The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England: A for Adultery

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My new series of blog posts will go through the alphabet as I describe the interesting crimes and punishments that took place in the early colonial period in Essex County, Massachusetts.  The blogs will also be a permanent page under the title “The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England.

“A for Adultery”

Hester Prynne made the Scarlet Letter of “A for Adultery” well known in  Early American history.  This fictional single woman was forced to sew a scarlet colored “A” on her bodice as punishment for her adulterous affair with a married man.

The Essex County Court Records from the early colonial period contain numerous accusations of fornication.  The records sometimes use euphemisms such as “insinuating or wanton  dalliance”, “unlawful familiarity” and “committing folly.”

Puritans were staunch supporters of the sanctity of marriage, but the reality that unmarried fathers often don’t support their out-of-wedlock children was another consideration. Some unmarried fornicators were able to reduce court fines if they married, or they could choose between a fine and a whipping.

In my novel “The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke,” the true story of Richard Braybrooke’s crime is revealed. Richard’s sentence was to receive a severe whipping for his sin of fornication, and the court insisted that he raise the child (Mehitabel) in his household.  A whipping might take place in front of the meeting house, also used for church services, or the person might be tethered to a cart and whipped as he or she was paraded about the village.

It appears that Richard’s indentured servant and partner in crime,  Alice  Ellys was not forced to wear the “A”.  She was sentenced to be whipped after her “travail” and the further shaming of wearing the “A” may have been just standard practiced and not recorded in the records.

Wearing the “A” was more than some women were willing to bear and a few went to great lengths to conceal the birth or even commit infanticide.  The prospect of complete condemnation and certain ruin sometimes overrode a mother’s most basic of instincts.  Tiny bodies were kept in bags in attics or barns, in the ground, or at the bottom of a pond with rocks tied around their necks.

Esther Rogers confessed to killing her two illegitimate children in 1700. For this crime, she was hanged and gibbeted− left to twist in the wind.

The capital sexual crimes of bestiality included a death sentence for the offender AND the poor animal. Sodomy was also on the list of capital crimes, and rape was added in 1641 after its first occurrence in the colony in 1641.

Not everyone convicted of a capital offense was hanged. They could receive a severe whipping, never more than the Biblical standard of forty maximum strikes. The Criminal would then sit or stand at the gallows with a rope around their necks for at least an hour to show they should have received a death sentence!

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