Today, misdemeanors and petty crimes don’t usually lead to much more than a hefty fine and/or a stay in prison or jail. While such punishments are definitely not welcome by those who receive them, they are a lot milder than what petty criminals were subjected to prior to our modern era. From the pillory to flogging, punishments for even the pettiest of crimes could be downright brutal before attempts were undertaken to make the justice system more humane. Here are just four of the more unusual forms of judicial corporal punishment from the not-so-distant past.
The pillory was designed to humiliate offenders. Typically, the offender’s hands and head were locked in place and he or she was often put in a public place, such as a market square. Passersby would view the pillory as a form of public entertainment and would often do their best to humiliate the offender, such as by throwing rotten produce and other items at him or her. While the pillory was primarily designed to humiliate petty criminals, sometimes passersby would throw stones and bricks, which could lead to permanent injury and even death.
Flogging (also known as whipping) was a brutal form of corporal punishment that has been used since Ancient times. Flogging was especially common as a form of discipline in the British Navy and was also used extensively against African American slaves in the American South. While often used as a disciplinary tool, flogging was also utilized to punish certain crimes, some of which can seem strange nowadays. In 1778, for example, Thomas Jefferson recommended flogging as a punishment for witchcraft.
Cropping was an unusual form of punishment whereby the prisoner’s ears were cut off. While the pain of having their ears removed was often bad enough, the mutilation meant that such offenders were essentially branded as criminals for the rest of their lives. Some rather tame offenses could even lead to cropping, including counterfeiting money and perjury.
Similarly to cropping, branding a criminal with a hot iron was meant to humiliate that person and mark him or her as a criminal to the rest of the community. Criminals were sometimes marked with specific letters that would identify the nature of their crimes. Branding, however, was also used against slaves in the American South, often as a form of punishment against runaways. Such a form of punishment, like cropping, combined elements of both physical punishment with public humiliation. In the British Navy, however, branding with tattoos was used as a way of identifying deserters and those with particularly bad characters.
Fortunately, in many countries judicial punishments are much more humane today than they were a century or so ago. Punishments like flogging, cropping, and being put in the pillory would now widely be regarded as cruel and unusual punishments in the United States, the United Kingdom, and throughout much of the world, especially for petty offenses. Looking back at such forms of punishment, however, helps remind us of just how far our justice system has evolved.