Old Prisons and Punishments: Part II

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis

The Provost Marshal's Powers and Duties

The weight and amount of irons necessary to secure each prisoner, were determined at his condemnation, by the Fiscal, and the Provost was at liberty to alter the fetters only when a prisoner had attempted to break out, or had in other ways proved himself dangerous.

The Provost had power to place in confinement any persons brought to him, on condition that he make a report at once to the Fiscal. Many persons thus committed were mutinous sailors who had been thrown into irons while on the high seas, and on landing were handed over to the authorities by their ship captains. A mariner bringing any strange or foreign passengers to port, was forced to register them on pain of a fine of forty shillings. He was also commanded to report pirates ; and "An Act for Restraining and Punishing Privateers and Pirates" declared that such should be "fellons" and should suffer "pains of death without benefit of clergy."'

Any soldiers found with drawn swords either within their barracks or on the street were liable to arrest by the Provost. Any persons drawing knives and inflicting any wounds whatever were fined fifty florins, or, in default, were sent, "without respect of persons," to work three months with the negroes in chains. A few years later, in 1647, the penalties were doubled—one hundred florin.; or six months' hard labor.

The number of slight offences against which it was thought necessary to issue ordinances, increased each year, but in most cases only "arbitrary correction" or "corporal punishment " was threatened. These, however, are mentioned constantly. It is no wonder that the old prints always represent the whipping post and pillory, which stood in front of the Stadt Huys, as provided with incumbents." " Corporal punishment " could be administered " in the discretion of the magistrates provided it did not endanger Life or Limb," and the whippings so ordered were applied either by the public whipper or by any other person desirous of undertaking the same! " A fine opportunity for a personal and yet authorized revenge.

For every prisoner committed to jail the Marshal and bell-ringer received one shilling each, while the Judge's fee was five shillings for each indictment." The Marshal was paid twelve stivers a day for the support of each prisoner. The bill of fare was prescribed in advance by the Company, and was to consist, weekly, of the following rations:'

One and a half lbs. of beef
Three quarters of a lb. of pork
One lb. of fish
One gill of oil
One gill of vinegar
Suitable pottage, and
A Supply of Bread

Persecution of the Quakers

Social offenders were not the only ones who suffered under the Marshal's hands, or behind his bars. Religious persecution had already set in, and Governor Stuyvesant, in spite of injunctions issued against him by the mother country, was busying himself with devising humiliations for the Quakers.

In 1657, a number of them were thrust into the Stadt Huys prison for several weeks, and Robert Hodgson, who had imprudently tried to preach, was fined and scourged, thrust into a cell, and chained to a wheelbarrow ; but all in vain. He refused to acknowledge himself guilty of any law-breaking, and finally, after he had suffered the most frightful tortures, he was released on the intercession of the Governor's sister, Mistress Bayard." John Bowne was freed from prison only to be banished; and many others were thrust upon the wooden horse, or into the stocks ; while any one housing a Friend was fined fifty pounds.

It was many years later, in 1694, that the persecuted sect seems to have won its first concession, by an " Act to Ease People that are scrupulous in Swearing." This new law allowed a solemn "promise before God" to have the force of an oath, and made false promising the equivalent of perjury."

As the Provost's duties became more and more complicated, he was relieved of those which lay outside the prison, and they were entrusted to a second official called the Schout. This personage was directly subordinate, however, to the Koopman, who acted as secretary and was second in authority to the council.3 The Schout was sheriff and prosecutor all in one, as may be seen from the following instructions :"

"... He shall ex officio prosecute all contraveners, defrauders and transgressors of any placards, laws, statutes, and ordinances, which are already made and published or shall hereafter be enacted and made public, as far as those are amenable before the Court of Burgomasters and Schepens, and with this understanding that having entered his suit against the aforesaid Contraveners, he shall immediately rise, and await the judgment of Burgomasters and Schepens who being prepared shall also, on his motion, pronounce the same. ... He shall take care that all judgments are pronounced . . . according to the stile and custom of Fatherland, and especially the city of Amsterdam."

The Schout was empowered not only to complain of culprits to the Burgomasters and Schepens, but also to recommend a suitable penalty for the offence." Fortunately for the cause of mercy, the magistrates were not bound to accept his suggestions, many of which seem more severe than the occasion required. For the crime of impertinence to the Schout, that officer demanded that a sinner be placed on bread and water for a month. The Schepens' verdict in this case was fifty guilders, or confinement for three days; whereupon the defendant remarked that the devil would take him who should first attempt to arrest him.

Another mutinous prisoner who had insulted the Fiscal, De Sille, and his wife,—"so that they had to have the soldiers called,"— being ordered to pay a fine of two hundred guilders, exclaimed that he "would rot in prison f1rst! " And opportunity to do so was promptly afforded him.

For a small theft, the Schout recommended scourging at the post and banishment for four years, but the culprit was let off with a few days in a certain part of the Stadt Huys. Another, however, met with all that the Schout asked; was scourged, gashed on the cheek, and banished for twenty-five years, all for having noisily demanded wine in a private house.

A little maid of ten, Lysbet Anthony, was arrested by the Schout in the act of stealing, and brought before the council with vigorous demands for imprisonment on bread and water. The common-sense verdict, however, was that "Mary her mother be ordered to chastise her with rods in the presence of the Worshipful Magistrates."

The Sellout's sense of his duty evidently did not stop at the living sinners under his jurisdiction. He pulled the poor suicide, Hendrick Smith, from the tree where he had hanged himself, and brought the body to court that it might be drawn about town on a hurdle and then shoved under the same tree again. But the Worshipful Magistrates listened to the pleas of the neighbors and the good reports of the suicide's character, and finally accorded the body decent burial.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Old Prisons and Punishments Part II
Transcriber/Researcher Miriam Medina


Historic New York by Eva Palmer Brownell; Harvard College Library 1898
Time & Date Stamp: