Crime History: Crime And Punishment In The Original Plymouth Colony

As you fight over that wishbone today, you may find yourself wondering just what life was like centuries ago in the Plymouth Colony. In honor of the very American Thanksgiving holiday, CrimeFeed brings you a slice of Plymouth life. These are just a few of the activities that would have gotten you in serious trouble if you attempted them back in the 1600s.

A 1677 map of the Colonies.

A 1677 map of the Colonies.

Treason and “willful” murder could get you the death penalty, much like they could up to the late 20th Century, depending on your location. However, back in Plymouth, a few more crimes that don’t get the death penalty today were considered punishable by death: setting fire to ships or homes, rape or sodomy, and making a deal with the Devil or witchcraft.

John Billington was the first person in Plymouth Colony to be executed for murder. He had been found guilty of shooting and killing John Newcomen and was hanged to death in September of 1630. There are no records of anyone in Plymouth Colony ever being charged with setting fire to a ship or a home, so there are no records of a death penalty being enacted for capital arson.

Interestingly, there were two trials for witchcraft in the colony, but both times the accused witches were found to be innocent of the crime. Their accusers were actually punished with fines for having accused them falsely.

"The Witch, No. 3", c. 1892 lithograph by Joseph E. Baker [Public Domain]

By Joseph E. Baker [Public Domain]

Other acts that were crimes in Plymouth are now considered not just not criminal, but for some folks commonplace. Not attending church could get you a 10 shilling fine. Lying in public? That will be 10 shillings. Can’t pay that? Then two hours in the stocks (seen below). (Proving that these laws were in place before America had its first election season, to be sure.) Working on a Sunday? That will be a 10 shilling fine. Traveling on a Sunday was punished more harshly, with a 20 shilling fine.

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Intriguingly, Plymouth Colony had the first known no-smoking law. In 1637, they enacted a law penalizing anyone caught smoking in the street, a highway, barn, or outhouse —12 pence. That fine also covered anyone caught smoking more than a mile away from their home.

The Plymouth Colony looked very poorly upon couples who were caught fornicating out of wedlock. If an unmarried couple refused to get married after getting caught in the act? They could be subject either a public whipping, up to three days in prison, and/or a fine of £10. If the couple agreed to get married? They still got hit with that £10 fine, but the whipping was taken off the menu. In 1639, a woman named Mary Mendame was punished for “uncleanness” she committed with a Native American named Tinsin. She was publicly whipped throughout the streets of the colony and made to wear a badge emblazoned with “AD,” for “adultery.”

By Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837-1914, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joseph E. Baker [Public Domain]

It’s almost impossible to get a real-world valuation of the 1621 English shilling versus the 2016 U.S. dollar. There is evidence that in 1633, the shilling was worth 24.3 American cents. That may not seem like much, but take into account that in 1633, a pound of butter cost approximately 6 shillings (or 12 cents). There is also evidence that just a few years later in 1644, the inhabitants of nearby Dedham, Massachusetts, created the first real public school in the Colonies, and paid their schoolmaster $66.67 a year.

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This clip from PBS’s American Experience gives us a little more insight into the real story behind the first Thanksgiving:

Read more:
Crime and Punishment In Plymouth Colony (citing Pilgrim News, the newsletter of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in Nebraska)
History of Wages in the United States from Colonial times to 1928: Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 499 (1929)
“Sexual Misconduct in Plymouth Colony” by Lisa M. Lauria, part of The Plymouth Colony Archive Project
MaylowerHistory.com

Main image: “The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris [Public Domain]