Hidden Histories

A Quaint Colonial Custom: "Ears Cut Off & Nailed to the Pillory!"

Monday, 4/19/10
In modern times, we often take for granted the lack of severity in Western countries of various punishments attached to crime, whereas it is still quite common in such places as Saudi Arabia, to be stoned to death for adultery, or to have one's hands cut off for thievery, designed as a deterrent to would-be law breakers. However, at one time, other barbaric customs were a part of United States history as well.

Being whipped and branded for 'petty crimes' was common in Colonial America, or for more serious infractions of the law, having the malefactor ''hanged, drawn, and quartered" or beheaded, with one's head 'placed on a pole' in a public place, were once common occurrences here in the West, even into the 19th-century. During the 'Starving Time' in the early Virginia Colony, a large needle or 'bodkin' was inserted through one's tongue for the stealing of food, while 'taking God's name in vain,' or the failure to attend Church, could literally lead to one's death if repeated, and were considered to be 'capital crimes' worthy of the death sentence. One such antiquated custom for 'petty crimes' included the use of the pillory.

The pillory was generally composed of a vertical post with two horizontal pieces of wood attached to the top, containing holes for a person's hands and head to be placed within while he or she stood or knelt. Such punishments were meant to encourage public humiliation and were thus usually erected in a public square or at a market-place, since passers-by were expected to throw trash, garbage or fecal matter at the person locked within 'the stocks.'

As early as 1623, a 'Captain Richard Quailes' of Virginia, for some unrecorded reason, was "set upon the pillory with his eares nayled thereto, they either to be cutt off of or redeemed by payinge the fine of 100 lbs sterli{ng}..."

Some individuals placed within a pillory, also had 'their nose slit, tongue bored through with a red hot iron' and were then branded on the cheek or hand with the initial letter for the crime for which the offender was being punished, e.g., 'S.L.,' for a seditious libeller; 'M' for manslaughter; 'T' for thief, and 'R' for a rogue, etc.

In 1755 in Charles County, Maryland, a young African-American female was subjected to the pillory for 'perjury,' and was not only 'flogged,' but had "her ears cropped close." The Maryland Gazette contains a frequent number of incidents of individuals during the decades of the 1760's and 1770's, "burnt in the hand" or ordered to be "whipped and stand in the pillory..."

Often times persons guilty of counterfeiting money or 'bills of credit,' were subjected to the pillory. The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, for 1755-56, Section VII, state how "if any person or persons shall counterfeit any of the said bills of credit of this province...be legally convicted....such person or persons shall be sentenced to the pillory and to have both his or her ears cut off and nailed to the pillory, and to be publicly whipped on his or her bare back with thirty-one lashes well laid on."

Also in 1780, the same 'Pennsylvania Statutes,' decreed that any persons guilty of counterfeiting would receive the same punishment as above, adding that, "moreover every such offender shall forfeit the sum of two thousand pounds, lawful money of Pennsylvania to be levied on his her lands and tenements, goods and chattels..." That same year, the law required that any individual who "feloniously" took a horse or mare, they would "for the first offense...stand in the pillory for one hour, and ...publicly whipped on his, or her or {their} bare backs with thirty-nine lashes, well laid on, and at the same time shall have his, her or their ears cut off and nailed to the pillory, and for the second offense shall be whipped and pilloried in like manner and be branded on the forehead in a plain and visible manner with the letters H.T.," for 'horse-thief.'

Both in 1776 and in 1794, two slaves in Virginia, one for 'running away from his master and lying,' the other for 'hog stealing,' were ordered to be taken by the sheriff to the pillory, where their ears were nailed. The latter slave named Caleb, had one ear nailed, "and in one hour thereafter to cut it loose from the nail, then to nail the other and in another hour's time to cut that loose from the nail, this being the second offense."

In 1782, one Brice McWhimney of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, was found guilty of horse theft and sentenced to 39 lashes at the whipping post, and forced to stand at the pillory for one hour, "and have his ears cut off and pay 15 pounds and cost..."

Joe Disberry or Disbury was a notorious criminal living during the period of the Revolutionary War, near what is now Selinsgrove, Snyder County, Pennsylvania and Sunbury in Northumberland, who was caught repeatedly for thievery. He was taken to Sunbury where he was forced to stand in the pillory, receive the traditional thirty-nine lashes and also had his ears cut off and nailed to the post, after which he was imprisoned for three months and paid a fine of 30 pounds currency. His 'goods and chattels' were also confiscated after being convicted of burglarly and sentenced "to the penitentiary house of the city of Philadelphia to undergo the servitude...for the term of twenty-one years." 

However, even after his period of long incarceration, Disberry soon returned to his old haunts and habits in 1819, only to steal flour from a mill in Union County, but falling through a hatchway was mortally injured. The owner purportedly remarked that he Disberry should be "buried deep," else "if it is not done he will return and steal mill, dam and all!"

John Wilson and Joseph Fulsome at Jonesboro, Tennessee, for the year 1790, convicted of horse-stealing, were both ordered to be "confined in the public pillory for the space of one hour, and that each of them have both their ears nailed to the pillory and severed from their heads." They to received the 'thirty-nine lashes,' which was followed by their 'right cheek' being branded with the letter 'H,' and the 'left cheek' with the letter 'T,' a sentenced carried out by the sheriff of Washington County.

It is not known exactly when pillory punishment ended within Pennsylvania or the United States as a whole. The various laws of each colony or state differed, and not all parties obeyed the new regulations simultaneously or with vigor, since the practice certainly continued in some parts of the country as late as the year 1839 or afterwards.

Though we may still be imprisoned and fined today for various infringements of the law, it should at least be comforting to some present-day individuals, that not all former laws or punishments even exist on the books of the respective states. If for example, 'taking the Lord's name in vain' was still considered to be a 'capital offense,' the current population of the United States would no doubt be reduced considerably, perhaps by the millions!

Such antiquated laws and punishments as the above are available for the perusal of the curious, in many of the collections here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Comments

This is really interesting. To think, people pierc...

This is really interesting. To think, people pierce their tongues today for fun. It is unfathomable that people committed such petty crimes when the stakes were so high! Good post.

Pilgrims of the United States in Manhattan

Any members trustees of your organization?

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