Crime and Punishment

The Puritans were deeply religious people who attempted to originate a colony that would demonstrate a proper Christian existence. Although there was a separate church and courthouse, most of their laws were saturated with the principles of the Bible; therefore the church and the judicial system often overlapped. They believed that anything that didn’t glorify God should be against the law. Puritans had very strict rules against immoral and frivolous pastimes as well as things that didn’t cooperate with the bible.

They would often use fines as punishment for less severe infractions or to add on to other punishments. But public humiliation was the most common punishment during Puritan times. This was so that others could learn a lesson. The best example of this is the Stocks and pillory. Stocks were heavy wooden frames with holes that held the guilty person’s ankles and sometimes wrists. The pillory was similar, but it was designed so the person would be in a standing position with his or her head and wrist secured. Usually the pillory was reserved for members of the community with higher social standing, as opposed to the stocks, which were for lower-class individuals. Usually, a trip to the stocks would be accompanied by verbal abuse and a shower of rotten food, thrown by the audience. During Puritan times, going to jail was not seen as a punishment. Jail houses were used more as holding places than as places for punishment. Criminals would often be held in jails when they were waiting to be hung.

Other public Punishments were:
  • Branding or sticking a large letter on the criminal's clothing that stood for the crime they committed. (T stood for thief, D stood for public drunkeness and so on.)
  • Public whipping, (20-40 lashes)--This was a more serious and violent punishment for crimes that were deemed serious by the courts
  • A hot iron or awl being pierced through the tongue for someone who spoke against religion.
  • The Ducking Stool--for when a woman would be dunked in a river for gossiping or scolding their husband.
  • Execution--the most common form of execution was public hangingor burning at the stake.

What was considered as an infraction during Puritan times was decided by the wealthy religous leaders of the time. Often times, the Puritans molded the laws to fit the Bible and Christianity. They believed the Sabbath (Sunday) was a sacred day, and therefore any “lewd and unseemly behavior” was outlawed on this day. What is “lewd and unseemly behavior? This true story should clarify;

One sunny Sunday in colonial Boston, a sailor named Captain Kemble returned home to his wife from a three-year-long ocean trip. Overjoyed to see his wife, he greeted her with a kiss and embrace. Some magistrate or nosy citizen saw him with his wife, and he was then sentenced to several hours of public embarrassment in the stocks.

This is a painting of what the pillory looked like. The victim would often have rotten foods thrown at him/her while members of the community and church were scolding them.

Apparently, any mild form of PDA was "lewd and unseemly"
Here are some other laws and actions that were not allowed

  • No sleeping in church
  • No mischevious behavior during church (young children would often be brought before the court)
  • No long hair—since it was seen as inappropriate in the bible
  • No swearing
  • No lying, dawdling, or lewdness--punishable by anything from fines to execution, depending on who charged you with the crime and the severity of the offense.

Unusual sexual acts such as masturbation, fornication, adultery, and sodomy were crimes that occurred often in Puritan communities. Offenders of these types could be punished from anything as simple as a fine, to execution or burning at the stake. It can be assumed that the punishments were decided mostly on individual situations and therefore there was no punishment set in stone for a specific offense. This system therefore was incredibly unfair and biased.

Other crimes like the following were pettier, but the punishments were just as humiliating as some of the other punishments. People who committed these crimes would usually be put in ducking stools or be forced to wear a "gossip's bridle".

  • “Bakers of bad bread”
  • “Brewers of bad beer”
  • Gossiping
  • Slandering
  • Constantly bickering with your spouse

Works Cited
"Colonial Williamsburg Journal: Colonial Crimes and Punishments : The Official Site of Colonial Williamsburg." Colonial Williamsburg Official Site. Web. 01 Mar. 2010. <>.
"New Crime and Punishment." Gordon Russell Middle School. Web. 01 Mar. 2010. <>.
""Puritanism, Puritans"" Public Services - Social, Religious, Scientific, Products, Environment. Web. 01 Mar. 2010. <>.
Saari, Peggy. Colonial America. Detroit: U.X.L, 2000. Print