Yet another component of this culture was its system of social order. In that regard, New England was characterized by a curious paradox. This was always the most orderly region in British America, but it was also very violent in its ordering acts. This typically Puritan paradox of private order and public violence was specially striking in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For many generations, individual order coexisted with an institutional savagery that appeared in the burning of rebellious servants, the maiming of political dissenters, the hanging of Quakers, the execution of witches and the crushing to death with heavy stones of an old man who refused to plead before the court.
These two tendencies, of individual order and institutional violence, were closely linked. Among the Puritan founders of Massachusetts, order was an obsession. The intensity of their concern—and its distance from our own time—appeared in a startling argument by Puritan minister John Norton, who insisted that it was “better an innocent and a good man should suffer than order; for that preserves the whole.”1
The prevailing idea of order in Puritan Massachusetts was very different from our own conceptions. It did not primarily mean “a state of peace and serenity” as Webster’s Dictionary defines it, but rather a condition where everything was put in its proper place and held there by force if necessary. Order, for the Puritans, meant a condition of organic unity—the order that “preserves the whole” in John Norton’s definition—a oneness of the spirit that did not readily admit internal differences. The same idea often appeared in Puritan writings. John Winthrop spoke of order as “the preservation and good of the whole.”2 The Puritan divine Solomon Stoddard explained that “a church is not a confused body of people; but they that are brought into order, and each must observe his proper station: it is compared to a natural body, wherein there are diverse organs appointed to their peculiar services.”3 The importance of unity became the leading theme of Puritan sermons in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. “Union,” declared Jonathan Edwards, “is one of the most amiable things that pertains to human society; yea, it is one of the most beautiful and happy things on earth, which indeed makes earth most like heaven.”4
This idea of order as organic unity was deeply embedded in the cosmology of English Calvinism. But the ordering institutions of New England were drawn from a different source—mainly those that had existed in the towns of East Anglia. The builders of the Bay Colony chose very selectively from these English precedents. In the first generation, for example, they decided not to introduce the office of sheriff. That hated symbol of royal prerogative and aristocratic power was not welcome in early New England. Neither, at first, did they have any use for the peace-keeping officers of the Anglican church such as beadles and other parish policemen who were chosen by vestry and clergy to collect tithes and keep order. Through the first half of the seventeenth century, The Bay colonists did without these unpopular officials.
Puritan Massachusetts turned instead to the most communitarian of English peacekeepers—the village constable. This was an ancient office, derived from the borsholders, headboroughs, boroughheads and reeves who were elected by an English township or tithing, rather than being appointed by higher authority.5 In New England, the constable was an officer of the town, chosen by his neighbors. His duty was to serve processes, execute warrants, deliver writs, make arrests, and summon town meetings. He could also be called upon to collect taxes, organize elections, look after lost goods, recover stray animals, keep a record of newcomers to the town and arrest “such strange persons as do walk abroad in the night … and sleep in the day; or which do haunt any house, where is suspicion of bawdie.” He was also required to visit and inspect all the households in the town at least once in every three months, and each year to read all the laws pertaining to the Sabbath. When serious trouble threatened, the constable was not expected to deal with it himself, but to summon all the men of the town, who were required by law to support him. In New England, the community itself was the ultimate peacekeeper.
By and large, the system worked. Violent crime and disorder were comparatively uncommon in Massachusetts. Homicide rates in seventeenth-century New England were less than half those of the Chesapeake colonies.6 Assaults against persons were also less frequent in New England than in any other part of British America.7 In the Massachusetts county courts, crimes against property were more common than crimes against persons.8 But crimes against order were the most common of all. In Massachusetts towns, most adults were prosecuted at least once for criminal offenses against order—commonly small sabbath violations, minor cases of disturbing the peace, sexual offenses, idleness, lying, domestic disorder or drunkenness. Criminal proceedings for offenses of this sort were very common, but prosecutions for major crimes of theft and violence were comparatively rare.9
Comparatively low rates of violent crime persisted in New England for 300 years and more. Timothy Dwight observed that most people throughout this region never bothered to bar their houses, or to keep their valuables under lock and key, even in seaport towns.10 A lawyer in Beverly, Massachusetts, wrote in 1840 that “during a practice of nearly forty years, he had never known a native of Beverly convicted of any heinous crime.”11 Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that New England in her generation was a place “where one could go to sleep at all hours of day or night with the house door wide open, without bolt or bar, yet without apprehension of any to molest or make afraid.”12
Violent crime which invaded the domestic peace of a Puritan household was punished with special rigor in New England. The Massachusetts laws against burglary were exceptionally severe, and court proceedings still more so. The people of this culture had a particular horror of violence which threatened the home.13
