Thursday, August 03, 2017

More on the Whipping Post

There has been a tremendous amount of public controversy about the post on the Green. Although many people seem to be picking and choosing facts that support their strongly held opinions, others have been more open-minded and are genuinely interested in learning more. Since this is such a widely-discussed topic, I've spent some time doing more research. Please be aware that the research is not completed: there are thousands of archival documents to sift through, photographs to compare, decades of newspaper articles to browse on microfilm, and scientific analysis of the post (just for starters). That level of research is not something I can undertake, since I'm doing this in my free time. It's the sort of research project for which a museum or historical society can get grant funding, or which a grad student might undertake for a dissertation.

The post on the Green in 2017, about a week before it was removed.




Historical research is similar to detective work. You look for as many facts as you can find, assess their validity, and try to see if there's enough information to draw conclusions. There's always the possibility of new information being presented which casts doubt on earlier conclusions. A good historian will draw conclusions based on the facts, not on personal opinions. Theories must be based on the evidence, even if it is contrary to what someone hoped to find.

There is no record book listing all whippings that took place in Waterbury or any other Connecticut town. The records found so far consist of occasional newspaper articles (there was no newspaper in Waterbury until the 1840s), memoirs, and court documents. I have identified three official whippings in Waterbury so far. This does not mean there weren't more--records of other whippings may eventually be found, or they may be lost forever. Original documents exist and can be found only if someone took the effort to preserve them and then donate them to a historical society. Waterbury's municipals records start around the late 1860s; earlier records may have all been lost when City Hall burned down in 1912.

Here's what my research has uncovered so far about Waterbury's whipping post and/or sign post on the Green, as well as related issues that people have been discussing:


Colonial Background

Whipping posts were a standard feature in every colonial Connecticut town, along with stocks. Litchfield didn't have a whipping post, but they did have a whipping tree.

The Connecticut General Assembly set the laws for the colony, and included the punishment for certain crimes in their book of laws. The Acts & Laws of Connecticut can be read online through Archive.org (although not all colonial laws are included in any one book, since they were changed regularly). The Records of the Colony of Connecticut are also available online.

In April 1643, the colonial government ordered each town to designate one person to whip "delinquents" or to administer other forms of "correction" as determined by the magistrate. Just as the court system today can fine you or imprison you as punishment for convictions, the courts back then could whip you or brand you or administer several other forms of physical punishment.

In July 1645, two unmarried couples were sentenced by the colony to be whipped for fornication.

In 1650, the colonial government enacted a law punishing anyone who committed burglary by being branded with the letter B on the forehead for the first offense, by branding and whipping for the second offense, and by death for the third offense. If the burglary was committed on Sunday, the convict would have an ear cut off in addition to the other punishments for the first two offenses.

Other laws of 1650 established whipping as the punishment for someone unable to pay a fine for crimes such as drunkenness and taking someone else's horse.

In May 1670, a man named Thomas Welch had another man named Duke Potter punish his African slave for him. Potter went too far and the unnamed slave died. The colonial government sentenced Potter to be severely whipped and fined Welch for allowing his slave to be killed.

Waterbury's first settlement, called Mattituck, was started in 1674 by a group from Farmington.

In 1678, Connecticut reported an estimated 30 slaves lived in the colony, with 3 or 4 being imported annually from Barbados.

The town of Waterbury was incorporated in 1686. The town's population was about 180 people.

In April 1690, Connecticut banned "negroes and Indians" from serving in military watches. In October 1690, Connecticut declared that any "negroe or negroes" found outside of their town without a pass would be treated as a runaway and "secured" (imprisoned or otherwise placed in bondage) by anyone who found them.

By 1702, there were enough slaves in Connecticut for the government to take notice and begin enacting laws about them. The first such law begins with "Whereas it is observed that some persons in this Colony having purchased Negro or Mulatto servants or slaves" and continued on to establish rules for what would happen after a slave had been set free but was unable to provide for him or herself.

