When our Puritan ancestors set up shop in New England, the business at hand was keeping the flock pious, proper, and productive. Public humiliation was one popular form of keeping order, as well denting the purse -- essentially, the vices and folly of the citizens financed and sponsored the pretentious, dogmatic ideals of a handful of tyrants. The courts had carte blanche to dole out punishments and benefited immensely from any “wanton” deviant behavior.
As the colonies grew, so did the records of naughtiness. Punishment came in many forms, and all respectable settlements had the latest mutilation machines and contraptions on hand. For instance, laws required each town to acquire a set of stocks. Both Concord and Newbury were fined 5 pounds (March 1638) for non-compliance and soon got up to code. There were also many other forms of executing justice -- badges, brandings, and bridles, to name a few. So sit back and enjoy these ancestral tales of crime and punishment, and be grateful you live in present-day Massachusetts rather than the "ice age -- sterile, forbidding, unproductive, its history dotted only with boulders and stunted growth" (Howe, The Puritan Republic).
Some “good” wives of Mass Bay were more like mischievous mice than obedient crones -- some sought to play while their cat fellows were away. A case from 1672-1673, Sarah Roe of Ipswich was forced to wear a sign on Sabbath day: “For My Baudish Carriage.” Roe had an affair with Joseph Leigh while her husband was away at sea, and both were charged with “unlawful familiarity.” Leigh suffered a day of severe lashing, plus a 5-pound fine. Roe, in addition to her debasing debut at the meeting house, spent a month behind bars. George Palmer, after committing folly with Margary Ruggs “through her allurement,” confessed voluntarily, so he only endured a few hours in the stocks; however, the sultry temptress Ruggs was severely whipped in public for “enticing and alluring.”
Another interesting case of fleshy intrigue in Newbury (1633) really made windows steam and had every Chatty Cathy buzzing. The incident occurred between a traveling doctor named Henry Greenland and Mary Rolfe, wife of John Rolfe, a shipwright. While Rolfe was away on a voyage, Greenland lodged at a tavern owned by John Emery (Mary's stepfather), conveniently located next door to the lonely lass. Apparently, Greenland was quite a looker, and after just one night of window tapping, he made his way into her hot bed. Her companion, Betty, hired by Mary’s husband during his absence, claims Mary fainted when Greenland attempted his advances. When the news hit the townie grandes dames, Greenland had nowhere to hide and was hauled into court, convicted, and fined 30 pounds for “attempting adultery.” Although the outcome left Mary's reputation unscathed, she no doubt had some fetching memories of the event.
Our ancestors often referred to the burden of the human flesh as “that pang of pleasure.” Like the mice wives, hitched men folk (and some single studs, too) also liked to sport around town on occasion. John Davies of Ipswich was whipped for “gross offenses and attempting lewdness with diverse women” and forced to wear a “U” for "Unclean" upon his chest for six months. Suffolk County records report a sentence requiring Thomas Jay “to stand upon a block or stool in the Boston marketplace with a paper upon his breast written in large characters: For Lascivious Carriages towards Young Women” (1675). Likewise, John Stanwood was sentenced to prison for committing fornication with Christian Marshman, who was with child by him. He tried to deny it, but there was too much evidence stacked up against him, and his lusty love bite cost him 50 pounds in damages. For her part in the scandal, Marshman received a severe public lashing.
Drunkenness was next on the list of naughty rituals. Called “habitual tipplers,” these folks were like gangsters put in the proverbial “black book.” In 1639, the General Court passed a law that made excessive drinking a penal offense. Many entries in the record books read like this: "James Brown is censured for drunkeness to bee set two hours in the bilboes upon market day at Boston publiquely." The magistrates ordered all ordinaries and public places that served strong waters to make note of frequent tipplers, and serving them meant incurring a fine. Additionally, officials placed strict surveillance upon innkeepers and tavern owners and required them to procure licenses.
Laws required every innkeeper to be "always provided of strong, wholesome Beer, of four bushels of Mault (at the least) to a hogshead, which he shall not sell at above twopence the Ale quart." Innkeepers were also expressly forbidden to sell sack or strong water, to allow any drunken person on their premises, or to suffer any person "to drink excessively, viz., above halfe a pint of wine for one person, at a time, or to continue Tipling above the space of halfe an hour, or at unseasonable times, or after nine of the Clock at night" (Mass. Records Vol. 10).
Among the abundant court records involving drunkenness, here are a few regarding tanked-up naughties: John Shotswell was fined eleven shillings in September of 1633 "for distemping himself with drink at Agawam." Similarly, Robert Coles was fined for his excesses and "enjoined to stand with a white sheet of paper on his back wherein A Drunkard shall be written in great letters, as long as the Court thinks meet.'' John Lee was sentenced to be whipped and fined for calling Mr. Ludlowe "a false-hearted knave and hard-hearted knave, heavy friend etc" while on one of his benders. Daniell Ela, presented in Salisbury Court in 1672 for being drunk in Newbury at Robert Holmes' house, as well as for cursing and swearing, was convicted and fined. He was then ordered to remain in prison until the judgment was satisfied.
