L is for Lists of Criminal Acts

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Yes, there were crimes during the Puritan era, but weren’t the Puritans a group of virtuous people with only noble qualities? The original colonists certainly intended to live saintly lives as they left England in 1630 with noble concepts. They envisioned their immigrants would be an example of righteous living for the rest of the world. The governor, John Winthrop, clearly articulated their purpose: “We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”  

The Puritans who were the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to purify the Church of England and held themselves to a higher standard of behavior than their countrymen left behind in England. Unfortunately, as mere mortals, they fell into the same temptations and produced a prodigious number of records in the Quarterly Court Records from Essex County.

What constituted a crime in the early days in the colonies of New England?  There were the usual: fornication (the most popular crime), theft, drunkenness, slander, lying, and breaches of the peace. Those accused had to defend themselves, as representation by an attorney wasn’t the custom in the courts.

The leaders of this theocracy considered themselves God’s elect and their definition of wickedness, intolerance, and authority reigned supreme. They tolerated no backtalk and arrested and punished anyone who questioned their powers.

The ancient Quarterly Court Records from Essex County contain over four thousand pages and reveal some unusual descriptions of crimes.

  • Wanton dalliance, inconsistency in marriage and unseemly practices were creative ways to describe sexual improprieties.
  • False dealing about bees is a crime that only Puritans would have been able to explain.
  • Reproachful and unseemly speeches against a minister would result in time in the stocks and a severe whipping at the next Lecture Day. These events served as a powerful deterrent for the congregants who gathered to witness.
  • Not believing in infant baptism
  • “Leaping and Dancing,” kissing, and profane dancing were in the same category as drunkenness, being “distempered with drink” and “common tippling.” These aberrations resulted in fines, the stocks, and a possible whipping.
  • Beating your wife was obviously not high on the serious crime scale and usually punished with only an admonishment.
  • Not living with a wife was a common offense that also brought just a minor rebuke.
  • Eavesdropping
  • Meddling, neglecting work
  • Bad grinding
  • Wearing silk, lace, and ribbons
  • Playing cards
  • Selling alcohol to the natives
  • Allowing hogs to be in the corn fields
  • Not owning a ladder- a necessity with all those chimney fires and wooden houses.

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