top of page

Puritan Pumishments


The Puritans had all manner of creative punishments for crimes great and small, ranging from missing church to murder, many of them adopted from practices in England. Several of my ancestors were subject to these punishments for various reasons. Although the Puritans used jails, they were not much into locking people up for long periods of time. Public humiliation and permanent scarring were more their style.


The stocks were a favorite punishment used for a wide variety of crimes. My 8th great grandparents Francis West (1606-1692) and Margery Reeves (1608-abt 1672) were sentenced to sit in the stocks for incontinence before marriage. Their first child was born too soon after their marriage.


The cleft stick was a piece of wood with one end split that was placed on the tongue while the person stood in a public place. This punishment was for verbal infractions such as lying and swearing. My 10th great grandmother Elizabeth Wall Applegate (1604-1662) suffered this punishment: Elisabeth, the wife of Thomas Aplegate, was censured to stand with her tongue in a cleft stick for swearing, railing, and reviling.


Public whipping consisted usually in the range of 20-40 lashes. Thomas Atkins (1619-1716), my 10th great grandfather, received this much deserved punishment for sexually abusing his 12 year old daughter.


Wearing some sign of shame (as in the Scarlet letter): We are all familiar with the scarlet letter, but there were letters for many infractions (“D” for drunk, “T” for thief). A sign listing the infraction might also be worn on a sign around the neck while standing in the public square.


Branding/Maiming/Mutilation: These punishments included such things as being branded with a letter that represented the crime committed, cutting off an ear (this was used for Quakers), or having a hole bored through the tongue. Thomas Applegate (1596-1662), the husband of Elizabeth noted above, was sentenced to have a hole bored in his tongue because he made statements that Governor Stuyvesant was taking bribes. Thomas was pardoned by the governor. Shortly after this, Thomas and Elizabeth packed up and left Weymouth and went to Flushing, Long Island.


Being burned on the hand was the punishment for my 10th great grandfather Robert Latham (1613-1689). Robert was convicted of manslaughter for causing the death of his 14 year old servant John Walker. Robert left John outside in January without food, water, or shelter and he died of exposure. John had also been severely beaten.




Search By Tags
bottom of page