The 1652 court records list this judgment against Dr. William Snelling: “presentment for cursing is fined ten shillings and the fees of court.” It seems the good doc was not one to wait for the 5 o’clock happy hour, and instead he happily sipped his way through all his appointments. He reportedly recited this fun foot therapy after chasing a few beers - a stunt which landed him in front of the magistrates:
"I'll pledge my friends,
And for my foes,
A plague for their heels,
And a poxe for their toes."
And for my foes,
A plague for their heels,
And a poxe for their toes."
In his History of Newbury, Currier notes Snelling was “denouncing his enemies within temperate zeal." His friends William Thomas and Thomas Milward signed and filed the following statement with the clerk of the court: "This is to certify whom it may concern that we, the subscribers, being called upon to testify against Mr. William Snelling for words by him uttered, affirm that being in way of merry discourse, a health being drunk to all friends.” He answered with the above lines, but later defended himself by asserting he meant it only for the West County folk. Affixed to this statement was the following acknowledgment:
March 12, 1651-2, all which I acknowledge and I am sorry I did not express my intent, or that I was so weak as to use so foolish a proverb.
Notwithstanding this humble apology, it appears from the court records that on the thirtieth day of March 1652 "Mr. William Snelling upon his presentment for cursing is fined 10 pounds and fees of court."
Along with sins of the flesh, drunkenness, and cursing, the Sabbath day became another hot topic for Puritan punishment. There are numerous court documents from brawling to “sundry abuses and misdemeanors, committed by sundry persons… to drink, sport and otherwise to misspend that precious time, which things tend much to the dishonor of God.” Thomas Bragg and Edward Cogswell had a heated quarrel "on the Lord's day in time of exercise" and both were fined 10 pounds. Humphrey Griffin was fined 10 pounds for unloading barley on the Sabbath before sunset, as well as for picking peas. Edmond Bridges was fined five shillings for writing a note to John Todd in Rowley meeting house during lecture time.
The years 1674 - 1676 proved to be busy years for church disorderliness. The General Court took the matter in hand and transferred powers to both the officers of the congregation and the Selectmen of Towns to appoint a patrolman "to reform all such disordered persons, in the congregations or elsewhere about the meeting houses." These reforms certainly did not stop Stephen Cross, who “struck out at worshipper” and was fined. Elizabeth Hunt and Abigail Burnam disrupted public service and were arraigned before the Court, and their fathers admonished. Sam Hunt Jr. was admonished and fined for “his light behaviour.” John Averill was hauled into Court for striking Thomas Twigs in the meeting house "in the time of public ordinances on the Sabbath."
Family feuds were yet another naughty transgression that would certainly have earned colonists a spot on Jerry Springer. John Tilliston/Tilston? of Newbury tied his wife to the bedpost with a plow chain to keep her at home. He was fined and put on notice to “keep good behavior and live with wife and provide for as husband ought to do.” This was not Tilliston's first offence; he had a rap sheet as long as my arm -- A Sketch of Newbury lists the following:
John Tillotson was presented for scandalous and reproachful speeches cast on the elders and others in a publick church meeting on a Lord's day.
John Tillotson on his many offences is fined twenty pounds, bound to his good behaviour, and fined twenty-seven pounds for killing a mare belonging to Mr. James Noyes.
In an old manuscript formerly owned by the Reverend James Noyes and now held by one of his descendants, Mr. Silas Noyes, there is an account of the testimony taken in the case of John Tillotson and a record of some of "his many offences" that induced the court to lay so heavy a fine on him. The evidence concludes:
At last he killed our elder's mare, great with foal, and a special good beast she was, provoked with her at ye instant, he killed her with a long pike, thrust through both her sides ... the morning after this transaction he made a deed to convay all his estate away from himselfe offering it to goodman (name illegible) whereby our elder would have been wholly defrauded of his mare.
According to existing documentation, Tillotson was a definite bad boy, perhaps suffering from some fatal attraction mixed with a boiling temper.
Hannah Gray, who was quite the home wrecker and hell raiser, is another prime example of Puritan deviance. She appears in the court records for her rampant lascivious behavior. She was described as “a lying girl, and several times in the night when deponent waked, she missed her and heard her laughing and giggling at the boys' bed which was in the same room.” She was also seen carrying on with Andrew Davis, as testified by Mary Sollas, as well as others. According to Sollas, her brother Robert mentioned, “Hana would entice the 'scoller boys,' and that she was guilty of baudy language and acts among the boys and girls.” Likewise, John Batcheler deposed that when Hannah Gray lived with his family, she was a lying little devil and his wife Elizabeth could say the same. Hannah “for great offences, was ordered to stand at the meeting house at Salem upon a lecture day, with a paper on her head on which was written in capital letters, I STAND HEERE FOR MY LACIVIOUS & WANTON CARIAGES. In addition, she would repeat in like manner, in Beverly or else be whipped.”
The servants made it into the court records as well: for example, Benjamin Rolfe's maid in Newbury, for having a child out of wedlock. In 1671, Hugh March's maid, Elizabeth Iago of Newbury, for wishing that the devil had Mary Ladd and all the company, in which company was her master, John Attcason/Atkinson and Daniell Ely. Edward Stone, complained of for running away fourteen or fifteen times from his master, Nathaniell Tredwell, was ordered to serve his said master one year past the term of his indenture.
So there you have it! And there's lots more to come, so stay tuned!