12 November 2008

Social Taboos: Branded

By Anna C. Bowling

In the days of the original thirteen colonies, every healthy adult was needed, and a viable penal system was not on the top of the settlers' to do list. Still, human nature being human nature, when there are laws, as in any society, there will be those who don't abide by them. While the usual practice is to segregate miscreants from the mainstream of society, when that's not a possibility, or the law-breaker has special skills needed for survival, there have to be other means.

Punishments such as the stocks or pillory served as deterrents and temporary restraints for the guilty party, and a moral lesson or cause to for amusement for passersby, depending on their temperament. Still, Some offenses needed a longer lasting solution. For the eighteenth century colonist, this often meant permanent body alterations. As American citizens in many areas can recognize prison work crews from special uniforms, the colonist could know the criminal past of those who had one.

In my colonial historical romance, MY OUTCAST HEART, Tabetha Small knows that Christian Dalby has been convicted of thievery before he's even said a word to her. The "T" branded onto his hand (as in the picture above) makes that plain. The brand was placed so that anyone with occasion to shake hands with someone who bore the mark would be sure to see it. Though Dalby finds a way to obscure his brand, other marks were much harder to hide, such as brands on the cheek or forehead, cropped ears, or even having one's tongue bored through with an iron rod. The infamous Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. could well be considered to have gotten off easy; her letter was only worn on her clothing.

Whipping, tarring and feathering, and the ever-popular being ridden out of town on a rail were not considered cruel or unusual in their time, but necessary ways to carry out the law of the land. Whether or not those to whom the punishment was meted learned their lesson, the effects of a youthful offense would be plain as the nose (or lack thereof) on a man's face for the rest of his life.

To read more about Colonial crime and punishment, visit the official site of Colonial Williamsburg.