History of American Crime: the Colonial Period

AlCaponeAtTheBlancheHotel_850Today marks the start of a new series for me here on History Imagined. As some of you may be aware, my first published novel, Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, features history professor Elizabeth “Liz” Reams, Ph. D. While writing the dual timeline novel, I wanted to create a history professor for the contemporary chapters who would teach and do her research at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Because the historical chapters center on a series of murders in 1930, I decided Dr. Reams needed to specialize and narrow her field of concentration. I thought I was being very clever when I “created” the field of the history of American crime as her area of expertise. As the story developed, I thought it might be well to check the University of Florida website since I had not visited the campus for many years. When I clicked on the history faculty, the first name on the list was a professor of the history of American crime. So much for my being clever and original, but the fact that we have an entire field of historical investigation devoted to the subject tells me Liz and I are on to something with our fiction. While it will not be possible to cover every aspect of American crime, I hope to touch upon some of the…dare I call them…highlights? Whether highlights or lowlights, crime and punishment has existed in America as long as humans have trod the continent, but formal, written criminal codes arrived with European colonists. We will focus on the thirteen English colonies.

It is probably best that time travel is not yet available. Many living in the 21st century would find their favorite pastimes labeled criminal activities by our colonial ancestors. It was a different era, one in which early colonists contended with what was often a harshly hostile environment. While it is easy to look askance and perhaps roll our eyes at some of the activities they codified as criminal, it should be remembered that their individual survival and that of the colony depended upon keeping social order. Each individual was expected to make positive contributions to the survival of the group. Any activity deemed to work against that purpose was dealt with by the community, often harshly. From the founding of Jamestown onward, colonists held strong religious beliefs which strongly influenced their legal codes as well.

The criminal code for Jamestown, “The Articles, Lawes and Orders Diuine, Politique, and Martiall for the Colony in Virginia” as set forth by the Virginia Company of London, seems to have been particularly onerous. Mandatory church attendance and moral uprightness were part of the code, but religious fervor in no way diminished its brutality. One can surmise the profit motive that brought about the founding of  Jamestown, as opposed to the desire for personal and religious freedom of the founders of colonies like Plymouth, may account for the  code’s severity in the punishments meted out for even minor offenses. In a 1624 letter to the crown, colonists described the Jamestown code as “Tyrannycall Lawes written in blood.” Their complaints included incidents in which starving men who ran away to live with the Native Americans were recaptured and returned to the colony in order to be burned at the stake. The punishment for stealing food resulted in hanging and one poor soul being chained to a tree until he starved to death. The complaint continues that people “were shott to death, hanged and broken upon the wheele, besides continuall whippings, extraordinary punishments, workinge as slaves in irons for terme of yeares (and that for petty offenses) weare dayly executed.” One wonders how anyone survived at Jamestown.

One of the best colonial era crime and punishment  prima facie sources available is the collected court records of the Plymouth Colony. They survive almost entirely intact beginning in 1623 and ending in 1691 when Plymouth merged with Massachusetts Bay Colony. There were five activities the Pilgrims considered so heinous that they classified them as capital crimes:

  • willful murder
  • forming a solemn compact with the devil by way of witchcraft
  • willful burning of ships or houses
  • sodomy, rape, and buggery
  • adultery[1]

Death may seem an unreasonably harsh penalty for all but murder, but the conditions and times in which the colonists lived – the difficulty of securing shelter, the lifeline to Europe provided by ships, the impossibility of maintaining a prison system, the part that religion played in governance and daily life, and the general mindset of the era – determined that social order would be kept at all costs.


Hester Prynne, heroine of Hawthorn’s historical novel, was forced to wear the sign of the adulteress.

By 21st century standards, it seems outlandish that the last two items made the list of capital crimes, but in the Pilgrims’ small, closed community scratched from a harsh environment where simple mistakes could mean the destruction of individuals or the entire colony, they felt these private activities violated their moral code and thus threatened the social order. In reality, Plymouth Colony never put anyone to death for dalliance with a forbidden someone, but they did dole out the AD badge to offenders. Those convicted of adultery caught out and about without the letters AD attached prominently to their clothing could be, and often were, publicly whipped. Two men convicted of homosexual activity  were severely whipped. One of them was branded on the shoulder and driven from the colony. The other was allowed to stay, but was forbidden to own land. It is unclear why these two received different sentences. There were no known incidents of arson and the only two witch trials resulted in acquittal of the accused and fining of the accusers for basically bearing false witness. Lesser crimes in Plymouth Colony included, among other things, failure to vote, smoking, failure to attend church, and killing fish before they spawned.

Massachusetts Bay Colony had similar criminal codes to that of Plymouth. In addition, the crime of rape was a capital offense and repeat offenders of various serious crimes could ultimately face the death penalty, as well. The usual punishments for the period, pillory, whipping, banishment, branding, dunking, etc., existed in Massachusetts for lesser crimes. As with Plymouth, the combination of a moral code based on religious devotion coupled with the need to keep social order determined much of the colony’s criminal code.

While each of the thirteen colonies had its own individual code describing crimes and punishments, they were generally similar in nature. Biblical interpretation of a literal nature and the desire to punish, shame, and control citizens in even their most intimate activities were part and parcel of the colonial codes. But, perhaps we judge them too harshly from the comfort of our 21st century, climate controlled, well fed, secure lives. The importance of keeping social order was, after all, a matter of life and death.


Fiction and Nonfiction featuring colonial crime:



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  1. http://mayflowerhistory.com/crime/
  2. http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring03/branks.cfm
  3. http://score.rims.k12.ca.us/score_lessons/colonial_court/html/colonial.html
  4. https://sites.google.com/a/arlington.k12.ma.us/schersten_colonial/laws-punishments
  5. http://law.jrank.org/pages/11883/Colonial-Period-Punishment.html
  6. http://www.earlyamericancrime.com/page/4

Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

Click here to connect with Linda and find out more about her writing.