In 1708, the government established a law specifically addressing punishment for anyone buying stolen goods from an "Indian, molato or negro servant or slave" -- the buyer would have to pay a large fine or receive no more than 20 lashes of the whip; the slave selling the stolen goods would receive no more than 30 lashes, with no option to pay a fine instead.

Also in 1708, a law was established punishing "negro or molatto servants or slaves" with no more than thirty lashes of the whip for each offense involving disturbing the peace or striking "any white person."

In 1723, a new law established a 9 p.m. curfew for all "negro or Indian servants or slaves." The punishment was no more than ten lashes of the whip on the naked body, unless their master or mistress chose to pay a fine.

Connecticut established workhouses in 1727 for the imprisonment and punishment of anyone considered a vagabond, beggar, rogue, or any other "idle, dissolute and disorderly persons" (including fortune tellers, jugglers, drunkards, fiddlers, runaways, and the mentally disabled with no family to care for them). Anyone incarcerated would receive no more than ten lashes of the whip upon arrival at the workhouse and was to be whipped or denied food "from time to time." There was no workhouse in Waterbury; the nearest one was in New Haven.

In May 1730, a new law declared that any "Negro, Indian, or Molatto slave" convicted of slander would be punished by whipping "not exceeding forty stripes."

In September 1730, Connecticut's population was reported as 38,000 whites, 1600 free Indians, and 700 enslaved "Indians and Negroes."

Around 1730, when Waterbury's population was about 400, the first person known to have been enslaved in Waterbury was brought here as the property of Deacon Thomas Clark. Only a boy, he was called Mingo and was hired out to neighbors as a farm laborer. Mingo lived in Waterbury until his death in 1800. For more about Waterbury's history of slavery and information about some of the nearly 100 people who were enslaved here, visit the Mattatuck Museum's website, Fortune's Story.

In May 1735, the law against burglary was revised to include whipping for the first offense.

In 1756, Connecticut reported a population of 126,975 Whites, 3,019 Negroes and 617 Indians. Waterbury's population was reported as 1,802 Whites and 27 Negroes.

In October 1760, a man named Vanskelly Mully was convicted of raping a young girl in Greenwich and was sentenced to death. He successfully pleaded ignorance of the law, and his punishment, carried out in Fairfield, was reduced to having his right ear nailed to a post and cut off after being whipped 39 times, and then whipped again two weeks later, and to remain imprisoned until he could be kicked out of Connecticut.

The laws for punishment of theft were revised in October 1770 to clearly state that anyone who could not pay the fine for theft would be whipped "not exceeding ten stripes."

The theft of horses became a serious crime in October 1772, when Connecticut enacted a law requiring a punishment that including paying hefty fines, being "publickly whipped on the naked body not exceeding fifteen stripes" and sent to the workhouse for three months for hard labor and monthly whippings.

In 1774, Connecticut's Governor reported a population of 191,392 Whites, 6,464 Blacks and 1,363 Indians. Waterbury's population was reported as 3,498 whites, 34 Negroes, and 4 Indians.

Census Data, 1774.
Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Volume 14


In 1790, there were 2,759 people enslaved in Connecticut, 10 in Waterbury. There were 2,801 free African Americans in Connecticut, and 14 free in Waterbury.

In 1797, Connecticut's unfairly harsh laws targeted at "Indian, Mulatto, and Negro Servants and Slaves" were repealed.

In 1833, Prudence Crandall admitted Anna Eliza Hammond, a 17 year old African American girl from Rhode Island, to her private school. Locals were already outraged by the presence of other African American students in an otherwise white classroom. Since Hammond was from out of state, the local government threatened to have her whipped, based on an old law prohibiting anyone from living in a Connecticut town without permission. On May 24, 1833, Connecticut passed a law banning the education of African Americans from out of state without the town's permission. 

Whipping as an official form of punishment was repealed sometime around 1825 or 1830.

Slavery was outlawed in Connecticut in 1848 following more than half a century of "Gradual Emancipation" laws which gave freedom upon reaching adulthood to any child born into slavery.


