Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abolition of the Whipping Post in Delaware

By Bianca Adam Miller

Whipping post and pillory in Delaware
The approaching abolition of the whipping - post by the Delaware legislature will align that State with modern civilization, and prompts a retro­spective glance over the role which this relic of barbarism has played in history. Prior to the nineteenth century the prac­tice of punishing criminals by whipping was a political institution of great an­tiquity. It prevailed in its pristine vigor all through the middle ages, as a penalty both in the army and navy of all civilized nations. It was continued until a very few years ago, as an indispensable ex­pedient for enforcing discipline among common sailors, and the practice survived in countries where negro slavery pre­vailed, as a necessary preventive of sheep and chicken stealing.

Prior to our Revolution a whipping-post stood in Philadelphia at the south­east corner of Third and Market streets. They were also to be found in most other American cities at that time. The pillory which usually accompanied the whipping of criminals was regarded as a species of public entertainment. The rabble evinced such pleasure in pelting the culprits with eggs, vegetables and clods, that Watson, in his historical annals of Philadelphia, declares that inasmuch as these punish­ments were inflicted only on market days, the price of eggs was then systematically higher than common.

Two centuries ago these punishments were frequently accompanied by the bar­barity of slitting the nostrils or clipping the ears of the worst offenders. After­wards the sheriff usually held up the ex­cised fragments of the ears to the gaze and vociferous applause of the multitude. We have no record indicating that nose or ear-splitting ever prevailed in Amer­ica, but instead thereof, the pitiless pelt­ing of the offenders with mud or eggs was a universal custom bequeathed to us by Old England, and practiced until the date of the revolutionary war.

The penalty of whipping was also a salient feature in the blue laws of New England, as many miserable Quakers abundantly discovered whose zeal had improvidently led them into these colo­nies. So strong was the prejudice against Quakerism that it was punished by the cat-o'-nine-tails, while the victims were dragged at the rear of a cart front town­ship to township. It was also deemed the only argument that could be used with slaves, or white offenders of the lowest class, which could be hoped to impress them with a proper sense of their transgressions. To simply imprison an indolent slave, for a larceny was rather a reward than a penalty for his crime, and left no conscientious reproaches upon his torpid nature.

Delaware prisoner receiving forty lashes for a larceny
As the institution of slavery gradually passed away and the higher impulses of humanity modified the penal codes of the world, the practice of whipping gradually died away. The belief prevailed, however, and exists even in the present day, that the baseness and selfishness which actu­ates a thief implies that he acts from cunning and cold-blooded premeditation and is absolutely insensible to the refor­matory effect of any other punishment. This has become conspicuously recog­nized of late years, since prisons of civil­ized nations have by better supplies of light, heat and ventilation, been rendered far more sanitary than formerly. An old-time prison used to be a true dungeon, and so devoid of all bodily comfort as to disgust even a professional criminal. At the present time, however, the architectu­ral structure and the general administra­tion of prisons have ceased to be a deadly menace to the health of criminals. They are generally as well fed, and actually more comfortable, than half of the honest laborers outside.

Consequently with many moralists it has become a question whether justice and the dictates of hu­manity have not exhibited too much lenity toward all classes of convicts. The general advancement of civilization in its treatment of these classes is thought by some to be carried too far, and that penalties are losing their intimidating force.

Apart from all other abuses the moral­ists argue that the pecuniary tax im­posed by thieves upon society is so grave that few persons have ever formed an ad­equate conception of it. For instance, there are fifty-two penitentiaries and over seventeen thousand jails in the United States, which cost five hundred million dollars to build. More than nine hun­dred thousand persons were incarcerated during the year 1892, whose expense to the country was not less than one hun­dred million dollars. To this sum must be added the expense of locks and keys, of bolts and bars, of burglar-alarms, watchmen, watch-dogs and what not; which would amply suffice to keep the whole corps of thieves in luxury and indolence at high-priced hotels.

