In their rigid enforcement of community standards, Puritan New Englanders often resorted to unusual punishments such as the bilbo, the cleft stick, the brand, the ear crop and the letter, scarlet and otherwise.
In Massachusetts, New Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven Colony, the Puritans were more concerned with moral behavior and clean living than they were with property rights. They took their laws from the Bible, rather than English precedent, and people were less likely to be punished for larceny than for blasphemy, idolatry, drunkenness, lewdness, fornication, cursing or smoking.
Long-term incarceration was unknown, though capital punishment for 12 crimes – including blasphemy, counterfeiting and witchcraft – was accepted. Puritan law recognized the principle that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process, and explicitly limited government power. The law prohibited unlawful search and seizure, double jeopardy and compulsory self-incrimination while guaranteeing bail, grand jury indictment and trial by jury.
Rhode Island was an exception, and took nearly all of its laws from English precedent.
The first Puritans took with them the bilbo as a way to punish sinners and lawbreakers. According to Alice Morse Earle, it was named after its place of origin, Bilboa, Spain, and shipped with the Spanish Armada in anticipation of all the English prisoners they’d have to shackle.
They were a simple but effective restraint; a long heavy bolt or bar of iron having two sliding shackles, something like handcuffs, and a lock. In these shackles were thrust the legs of offenders or criminals, who were then locked in with a padlock. Sometimes a chain at one end of the bilboes attached both bilboes and prisoner to the floor or wall; but this was superfluous, as the iron bar prevented locomotion.
In 1629, the carousing, fun-loving colonist Thomas Morton had the effrontery to erect a Maypole, right under the noses of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony. Myles Standish led a raiding party, arrested Morton and put him in the bilbo.
The Indians, he reported, came and looked at him and wondered what it all meant.
Bilboes were eventually replaced with wooden stocks.
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne enshrined in literature the Puritan punishment of ordering a sinner to wear a scarlet 'A.' But that wasn't the only letter of shame. In 1656 a woman was sentenced to be whipped at Taunton and Plymouth, fined and forever ‘to have a Roman B cutt out of ridd (red) cloth & sewed to her vper garment on her right arm in sight.’ The 'B' was for blasphemy.
In 1633, Robert Coles was forced to stand with a white sheet of paper on his back with the word 'Drunkard' written in 'great letters' on it, and stand as long as the court ordered 'for abuseing himself shamefully with drinke.' The next year, Coles was sentenced mores severely: He had to wear a D made of red cloth on a white background for a year.
In Massachusetts, anyone who interrupted a preacher during worship was reproved by the magistrate. If they did it again, they had to pay a fine of five pounds, stand on a block four feet high with a sign in capital letters, 'WANTON GOSPELLER.'
Connecticut was even tougher. In 1650 a man was tried by the general court in Hartford for ‘contemptuous carriages’ against the church and minister. He was ordered to stand upon a four-foot high block or stool on Lecture Day with a paper fixed on his breast with the words, 'AN OPEN AND OBSTINATE CONTEMNNER OF GOD'S HOLY ORDINANCES.' The purpose of his punishment: so others would 'fear and be ashamed of breakinge out in like wickednesse.'
When Joan Andrews of York, Maine, sold a firkin of butter with stones in it, she had to stand in a public place with a description of her cheating 'written in capitall letters and pinned upon her forehead.' Around 1650 Ann Boulder of Boston had to stand in irons for a half hour with a sign pinned to her that said, “PUBLICK DESTROYER OF PEACE.”
Slanderers, scolds and liars were liable to have a cleft stick – a stick split at the end – put onto their tongues while they stood in a public place.
In 1639 in Salem, Mass., two men who got drunk and lied were fined and forced to stand by the meetinghouse door with a paper on their hats ‘subscribed for gross premeditated lyinge.’ A cleft stick was put on their tongue.
Men, women and even children could have their tongues ‘thrust into the cleft stick.’ In Rhode Island, a 'whispering stick' was used in a Providence school as a punishment for whispering. It was a wooden gag with holes with which it could be tied in place. Earle wrote that many a child had a cleft stick placed on his tongue 'for ill words or untimely words in school.'
Branding and Maiming
Branding and maiming were common punishments, especially for Quakers.
Quaker George Bishop gave an account of a Quaker's treatment in New Haven in New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord.
The Drum was Beat, the People gather'd, Norton was fetch'd and stripp'd to the Waste, and set with his back to the Magistrates, and given in their View Thirty-six cruel Stripes with a knotted cord, and his hand made fast in the Stocks where they had set his Body before, and burn'd very deep with a Red-hot Iron with H. for Heresie.
Quakers were banished from Massachusetts, and the punishment for returning was painful. Colonial records described in 1657 what should happen to Quakers who came back:
A Quaker if male for the first offense shall have one of his ears cut off; for the second offense have his other eare cutt off; a woman shalbe severely whipt; for the third offense they, he or she, shall have their tongues bored through with a hot iron.
Offenders could try to have their punishments mitigated by seeking the intervention of clergy. A counterfeiter in Salem was sentenced to death, but pleaded the benefit of clergy and was only branded on his hand.
The tip only of Buell's ear was cropped off: it was held on his tongue to keep it warm till it was put on the ear again, where it grew on. He was branded on the forehead as high up as possible. This was usually done by a hot iron in the form of a letter designating the crime, which was held on the forehead of the criminal till he could say the words "God save the king."
Buell later printed the first map of the United States of America.
This story was updated in 2017.