While we may think of whipping posts as long relegated to the past, people have periodically proposed bringing it back. In 1940, Waterbury Superior Court Judge Alfred C. Baldwin, during the hearing for two young Waterbury men charged with "indecent assault," declared that "the State ought to have a whipping post in front of the courthouse and that persons guilty of this type should be taken out and given a public whipping." (Stamford Advocate, 18 September 1940)

As recently as 1958, Alfred N. Phillips, a former Stamford mayor and congressman, wrote "I greatly regret that Connecticut didn't adopt that law [whipping as punishment for beating wives and children].... I believe that adolescents guilty of many of the crimes of violence and disrespect of the law and of judges in the court room, as seems to be the case at present in the United States, might well be given lashes at the whipping post." (Stamford Advocate, 22 May 1958)



Whipping Posts in Other Towns

In December 1773, there were several whippings in Norwich: "On Monday last three Negroes were rewarded at the Public Whipping Post, two with six lashes and one with eight, for striking some white people." (White people were not punished with whipping for striking other white people.) Also, "On Thursday last," three white men were sentenced to whipping: Stephen Kimball "should receive fifteen stripes at the public Whipping Post, be committed to the Work-House for one Month" and pay various fines for horse stealing; James McDonald and John Lappineer "to receive six stripes each" and pay various fines for burglary (Connecticut Journal, 24 December 1773). Note the difference in how the two races are described: the white men are referred to by name and "receive" their punishment; the black men are nameless and are "rewarded" with punishment.

On February 5, 1822, the Connecticut Herald condemned the public whipping of a 12-year-old boy for petty theft in New London as "barbarous," reflecting a growing trend to find alternatives to physical punishment. The Herald quoted the account of the whipping from the New-London Gazette on January 30, 1822: "On Saturday last, a boy aged twelve years received seven stripes at the public post in this town for stealing a dirk which was found in his possession."

On January 1, 1854, an article on "Slavery in Connecticut" in the Columbian Register noted that "within the memory of the present generation, slaves have been publicly sold at the whipping post in this very city [New Haven].... We have in our possession the documents connected with the sale... of two female slaves (mother and daughter) at the sign post in this city [New Haven], by the constable of the town, in the year 1825." The two women sold at the New Haven sign post were named Lucy and Lois; they were the property of a debtor. The constable described the sale as follows: "at said public sign post in the city of New Haven, I caused a drum to be beat to give notice of the sale; and at said time and place exposed such slaves for sale, and then and there sold at an outcry, the aforesaid two female slaves for the sum of ten dollars each to Anthony P. Sanford, being the highest bidder." The story had a happy ending: Sanford is said to have immediately emancipated Lucy and Lois.

An 1898 publication, Chronicles of the New Haven Green, had this to say about the New Haven sign post / whipping post: "As to the whipping post, it was always regarded with especial honor by our forefathers as one of the pillars of social order... I am informed by persons who recollect the latest whipping post, that it was identical with the sign post, and this may have been an early custom." A 1912 book, Early New Haven, noted that "Whipping ceased to be a legal penalty in 1825, and the post was used for legal notices."

In 1868, a History of New York City by William Leete Stone included this footnote: "A whipping-post, put up in 1630, is still standing on the Village Green in Fairfield, Connecticut."

Fairfield's whipping post appears to actually be encased in a decorative box built during the 1800s. The entire structure is close to seven feet tall (an estimate based on how much taller it is than me).

The Rep-Am has a photo on their website of Fairfield's whipping post with a panel removed to reveal the much older square post inside.

Detail of a postcard showing the whipping post on the Fairfield Green, probably around 1905 or so.

Fairfield's Whipping Post/Sign Post in 2017.


Boyd's history of Winchester published in 1872 described the town whipping post based on memories from about 1811 as follows: "The whipping-post and stocks... stood on the green near the meeting house. The post did extra duty as a sign post, on which public notices were fastened and to which, when occasion required, the petty thief was tied, to receive from the constable his five or ten lashes 'well laid on to his naked back.'"

