Bad Behavior

“To Be Hanged by the Neck but Not Until Dead”…Medieval Justice in the Colonies

Lewes Delaware clapboard house

The photos in this post are of Lewes, Delaware in Sussex County. Many original structures from the town have been moved (yes, physically picked up and moved!) into this historical district. Some of these homes would have been around during the time in question.

When a group of British loyalists were caught plotting to overthrow the patriot government in 1780, an event later known as the Black Camp Rebellion, sentencing for their guilty verdict was something out of the medieval playbook.

The rebellion itself was not particularly eventful. About 500 loyalists marched around the state line stealing guns from patriot families. They were so disorganized that their insurrection was crushed by a militia in just three days. No deaths were recorded.

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For their treason against Delaware (Sussex County, if you’re local and wondering) the eight leaders were sentenced in explicit terms: They were to be hanged “by the neck but not until dead, for then your bowels must be taken out and burnt before your face, then your head must be severed from your body, and your body divided into four quarters, these must be at the disposal of the supreme Authority in the State.”

In a state that used the whipping post as a punishment until the 1960’s (the last state to do so) the brutality of the Black Camp Rebellion’s punishment was an accepted part of the justice system.

The European colonists who had settled the coastal area brought with them traditions that had originated from the Middle Ages and they clung to them. Criminal justice was seen as a highly effective punishment if it was swift, painful and done in public. Jail was not for rehabilitation or to hold a criminal for life. It was a temporary holding place during the trial.

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Women were not exempt from this “medieval justice.” In 1679 a local woman was sentenced to 21 lashes for bearing three illegitimate children. When she didn’t close up shop, she was whipped again; this time with 31 lashes and then banished from the state.

Punishments weren’t always one sweeping step. A man named Marcus Jacobson was arrested and charged with inciting rebellion against the English. His crime? Spreading false rumors of a planned Swedish naval attack in Delaware. For his punishment he was whipped, branded with a “R” for rebel by a hot iron and then sold into slavery in the West Indies(!). Quite extreme.

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“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne has made this branding practice memorable even today (although Hester Prynne sewed the “A” to her clothing); but this method was used past the first letter of the alphabet. A common punishment in the colonies required criminals to wear cloth letters that were an inch (2.5 cm) wide and four inches (10 cm) high on their outer clothing. Besides the famous “A” for adulterer and “R” for rebel there was also “T” for thief and “F” for forger.

Public punishment in the colonies didn’t stop at wearing a shameful letter and the whipping post. The town stocks were also a popular choice of punishment.

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Bad weather, shame from neighbors, and abuse from townspeople were nothing compared with the popular addition of nailing the ears to the stocks, often cutting them off. An early Delaware newspaper reported one man having his severed ears sewn back on after he was released from the stocks. Unfortunately only the right one seemed to stick.

But the Black Camp Rebellion leaders were in luck, for they had perfect timing. The American Revolution was not just a revolution against taxes, oppression and lack of representation but also against “cruel and unusual punishments.” In November of 1780 all leaders of the rebellion were pardoned and spared.

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Sources: 1, 2

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