Crime and Scandal

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

In the early laws of Massachusetts, conformity to the rules of society was highly prized, and nonconformity was harshly punished. Justice was handed out by the colonial leaders based on laws that were drawn from English traditions, but more or less made up on the fly.

William Northend was a Salem lawyer and president of the Essex County Bar Association who made a study of early Massachusetts court cases:

early laws MassachusettsIn 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 and 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 he was awakened he struck the person who woke him. The court sentenced him to be severely whipped.

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.

And the records were unclear on what Marbleheader Thomas Gray’s offense was, but the courts ordered that his house be pulled down and no Englishman was to give him shelter.

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

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.”

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

In another early case, from 1631, Nicholas Knopp was to pay a £5 fine or be 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 laws down to cut back on the haphazard nature of the courts. Northend’s complete research can be read here.

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