Mob violence was also comparatively uncommon in Puritan New England, except in seaport towns such as Salem, Marblehead and Boston. Savage riots sometimes occurred in those troubled communities. The worst happened at Marblehead in 1677. After several fishing crews had been taken by the Indians, a mob of fishermens’ wives seized two Indian captives and literally tore them limb from limb. A witness reported:
The women surrounded them … and laid violent hands upon the captives, some stoning us and me in the meantime, because we would protect them. … Then, with stones, billets of wood, and what else they might, they made an end of these indians. We were kept at such a distance that we could not see them till they were dead, and then found them with their heads off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones. And such was the tumultation these women made, that … they suffered neither constable nor mandrake, nor any other person to come near them, until they had finished their bloody purpose.14
Scenes such as this sometimes occurred on the edges of New England society. But in Middlesex County during the mid-seventeenth century only one riot occurred— the pulling down of a may pole. When riots did happen, they were regulated by custom in a curious way. John Adams in 1774 drew a distinction between “public mobs” which defended law and the constitution, and “private mobs” which took to the streets “in resentment of private wrongs.” Adams believed that “public mobs” were constitutional, and even a necessary instrument of order. But he added that “private mobs I do and will detest. …”15 By comparison with other colonies, there were very few public mobs and political rebellions in New England.16
But when “unconstitutional” disturbances occurred, the people of Massachusetts did not hesitate to suppress them with the utmost rigor. Penalties were arranged in a hierarchy of official violence. The most terrible punishment in Massachusetts was burning at the stake—the punishment for cases of petty treason which were defined as the killing of masters by servants. At least two people were burnt alive in Massachusetts. Both were black women: a slave named Maria who was found guilty in 1681 of setting fire to her master’s house in the town of Roxbury, and a slave called Phyllis who was burned in Cambridge for having poisoned her master with arsenic.17
The next most terrible punishment was death by hanging. The colony of Massachusetts recognized thirteen capital crimes in 1648: witchcraft, idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, rape, adultery, bestiality, sodomy, false witness with intent to take life, and a child of sixteen or older who was a “stubborn” or “rebellious” son, or who “smote” or “cursed” a parent. All of these laws were drawn from the Pentateuch except the punishment for rape.18
Next to hanging, in point of violence, were punishments by maiming—the slitting of the nostrils, the amputation of ears, the branding of the face or hands. All of these terrible penalties were administered by the Puritans in Massachusetts. Quakers, for example, were punished with special ferocity. Some were branded in the face and “burned very keep with a red-hot iron with H. for heresie.” Others had their ears cut off, faces scarred and nostrils slit open in a saturnalia of sadistic punishment.19
For less serious offenses, the penalty was whipping, unless one could pay a fine. These punishments were sometimes very severe. Four Quaker women were ordered to be stripped to the waist, tied to a cart’s tail and conveyed “from constable to constable,” through twelve New England towns, and to be whipped in every town. The women were flogged so terribly that the blood coursed down their naked backs and breasts, until the horrified townsmen of Salisbury rose against the constables and rescued them.20Onemale Quaker missionary was flogged nearly to death in Massachusetts, and Puritan minister John Norton made a joke of it: “He endeavored to beat the gospel ordinances black and blue, and it was but just to beat him black and blue.”21
Other offenses were punished by various forms of public humiliation—stocks and pillories in particular. Criminals were often required to wear on their clothing a letter of the law, in some contrasting color as a badge of shame—not only the immortal A for adultery, but B for blasphemy or burglary, C for counterfeiting, D for drunkenness, F for forgery, R for roguery, S for sedition, T for Theft—an entire alphabet of humiliation. A man in Deerfield was required to wear “a capital I of two inches long, and proportionable bigness,” for the crime of incest.22
Calvinist magistrates also invented other ingenious punishments to fit lesser crimes. A woman in Salem had her tongue put in a cleft stick for “reproaching the elders.” A dishonest baker was made to stand in the stocks with a lump of dough on his head. Robert Saltonstall, for having “parsimoniously presented a petition on so small and bad a piece of paper,” was fined five shillings. Imprisonment was also used as a punishment in New England. Convicts were sometimes confined in holes below ground. In the district of Maine, they were kept through the winter in solitary earth pits that measured nine and a half by four and a half by ten feet deep. Connecticut confined its prisoners in a copper mine.23
Justice was swift in New England. The law required four days’ interval between sentencing and execution, but this provision was often honored in the breach. For example, two servants (one Scottish, the other French) murdered their master by “knocking him in the head as he was taking tobacco.” The crime was committed on 10 February 1675. The two men were hunted down by their neighbors, taken by hue and cry, tried and found guilty, and hanged on 13 February, only three days later.24
These applications of official violence were not unique to New England. They also existed in other parts of British America. But the Puritans added their own special intensity of moral purpose to the general rigor of punishment that existed throughout the
Western world in the seventeenth century. The result was a regime that combined collective order and institutional violence in an exceptionally high degree.