Crime Among the Puritans … and the penalties therefor

Crime Among the Puritans … and the penalties therefor

By Vera Lee

Harvard Magazine (July/August 1986)

Introduction: Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. You weren’t afraid to walk the streets. Drugs and pornography hadn’t yet become stylish, and the big overcrowded prison hadn’t been invented. Some of us might long to return to that morally unambiguous, less violent age. But before giving in to such yearnings, let’s take a closer look at Law and order in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Puritan lawmakers and judges counted as criminal many things that might strike us today as simply good clean fun: playing cards, dancing in a pub, entertaining on Saturday night (the start of the Sabbath), daring to be idle, or swearing a little. You could get into trouble for nagging, lying, insulting someone, talking dirty; taking the Lord’s name in vain, or disobeying your parents. And that’s just for starters.

Of course, more serious crime did occur. Although the colonists recorded few incidents of rape or murder, they did, like us, have their share of petty thievery, burglary, and assault and battery. But three particularly common violations were especially disturbing to the Puritans: drunkenness, contempt for authority, and illicit sex.

Drinking itself wasn’t against the law. Many Puritans, in fact, considered beer to be healthier than water (as it probably was). Each village or town had its tavern, regulated by the government and selling spirits to townspeople and strangers. To be arrested for drunkenness you had to be seen out of control to the point of reeling, falling, or speaking in an improper way (even in your own home). Daniel Owls of Salem, for one, was hauled into court for staggering into a house where he “eased his stomak in the Chimney.” Then a witness, aptly called Mr. Pester, reported seeing Owls strangely leaping and dancing in his home. And over the years, that confirmed drunkard Robert Coles, who held his booze very badly, had to endure countless fines and humiliating punishments, such as wearing the letter D in proclamation of his crimes.

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