Punishments in a 17th-Century Puritan Village

Written by vickie van antwerp
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Punishments in a 17th-Century Puritan Village
Puritan law imposed the death penalty for capital crimes. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

According to a study on premarital sex by the Buttmacher Institute published in 2007, the overall statistics on premarital sex is 97 per cent. Puritan law in the 17th century would have punished the offence by imposing a three-day imprisonment and a fine of ten pounds. If the guilty parties could not afford the fine, they could receive a whipping. The exception to the rule was five pounds per person if the couple was engaged.

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Diary of Hetty Shephard

Simple acts that carry no stigma, let alone punishment in the 21st century, were crimes in a 17th-century Puritan village. Recordings of punishments are found in the diary of a 15-year-old Puritan girl named Hetty Shephard. Hetty lived in a village in Rhode Island and wrote about a young woman who married her deceased husband's brother. The Puritan court annulled the marriage and forbade her from seeing him again. Hetty writes about another woman fined five pounds for playing cards.

Capital Laws

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, General Laws and Liberty lists capital laws punishable by death that included offences such as idolatry, the worship of any God beside the Christian God, blasphemy of God the Father, the Son or the Holy Ghost , witchcraft, murder, bestiality, homosexuality and adultery. Children were not exempt. If a child over the age of 16 cursed or hit either parent without cause, he received the death penalty. Any child 16 or older considered rebellious and unruly risked being put to death. Rape of females over the age of ten and rebellion against the commonwealth also carried death penalties.


Death sentences included hangings and burnings. Punishments for non-capital crimes included the pillory, a device that held a person's head and hands through a hole while she stood for hours. Occasionally, the person's ears were nailed to the back board of the device. People were strapped to a chair or stool and dunked in water. Drowning was not the intention, but it did occur on occasion, according to historian James Cox.


The Quakers were another religious group that arrived in America in its early history. They were seeking religious freedom from English rule, but many found the rule of the Puritans in the villages where they lived intolerable also. Some Quakers were severely punished for speaking out against Puritan beliefs. One form of punishment was branding, usually on the forehead. Governor Endicott of Massachusetts was especially hard on the Quakers and threatened them with hanging if they broke laws. In 1661 a law was passed reducing hanging punishments to public displays of torture. A convict, stripped from the waist up, was tied to a cart's tail, dragged through town while being whipped and branded on the shoulder with the letter, "R," which stood for rogue or vagabond.

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