Taking Stock in New Hampshire: Colonial Punishment

Some people believe public punishment can go a long way in changing people’s behavior.

Colonial New Hampshire residents believed it, and used it frequently. The common law of England had been brought over and was a part of the law of the American colonies.

In the early days of New Hampshire’s settlement, individuals who broke the law or damaged the community in some way were often publicly censured. Use of devices, such as the stocks, the pillory, and the whipping post could be found in virtually every community, and were often located near the church yard, or on the town common.

Stocks were wooden devices which bound the feet of the offender.  They sat on a stool in the public square with a sign stating their type of crime. These stocks were the early “jails.” People could taunt you, slap you, and often throw rotten food at you. In some cases offenders were left out in the elements for lengthy periods of time.



A pillory is a kind of “standing stocks,” consisting of a pair of posts topped by a hinged platform through which the head and hands could be placed and secured. The punishment using a pillory was sometimes combined with stocks and a whipping post. Some people convicted to stand in a pillory also had their ears nailed to the platform to keep them from moving their heads. In many cases the prisoner was able to walk about, however they would often be pegged with eggs or stones or beaten by the towns people using whips and canes.

At the October term 1771, the first grand jury in Hillsborough County New Hampshire was called. General John Stark was a member of this jury. The unfortunate individual, Jonas Stepleton, pleaded guilty, and threw himself upon the mercy of the court. The mercy of the court was dealt out as follows: “It is ordered that the said Stepleton be whipped twenty striped on the naked back at the public whipping-post, between the hours of one and two of the afternoon of this 3d day of October, and that he pay Nahum Baldwin, the owner of the goods stolen, forty-four pounds lawful money, being tenfold the value of the goods stolen (the goods stolen being returned) and that in default of the payment of said tenfold damages and costs of prosecution, the said Nahum Baldwin be authorized to dispose of the said Jonas in servitude to any of his Majesties’ subjects for the space of seven years, to commence from this day.”

In the superior court, a little later, one Keef was convicted of arson, and received the following sentence: “It is therefore considered by the court that the said Michael Keef is guilty, and it is ordered and adjudged that he sit one hour on the gallows with a rope round his neck, and be whipped thirty stripes on his naked back, on Thursday, the tenth day of June next, between the hours of ten and twelve o’clock in the forenoon; that he be imprisoned six months from the said tenth day of June, and give bonds for his good behavior in the sum of one hundred pounds, with two sureties in the sum of fifty pounds each, for the space of two years from the expiration of said six months, and pay the costs of prosecution, taxed at nine pounds, seven shillings, and ten pence, and stand committed till sentence be performed.”

A long-time practice in England, to exempt clergymen from penalties for certain crimes was used in 1773 in New Hampshire.  One Israel Wilkins of Hollis, was indicted at the September term 1773, of the supreme court, for the murder of his father; he was found guilty of manslaughter; he then prayed the benefit of clergy, which was granted; the court branded the brawny part of his thumb with the letter T, confiscated his personal estate, and let him go.

If the crime was that of a more serious nature the prisoner would be hanged, or shot. After the New Hampshire State prison was built in 1812, the pillory and whipping-post were no longer used.  For those of you who might like to personally see what colonial punishment was like, York Maine has a pillory located by their “Old Gaol,” where visitors can pose for photographs.


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