Peculiar Punishments Through the Ages

This past week I taught a lesson on the Massachusetts Bay Colony to my high school sophomores. They were particularly interested in Puritan punishments. When confronted with the discipline handed down for swearing at your parents, a student wondered out loud, “How did teenagers survive back then?” The question was reasonable, because the penalty was death.

Puritans generally enjoyed utilizing humiliation in their sentences, a tactic used by a number of countries and cultures. Here’s a rundown of some uncomfortable, humorous, and downright bizarre punishments through the ages.

Uzbekistan’s cotton industry is one of the biggest components of it’s GDP. Due to criticism of Uzbekistan’s use of child labor, the nation has been forced to turn to other workers. Students, teachers, and business people have been recruited and shops have closed during the day to prevent citizens being distracted from work. Apparently even more labor was needed, so traffic violators were sentenced to pick cotton in the fields.

In Sudan: A famous BBC report involved a Sudanese man who was caught engaging in sexual activities with a goat. As punishment, the man was forced to provide a dowry for the animal, named “Rose” by the elders of the village, and marry it. Sadly, Rose died choking on a plastic bag, the preferred cause of death for most goats.

Americans, in the spirit of the Puritans, have carried on handing down unusual sentences. An Ohio woman was caught this past year issuing forged documents to illegal immigrants. She avoided serious jail time, unless she has an extreme love of opening presents on a winter day. For the next five years, she will spend Christmas Day, and that day only, in a jail cell.

Continuing a trend of creative Ohio judges, Jeremy Sherwood was arrested for stealing from an adult video store. He was ordered to stand out in front of the store, blindfolded, with a sign reading “See No Evil”. When asked why he imposed such odd punishments, Judge Michael Cicconetti responded, “Can’t stone ’em anymore. If they learn from it, that’s what justice is all about.”

The ancient Romans didn’t shy away from stonings. In fact, those would be tame by their standards. Romans considered killing one’s father the most heinous of crimes. If convicted, the offender would be whipped until they bled, then they would be tied up in a sack and thrown into the ocean. Of course, they wouldn’t be alone in that sack. Inside they would be joined by a dog, a rooster, a viper, and an ape. Should the ocean be too far away, Emperor Hadrian stipulated the guilty just be thrown to the beasts.

Ancient Aztecs are often portrayed for their blood sacrifices, but death was only a punishment for some. In other, less weighty cases, punishments might range from having your head shaved to your house knocked down. One can hope the accused would not be home when the (sledge) hammer fell.

In 1886, a fantastic book was published in Boston entitled Some Strange and Curious Punishments. Primarily from newspapers of Boston and Salem, Mass., Henry M. Brooks compiled a collection of the best punishments of the colonial era. In September 1825, Donald McDonald was sentenced to three months in prison for being “a common drunkard.” Not only was Donald McDonald’s name a source of amusement, but he also happened to be 103 years old at the time and had fought at the Battle of Quebec. Brooks comment on the event was apropo: “If it is true, it can hardly be said that the man shortened his days by the use of liquor. They had, however, good, pure rum in those days.” Among some other startling punishments in Massachusetts, Brooks makes it clear that many prisoners were sold into slavery for a periods of six months to four years.

The next time you get a speeding ticket, after you stop cursing, count yourself lucky you aren’t picking cotton in a Uzbeki field or enjoying the company of an ape in a rapidly sinking sack. It could be worse.