XXXX is for Forty Strokes and How the Phrase “That Really Smarts” originated

The Puritans routinely used whipping as a form of punishment since the earliest days of the colonies. Richard Braybrooke, Mehitabel’s father, was whipped for the sin and crime of fornication in 1652, and Mehitabel’s birth mother, Alice Elyss was whipped after giving birth.

The Romans were the first to place a limit on the number of lashes or scourges that could be administered. They believed that forty lashes was the maximum number to kill a person, so 39 lashes was the default number for prolonged punishment but not death. The Hebrews of the Old Testament also referred to this practice of limiting the number of lashes in the Mosaic Code.

The Puritans sometimes added that the whipping be “well laid on” but likely were referring to the force put into the task. They also sometimes added “smarts” to a whip which were little pieces of bone or metal. The smarts would dig into the flesh, giving us the phrase “that really smarts.”

The Whipping Act was passed in England in 1530. Vagrants were taken to a nearby populated village or town and tied to the end of a cart. The prisoner was naked, and they were whipped until their body was bloodied. From the 1720’s it became the practice to administer the whipping in prison rather than on the streets. Public whippings declined between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 in England.

Whipping as a punishment for crimes did not officially end in the United States until 1972. Unfortunately, it is still widely practiced in many parts of the world.