Looking at the Rhode Island Colonial Record in many ways is like reading today's newspaper. In both we find reports of murder, robbery and counterfeiting, and in both we sometimes have a problem in separating the rogues and rascals who are caught and punished from the politicians and businessmen who are honored. Double standards, legal technicalities and bribery often allowed the guilty to escape unpunished and brought severe penalties to others. Justice at times seems to be not only blind but deaf and dumb as well.
When we read of a servant girl being whipped and jailed for smiling in church while a man like Simon Potter, privateer and slave trader, is honored and considered a shrewd and honest businessman, we realize that laws in Colonial Rhode Island left a great deal to be desired.
One of the earliest instances of crime and punishment in Providence involved one of Roger Williams’ followers, Joshua Verin. Mr. Verin's wife, a very devout lady, spent considerable time listening to the sermons of Roger Williams. Her husband claimed this was time that she should have devoted to the care of her household. When she continued to disobey his orders, he beat her so badly that her screams could be heard by the neighbors. Verin was brought before the Town Council. His crime was not in beating his wife, but in interfering with her right of worship. Verin, rather than submit to the Town Council with a public confession, was allowed to leave the colony with no further penalty.
Such leniency was rare. Much harsher penalties were usually imposed throughout the Colonial Period for even minor offenses. While prisons were not considered the most practical means of punishment, they were deemed a necessity from the very earliest times. In l638, the same year Coddington and Clark founded Portsmouth, a 10 by 12-foot prison was built there and within a very short time a similar structure was built in Newport. Warwick and Providence had plans to build their own jails, but decided to use the bigger and better structure of Newport instead. Even the best prison of colonial times would be regarded by modern standards as totally inadequate, unsanitary and morbidly depressing. Prisoners had nothing to do during their period of confinement. Enforced idleness and lack of exercise would tend to drive both the innocent and the guilty to the point of insanity, and suicide was not uncommon among colonial prisoners.
Imprisonment was but one form of punishment and was not the one most often used in the early years. Whipping of both men and women was most common for many crimes. A thief was whipped for his first offense, branded for his second and put to death for his third. The death penalty was used for treason, piracy, arson, burglary, rape, manslaughter and murder. Less serious offenses, such as being a "scold" (quarrelsome person who habitually found fault), resulted in being put on a dunking stool and very nearly drowned, while bearing "false witness" meant time spent in the "pillory." “Ear cropping,” “tongue boring" and "branding" were all penalties for minor offenses. Counterfeiters and forgers had their ears cropped, were branded on the cheek with a "C," sent to prison and fined. Duelists saw the victor spending an hour in the gallows or spending time in prison. Horse thieves received 100 stripes with a knotted whip. Accidental burning of a home carried fines, imprisonment, standing in the stocks, ear cropping and branding. In some instances the families of the offenders were also punished. The colony confiscated all property and disinherited the heirs of those found guilty of murder, manslaughter and arson.
These harsh penalties did not stop crime, and at times even helped to foster it. Hangings drew such large crowds that pickpockets abounded, burglars ransacked homes of those attending the hangings, robbers waylaid those who stayed late, horse thieves took advantage of the crowds and confusion and counterfeiters found it easy to pass their money off on the thrill-seekers. One good example of this is the case of Arthur Noble, who in 1722 was arrested for passing counterfeit bills in Newport on the day that 12 pirates were hanged. His arrest focused attention on one of the cleverest of all early counterfeiters, Mary (Peck) Butterworth.
Mary was not the first counterfeiter in colonial New England. That dubious distinction goes to Freelove Lippencott of Newport, who in 1712 had counterfeit plates made in England to duplicate Rhode Island's paper money. The plates were not very well made, and the quality of the bills was poor. Lippencott was arrested within a year. A grand jury, in spite of the evidence of the heavy copper plates, not only did not indict her but did not even confiscate the plates.
Lippencott sold the plates to a well-organized counterfeiting ring in Kingston that was run by two deputies of the General Assembly. The deputies were never convicted, even though some of their associates, or "utterers" (those who distributed the money), were caught, confessed and had their ears cropped. Other "utters" who were not even aware that the money was counterfeit were also punished. Apparently, the deputies had friends who protected them and they were never brought to trial.
The story of the rogues and rascals will continue next week.