Orcutt's 1874 History of the Town of Wolcott includes this description of that town's whipping post: "The whipping post stood east of the present Meeting house at the Center, near the southeast corner of the present horse sheds. Besides the three persons mentioned below, it is said, there were one man and a colored woman whipped at this post for stealing." The three persons mentioned were Dr. George Williams, sentenced to seven lashes for stealing a shawl in 1815 (his hands were tied to the post a little higher than his head); and two men named Pond and Granniss who were convicted of stealing a cow around 1817. Pond expressed remorse, prayed for mercy, and was thus whipped more lightly than Granniss.

Orcutt's 1878 History of Torrington describes three whippings, all for theft, in 1817, 1818, and 1830.

T.S. Gold's 1877 history of Cornwall describes that town's whipping post as being "about ten inches square, and seven feet in height placed firmly and perpendicularly in the earth." The stocks were attached to the post. Gold further noted that the "fixture here described answered the double purpose of posting warnings for town meetings or other public notices, as well as for a whipping-post and stocks."

The 1884 History of Middlesex County includes this description of Middletown's whipping post: "William Southmayd, now 92 years of age, remembers to have seen a man whipped, about 1805, for some crime or misdemeanor. He received eight stripes... The whipping post stood on the South Green, near the junction of Main, South Main, Church, and Union streets. It was also the "sign post" or place for posting notices. From the front of his store, Mr. Johnson, now 91 years old, saw this post, which had become rotten at the surface of the ground, pulled down by a horse that had been hitched to it. This was about 1815. A guide post was set up in its place."

Stiles' history of Windsor, published in 1859, suggests that town's sign post doubled as a whipping post: "The whipping post, as tradition states, stood upon the green (Broad Street) where the present sign post stands, and was in use certainly as late as 1714, when Timothy Loomis records that "John F. was whipt at ye sign post, T.G. whipper.'"

A revised edition of Stiles' history of Windsor, published in 1898, includes this memoir written by Oliver Hayden in 1886: "I remember, when quite young, of seeing a post, about eight feet high, standing opposite the road north of the Pearson house, near the main road, said to be the whipping post; and a very indistinct recollection of seeing the remains of the old stocks...."




Waterbury's Whipping Post and Sign Post

On May 12, 1756, Joseph Lewis of Waterbury, a town pauper (white) was convicted of stealing forty shillings and sentenced to repay triple the amount stolen, the court costs, and a fine, as well as to be whipped "on ye naked body ten stripes." Unable to repay the money stolen or the court costs, Lewis was forced to work off his debt as a servant (to be freed after working off the debt). (Henry Bronson, History of Waterbury, p. 322)

On April 27, 1785, the Connecticut Journal ran a notice that the real estate of several dozen Waterbury property owners (all men) would be sold by the State "at the Sign Post in Waterbury" for back taxes owed to Connecticut.

Anderson's history of Waterbury (Volume II, p. 62) mentions a whipping in Waterbury around 1805: "An elderly gentleman told me some years ago that he remembered an instance early in the century, probably about 1805, when school was dismissed and the boys sent to see the punishment, that they might more clearly understand 'the way of transgressors is hard.'"

A document in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum, dated June 30th 1824, states the following: "By virtue of this warrant I proceeded with the within named Zepheriah Ellis to the public Sign Post in [said] Waterbury and thus inflicted on the naked Body the sentence of the court as within directed. Attest Israel Holmes" The sentence was whipping. It is believed that this was the last official whipping in Waterbury. Note that it was conducted at the "public Sign Post."

