Crime and Scandal

Sleeping in Church, Excessive Roystering and Scurvy Cures – Early Laws of Massachusetts

The early laws of Massachusetts prized conformity to the rules of society and harshly punished nonconformity. Colonial leaders handed out justice based on laws drawn from English tradition and the Bible — and made up on the fly.

William Dummer Northend, a Salem lawyer and president of the Essex County Bar Association. made a study of early Massachusetts court cases. He found a number of cases considered unusual by today’s standards.

early laws Massachusetts

Early Laws of Massachusetts

In 1644, William Hewes and his son John were not overly impressed with the quality of either the music or the preaching at church in Salem. They declared the singers in the congregation were “fools,” and Rev. William Corbett had made mistakes in his sermon.

Their penalty: They had to pay a fine of 50 shillings apiece. They also had to make “humble confession” at a public meeting in nearby Lynn.

Still worse was the punishment handed out to Roger Scott of Salem. In 1643, he was found sleeping repeatedly in Sunday services. Further, when awakened, he struck the person who woke him. The court sentenced him to a severe whipping.

In 1631, Salem’s William Ratliffe was ordered whipped, fined £40 and banished for criticizing the government. But not before he had his ears cut off for good measure.

The records didn’t state Marbleheader Thomas Gray’s offense. But they do show the court ordered his house pulled down. The court also forbad all Englishmen from giving him shelter.

Criticizing and Roystering

In 1641, Mary Oliver of Salem was guilty of criticizing the church elders. She had to wear a cleft stick on her tongue for half an hour as punishment.

In 1630, the magistrates dispatched free-thinking Thomas Morton back to England for cavorting with the native Indians at Quincy, among other things. And they also found his house guest, Sir Christopher Gardiner ran afoul of the law by virtue of associating with Morton. Or, as the records put it, he “spent much time with roystering Morton of Merrymount.”

Illustration from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, ‘The Maypole of Merrymount’

Gardiner, they discovered, lived with a woman – he called her his cousin – but also had abandoned two wives in England. Officials hunted him down and, after a lengthy chase, shuttled him back to England as well.

In another early case, from 1631, Nicholas Knopp had to pay a £5 fine. Otherwise, he’d get whipped for “pretending to cure scurvy by water of no value, which he sold at a very dear rate.”

The colony would soon turn its attention to writing down laws to cut back on the haphazard nature of the courts. You can read Northend’s complete research here.


This story last updated in 2022.

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