts the Sabbath laws were enforced frequently. In the town of Salem in 1668, John Smith and Mrs. John Kitchin were fined "for frequent absenting themselves from the public worship of God on the Lord's day."

Crimes were considered sins and any offense against God was an automatic crime against the village and the people therein. Many religious leaders preached sermons about God's punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah to remind the people of what could happen to them if they disobeyed God's law. But, it was more a case of the colony leader's own law rather than God's moral law.

The Puritans believed that if one member of their group suffered guilt, then the whole group must suffer along with that person or persons. If the person was not punished in a satisfying manner to the public, then they believed that they too would be punished. A simple breaking of their legal codes such as lying or idleness could cause the whole group to pay the price.

Today in America most criminals are locked up in jail or prison to serve out a sentence. They are no longer put on public display.

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