The post continued to be used as a sign post after the 1824 whipping. It stood opposite the Green, "a short distance from the corner of Exchange place, in front of where the Park drug store is now [11 West Main Street]... and alongside the whipping post stood the stocks." (Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, p. 62)

In 1842, Waterbury consisted primarily of a quaint village in what is now the downtown area, but thanks to the growth of industry, the village was rapidly turning into a small city. A plan of improvement for the Green and surrounding roads was approved at a town meeting on April 18, 1842 and was the first step in a multi-year development of downtown. (Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, p. 63)

The first phase of development included the planting of 108 trees on the Green in 1842, along with the relocation of roads (there had previously been one cutting diagonally through the center of the Green) and grading. The second phase happened in 1848, when more trees were planted and a wood rail fence was built around the perimeter of the Green (the fence was removed in 1872). Straight-line walkways of dirt were laid out in 1854 and were replaced with curving concrete walkways in 1873. (Anderson, The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II, p. 64)

"We are pleased to learn that it is in agitation among our citizens to enclose and otherwise improve our public square, better known as the green. This is as it should be, and would do more to ornament and give an air of finish and elegance to our village than any other improvement we can at present think of." ~ Editorial in The Waterbury American, 26 July 1845.

An article published in the Waterbury Republican on March 5, 1890 ("'Twas Once a Whipping Post") states "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 [11 West Main Street, on the corner across from the Green]. Combined with it was the whipping post, and near by were the stocks. So far as can now be ascertained this whipping post was last used about 1820."

We can glean a number of things from the 1890 article. First, it would appear that the post was moved from the corner near Exchange Place to the Green sometime around 1850, possibly in 1848 as part of the overall renovation of the Green and downtown. Second, the post that stood on the Green in 1890 was more than fifty years old, possibly more than a hundred years old. Third, and this is a sticking point for some, the post that stood on the Green in 1890 had also served as a whipping post during the 1820s. The title of the article clearly states it was a whipping post, but the phrase "combined with it was the whipping post" is confusing. I believe that this was an antiquated turn of phrase intended to convey two functions in a single item, but others insist this means there were two separate posts despite the title of the article.

Further regarding the phrase "combined with it" -- this usually refers to things that have been merged together into one thing, particularly chemicals. For example, "Though the potash obtained by this process is nearly pure, it is not perfectly so; a little carbonic acid remains combined with it, and there may also be present small portions of sulphate..." (The Family Magazine, Volume VI, 1838-39, p. 294) The phrase appears primarily in scientific publications of the late 1700s and early 1800s. I believe the author of the 1890 article meant to imply that the sign post and the whipping post were one object with two separate functions.



"'Twas Once a Whipping Post," Waterbury Republican, 5 March 1890
Microfilm at the Silas Bronson Library 

The sign post on the Green made the news again in 1943, this time in a Waterbury Republican article titled "Public Sign Post Once Whipping Post, According to Local Legend." The article refers to the post as the "ancient public sign post on the south-east corner of The Green" and notes that "the curious little wooden, metal capped post was archaic long before the oldest of Waterbury's oldtimers can recall." This would suggest that the post on the Green in 1943 was the same post that was there in 1890.

The 1943 article states that "Popular legend has it that the sign post was originally the whipping post for the town of Waterbury early in the 19th century, and this legend receives substantial factual support in Anderson's History of Waterbury." The article also references the document at the Mattatuck Historical Society (Mattatuck Museum), an order from Justice of the Peace John Kingsbury to the sheriff of Waterbury, authorizing him to whip Zepheriah Ellis.

The 1943 article includes excerpts from a letter to the editor written by Henry N. Morris, who had been 11 in 1821 and had witnessed the whipping of Zepheriah Ellis. 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."




Historic Photographs of the Post


Undated Photo; the fence around the Green was removed in 1872
Collection of Mattatuck Museum



Exchange Place and the east end of the Green, showing the post, 1886
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

Detail of the 1886 photograph showing the post
Collection of Mattatuck Museum


The post in 1943
Waterbury Republican newspaper,
microfilm at the Silas Bronson Library


The post on the Green, 1979
Detail View, General View of Commercial District from Green showing North Main Street,
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

Video from the Rep-Am showing the post being removed gives a glimpse of what's inside. It looks like a square wood core with white paneling is inside the round exterior:

Watch video!