Learning that the institution of the whipping-post, which still survives in the State of Delaware is about to be abol­ished, the writer went to New Castle to make a personal observation of the prac­tice, the better to judge of its exaggerated horrors. The most striking badge of an­tiquity associated with the subject proved to be the court-house nearby, with a passageway for wagons running through its center, near to which the penalties were carried into execution. As shown in the accompanying illustrations, there was nothing particularly blood-curdling in either the appearance of the whipping-post and its appliances or in the process of whipping itself. The whipping-post was a sturdy beam some eighteen feet high, encircled by a platform ten or twelve feet front the ground, and also supporting a pair of cross-bars four or five feet higher. The upper cross-bar con­tained' apertures for the wrists, and was contrived so as to rise and fall upon the lower, and thus confine the culprits in an immovable position while standing upon the platform.

The criminals who were paraded before us were mostly negroes, and the sheriff's bailiff; who administered the castigation, seemed exempt from all desire to hurt them. It is true that upon the flesh of one or two of the white criminals his lashes made perceptible marks, although unaccompanied with either laceration or bloodshed. Nor was there any outcry by the recipients, indicative of serious suffer­ing. In fact, the whole scene seemed to constitute a public show, for the humilia­tion of the prisoners, rather than an ex­pression of popular vengeance against their crimes.

As an absolute preventive of larceny the whipping-post can scarcely be termed a success; although a popular tradition pervades the adjoining counties (where larcenies are most frequent) that profes­sional thieves, after one whipping experi­ence in Delaware, usually migrate to other states. Its inefficiency as a pun­ishment was evidenced by the fact that one of the negroes who suffered the appli­cation of the cat-o'-nine-tails, when asked what he would take to undergo it a sec­ond time, mentioned twenty-five cents! The question was put to him in conse­quence of the first photograph taken being unsatisfactory, and a desire on the part of the artist of making another, if it were possible to have the performance repeated.

The popular appreciation of these spec­tacles relieves the monotony of ordinary events at New Castle, much as do the bull fights in Spain or the exhibitions of our own wandering circuses. That it has a fascination for the populace was made manifest by the people who gave them­selves the trouble to be present when our party were there. Their number must have been several hundred - men, women and children - many of whom appeared to have come from a considerable distance to witness it, as the presence of many bi­cycles mutely testified.

But these are scenes which belong to the past. The world moves, and now a great and radical change is about to tran­spire. The whipping-post is doomed. The public mind has been agitated for years, touching its abolition. This feel­ing has been increased since the noted infidel, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, was booked to deliver a lecture at Dover, some years ago. When this engagement came to the knowledge of the late Chancellor Saulsbury, who regarded Ingersoll's ut­terances as pure blasphemy, liable to penalties tinder the ancient statutes of Delaware, he threatened to arrest and imprison the lecturer. As soon as this threat reached the ears of the great ag­nostic, he declined to carry out the pro­gram, saying he was unwilling to undergo the notoriety of arrest. He vigorously denounced Delaware's whipping-post and blue laws as “twin relics of barbarism" an opinion which many of its people now entertain, although previously they es­teemed whipping preeminently proper for wife-beaters and perpetrators of all similar brutalities.

Following upon the denunciation of Ingersoll, by a strange coincidence, a constitutional convention was convened in Delaware for the purpose of modern­izing its criminal code and discarding the obsolete features of its entire system of jurisprudence. Almost at the same time, although wholly disconnected with the convention, a bill to abolish the whip­ping-post altogether was prepared for presentation to the legislature by the Hon. Samuel Aldrich. A copy of it was shown the writer.

The bill provides, that after the pass­age of this act, the whipping of criminals or the confining of criminals in pillories in the State of Delaware shall be unlaw­ful; and the whipping-post and pillory shall be abolished: provided, that crimi­nals already sentenced to be whipped or confined in the pillory shall, at their option, receive either their whipping or their said confinement, or, in lieu thereof, three months' imprisonment."
Having been abandoned in every other section of the United States, this act will abolish whipping from the jurisprudence of America.

It is impossible to doubt that, with or without the whipping-post, larceny will continue, and this, whether from local development alone, or from pernicious importations of larcenous people from many other lands. The experiment of abolishing whipping has never been sta­tistically compared with the subsequent conditions. It is impossible, therefore, to declare whether there has been a gain or loss in crime by the repeal of this ancient penalty. Until an accurate sum­mary can be produced of the results, we can only hope that its abolition is not a rash experiment, nor that the action of the Delaware legislature has not been a mere shot in the dark.

The Cosmopolitan Magazine.  1897.

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  1. That was really harsh but you cannot look only at one side of a coin. There must be a reason to be whipped after all.

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