N umerous historians have asserted that, during its heady first decades starting in 1638, the colony of New Haven was the purest of all the Puritan theocracies established in the New World.
Sure enough, New Haven’s early records—specifically concerning the sessions held by its seven-member “General Court,” which was formed in October 1639—reveal a governing class with little tolerance for sin and lots of chances to prove it.
The earliest recorded exchange of crime and punishment in New Haven, carried out during the first days of the court’s existence, is one of its most gruesome. It concerns the native Nepaupuck, who, on the strength of testimony from members of his own tribe, was convicted of killing “one or more” English settlers. Applying the principle of “he that sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,” the colonists decapitated Nepaupuck and “pitched [his head] upon a pole in the market place.”
Corporal punishment wasn’t just reserved for murderers. On December 4, 1639, the court ordered two servants to pay “double restitution” for stealing money from their master, “for which aggravation they were whipped also.” Two others, accused by their masters of being drunk and using “uncomely” language, were “set in the stocks for a certain time” and whipped, respectively.
During its session on February 5, 1640, the court fined a colonist “for being drunk on the Lord’s day;” whipped another simply for being drunk; put another in the stocks for “profaning the Lord’s day and stealing wine from his master, which he drank and gave to others;” and whipped a boy “for stealing a sow and a goat from his master and selling them.”
In the days before the court’s next meeting, held on February 18, the colony’s mischief-makers seem to have been determined to raise the bar. A fellow named John Charles was forbidden from drinking any wine at all, since “there hath been much disorder by it.” Another, Goodman Loue, who was deemed “not only a disorderly person himself, but an encourager of others,” was whipped before being banished from the colony. George Spencer, “being profane and disorderly in his whole conversation and an abettor of others to sin, and drawing others into a conspiracy” to steal a boat named “the Cock,” was also whipped and exiled. His three co-conspirators, meanwhile, “were ordered to wear irons” for an indefinite period of time. Subsequent records indicate that one of the offenders wore his chains for more than two weeks, while the other two wore theirs for more than three.
For the next few months—possibly because the harshness of the preceding punishments deterred the rest of the colony from acting out—only a few offenses, and minor ones at that, made it into the official record. Come June, however, higher crimes and punishments surged. Edward Bannister was fined 20 shillings “for his contempt of the court, and therein the ordinance of God,” while another Edward, last name Woodcliff, who was deemed “a pestilent fellow” and “a corrupter of others,” was “whipped severely” and banished for “slandering his master’s wife.”
The sins of summer were only just beginning. On July 1, the court ordered two men whipped for a “sinful dalliance and folly” with a woman named Lidia Browne. Another colonist was whipped for “running from his master and stealing fruit out of Goodman Ward’s lot.”
In August, two fellows were fined for neglecting their duties as watchmen, and settler Thomas Games was instructed to deliver on a long-overdue debt of tobacco he owed a man named John Moody, with an extra 10% tacked on as punishment. In September, in addition to formally adopting the name “Newhaven,” other outstanding debts between colonists were ordered quickly paid. They must have been, because not a single crime or punishment was recorded in October and November.
In December, they roared back, but not with quite the same vengeance. A Thomas Franckland was whipped, fined and “deprived” of his land, but he was also given the chance to earn it back “upon his good behavior.” A servant was sentenced to a whipping “for his stubborn carriage,” but the punishment was suspended, also pending good behavior. A master, his name written down as “Mr. Wilks,” was ordered to “abate two months of the time” his servant, John Davis, would have to continue working for him, after Wilks clocked Davis’s head with a hammer.
If, among many other things, two months’ reduced labor for being attacked by your employer doesn’t strike you as a carriage of justice, this happily post-Puritan New Havener is right there with you.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image depicts research materials inside the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library. As applicable, quoted text in this story has been converted to contemporary English for consistency and readability.