Concluding Thoughts

I am reasonably certain that the post which was on the Green contains at least part of the original post used for whippings and public notices during the early 1800s. I am also certain that the exterior casing has been modified over time, but that it is, for all intents and purposes, correct to refer to it as either the old sign post or the old whipping post. The most accurate description is probably to call it the old sign post that was used for whippings before being converted solely for use as a sign post.

My reasons: there is an old square post in the center of what is now a round post which looks very much like the center post of Fairfield's whipping post; the 1824 document states that Ellis' whipping took place at the sign post; the 1890 article states that the post on the Green was moved there sometime around 1850 and was the combined whipping post and sign post; the 1943 article suggests that the post which was present at that point was the same post that was present in 1890.

I would guess that the post was refurbished around 1848 or 1850, when it was moved to the Green. I hope that the Mattatuck Museum puts it on display with an opening to see the layers of panels and the square core. Best of all would be getting a grant to bring in an expert in archaeology or historic buildings to do a scientific analysis of the various layers of the post.

This is an incredibly powerful artifact, one of the last remaining Connecticut posts, connecting us back to the 1700s through the story it tells. Because of the recent public debate about the post, it also tells the story of race relations and politics in the 21st century.

The post that was on the Waterbury Green bears an unmistakable resemblance to whipping posts in the South which were used for centuries to punish and oppress African Americans. This similarity cannot be dismissed or ignored.

I was astounded by the level of anger and animosity that people on all sides expressed about the post last month. Some of the tensions can be blamed on the inadequacies of social media. I saw several instances in which people were angered by a comment which they misread or which wasn't entirely clear. But we can't blame everyone on social media: instead of asking for clarification, or taking the time to consider that they might be misreading something, most people jump right into expressing outrage or disdain for the person who wrote the comment.

I also saw both subtle and blatant racism. There were some people who clearly were angry that an African American woman was making her voice and her concerns heard. There were numerous people who argued that since the post was used to whip white people as well as slaves, there was no justification for being upset. Other people insist that if the post was modified or replaced since last used for whipping, no one is justified in being upset if it's on the Green.

So who gets to decide what someone gets upset about? Who decides what society deems offensive? Who decides what monuments we erect and who is depicted in them? Who decides which principles we honor and which we reject?

For most of this country's history, the decision makers were wealthy and upper middle class white men. Over the past 140 years or so, wealthy and middle class white women have been able to join their male counterparts to a lesser degree. The least powerful members of our society are, arguably, African Americans.

While there are other voices that struggle to be heard, nothing compares to the vitriol that African Americans are subjected to when they voice their opinions, or when white allies support their opinions. If the performance art had never happened, if I had written about the history of the post without any dramatic visualization of what the whipping of an enslaved woman might look like, would there have been so much heated debate? I highly doubt it.

As a nation, we have never healed the wounds of slavery. Racism is alive and well, despite or perhaps because so many white people insist that it's a thing of the past. Racism is deeply embedded in our society and it has been emerging with increasing strength in the past year.

"I don't consider myself a racist" is something countless people have thought and meant. But here's the thing: you have to be vigilant against racism in your words and actions. You have to be sensitive to and respectful of the viewpoint of someone who is not you. You may not think you said or did something offensive, but you don't get to decide what is offensive to someone else.

If you're offended because African Americans are saying something is disturbing or offensive to them, please take some time to think about why you are responding that way. Be willing to admit to yourself when you are saying or doing something offense. Be respectful of other people's opinions and life experiences. And please don't stress about someone accusing you of being a terrible person; being human means we are flawed. It's what we do about those flaws that matters.

2 comments:

emeritus said...

Thanks for an excellent piece of research and balanced discussion.

Samantha Slotnick said...

Thank you for taking the time to pull apart the history, Raechel.
Your conclusions, pointing to the heightened sensitivity in race relations today, is just as valuable in the documenting of our history as the sign-post-used-at-times-for-whipping which spurred the discussion.
Your town is lucky to have you as historian-in-residence!