Monday, July 17, 2017

Whipping Post on the Green

There was a demonstration on the Green last week. I didn't see it myself, but photos have been showing up on Facebook. The issue in question is the controversial presence of the potentially centuries-old whipping post on the newly renovated Green. While many people have forgotten its original purpose and saw it as an innocent piece of history, in use as a bulletin board for centuries, others clearly recognized it as more than just a public notice board.

Photo from Jesus Papers' Facebook page, posted July 15, 2017.

The demonstration was performance art, as you can see from the photo, one of several circulating on Facebook right now.


Whipping posts are closely associated with slavery, and there are historic photographs of African Americans being whipped while tied to a post.

When Connecticut was established as a colony, whipping was the official punishment for theft, adultery, incest, and bestiality. Every town had a whipping post and stocks in the town center or Green.

During the early 1700s, as the colony's African American population grew, Connecticut established laws mandating whipping as the punishment for slaves who were convicted of theft (not to exceed 30 lashes); who violated the 9 p.m. curfew, which was in place every day of the year (not to exceed 10 lashes); and for slaves found guilty of slander (not to exceed 40 lashes). Whites found guilty of slander were not whipped; they had to pay a large fine.

Side note: during the 1700s, the full group covered under the term slaves was called "Indian, Molotto, and Negro Slaves and Servants."

During the late 1800s, Frederick Kingsbury could remember only two instances of Waterbury's whipping post being used during the 19th century: in 1805 and 1820. He did not specify what crimes were being punished or whether the persons being punished were white or black.

The Waterbury Republican newspaper ran a story about the post in 1943 ("Public Sign Post Once Whipping Post, According to Local Legend," 9 May 1943, p. 7). According to a document at the Mattatuck Historical Society (Mattatuck Museum), the last whipping was held on June 30, 1821. A man named Zepheriah Ellis was convicted of having stolen a shawl valued at $3 from Anne Down, a teacher. The shawl was pawned for a pint of rum at Camp's store. Ellis was fined $2 and the costs of the court proceedings, amounting to $6.25. Ellis "neglected" to pay the fine and court costs, so Justice John Kingsbury sentenced Ellis to a public whipping. The poor were more frequently subjected to physical punishment than people who had enough money to pay fines and court costs.

The Waterbury Republican also shared a letter to the editor written by Henry N. Morris, who had been 11 in 1821 and had witnessed the whipping of Zepheriah Ellis (believed to be a white man). Morris wrote "I remember distinctly that the culprit was struck five blows upon his bare back, leaving the impression of the lash in long red marks. Mr. Holmes, at the time he did the whipping, was teaching the West District School. He invited the scholars to see the punishment, thinking, I suppose, that it would be a wholesome and striking object lesson, and food for reflection in after years; and he was right, for as my mind goes back over the time (nearly 70 years) the whole proceeding seems as vivid as though it were but a day or two since it all took place. The teacher's name from whom the shawl was stolen was Anne Down. The culprit pawned the shawl at Camp's store for a pint of rum."

The post in 1943.
Waterbury Republican, 9 May 1943
Silas Bronson Library microfilm


When not used for whippings, the post was used as a bulletin board for public notices.

Connecticut stopped using whippings as an official form of punishment in 1830 (according to Kingsbury). Other states did the same, as part of a national effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Waterbury's whipping post remained in place as a bulletin board, where public notices would be posted. While Waterbury's stocks were thrown out long ago, the whipping post has continued to be used on the Green as a historic relic and as a bulletin board for centuries. Whether or not any of the original post remains, or if it was gradually replaced by new parts over time, is unknown. It is also possible that the post we have today was made after 1821, replacing the old whipping post.

Since whipping posts doubled as bulletin boards (public whippings were not a regular occurrence in 18th century Connecticut), if the post we have today is not the original whipping post and does not contain any remnants of the original whipping post, then it still would most likely have been built to replace the original whipping post, perhaps as a nostalgic reminder of the Colonial era or perhaps simply because it was an established feature of downtown. The 1943 article was bemoaning the General Assembly's refusal to get rid of public signposts like this one. It was an official part of local government.


UPDATE 7/20/2017. The following is from an article in the Waterbury Republican, dated March 5, 1890:

"The sign-post now occupies a site right on the concrete sidewalk at the corner of the green. It has stood there about four decades. Prior to its removal to its present site it stood unnumbered years as a sentinel in front of where the Park drug store is now located. Combined with it was the whipping post, and near by were the stocks."

The title of the article is "Twas Once a Whipping Post."

4 comments:

Erica H. Adams said...

Enjoyed your whipping post article and beautiful paintings of Waterbury.
Born in Waterbury where I have many fond memories, my mother was raised and grandparents are buried.

John Dori said...

I think there are some missing pieces to this history and object. That looks to have a metal base, which I would think would be unlikely for the time period. The wood doesn't seem to be that old either. It's my impression that most whippings took place while they were actually in a stockade versus being bound to a pole. I would think a device used to restrain someone during corporal punishment would be closer to a solid log maybe with a place to restrain their arms versus a barrel type design we see here. The cone at the top seems like an impractical addition or added later as well. Just my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I know we live in an era (Trump era) where people believe that their thoughts/beliefs scan replace facts, but they can't. A simple google Image search for "whipping post" shows the variety of designs used, around the world, including this one. Or, for those of us who also like to go old school, there's the public library. Check your history books, whipping post just like this can be found.

John....the cone on top which was "impractical"... was to help keep rain off the posted notices when it was used as a public bulletin board.

Michelle Moon said...

Some facts on the history of slavery in Connecticut and the use of whipping as a punishment for racial infractions. http://slavenorth.com/connecticut.htm