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Colonial Period


Like court proceedings, punishment in colonial America was a public event intended to discourage other individuals from committing crimes against the social order. Whipping, the most common form of punishment, generally attracted an audience. Whipping posts were located next to the courthouse so punishment could be carried out quickly following the trial. The goal was repentance of the convicted along with swift lessons for the whole audience.

Besides whipping, branding, cutting off ears, and placing people in the pillory were common publicly administered punishments that set examples for others. As described in noted author Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), men and women convicted of certain crimes had to wear letters such as a capital A on their clothing in clear view for conviction of adultery (a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her spouse) or a B branded on their forehead for burglary. Banishment was a more extreme punishment.

Though less prevalent than the other forms of punishment, hangings also occurred in public places. The convicted were expected to publicly confess while standing on the gallows just prior to their hanging. Many of those attending considered the hangings to be deep spiritual experiences. Executions were far less common in the colonies than in England. An exception was execution for the crime of adultery in Pillory, shown here circa 1657, was one of several forms of humiliating punishment that was carried out throughout early colonial times. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
Massachusetts that lasted until the mid-1600s. Murder and rape (forcing someone to have sexual relations) were the main capital offenses as well as repeat offenders in other serious crimes. Use of the death penalty varied among the colonies and was more commonly used in the southern colonies, particularly when applied to slaves in the eighteenth century.

With the colonial courts acting as an arm of the church, in some instances both the courts and the church handed out punishment. For example, for unmarried men and women caught having sexual relations, the court could have them whipped, fined, or placed in stocks. Women bearing illegitimate children (born when the woman was not married) were often whipped. In addition to the court punishment, the church scolded defendants, denied certain privileges, or issued the ultimate punishment—excommunication (taking away the rights to church membership).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System