- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country
September/october 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
When Peter Lung’s wife, Abigail, refused “to get up and dig some potatoes” for supper from the yard of their small house, the Hartford, Connecticut, laborer recalled in his confession, he “kicked her on the side . . . then gave her a violent push” and went out to dig the potatoes himself. He returned and “again kicked her against the shoulder and neck.” Both had been drinking, and loud arguments and blows within the Lung household, as in many others, were routine. But this time the outcome was not. Alice Lung was dead the next day, and Peter Lung was arrested, tried, and hanged for murder in 1815.
In isolated areas it was not uncommon to meet men who had lost an eye in a fight.
In the most isolated, least literate and commercialized parts of the United States, it was “by no means uncommon,” wrote Isaac Weld, “to meet with those who have lost an eye in a combat, and there are men who pride themselves upon the dexterity with which they can scoop one out. This is called gouging .”
Slaves wrestled among themselves, sometimes fought one another bitterly over quarrels in the quarters, and even at times stood up to the vastly superior force of masters and overseers. They rarely, if ever, reduced themselves to the ferocity of eye gouging. White Southerners lived with a pervasive fear of the violent potential of their slaves, and the Nat Turner uprising in Virginia in 1831, when a party of slaves rebelled and killed whites before being overcome, gave rise to tighter and harsher controls. But in daily reality slaves had far more to fear from their masters.
Margaret Hall was no proponent of abolition and had little sympathy for black Americans. Yet in her travels south she confronted incidents of what she ironically called the “good treatment of slaves” that were impossible to ignore. At a country tavern in Georgia, she summoned the slave chambermaid, but “she could not come” because “the mistress had been whipping her and she was not fit to be seen. Next morning she made her appearance with her face marked in several places by the cuts of the cowskin and her neck handkerchief covered with spots of blood.”
Southern stores were very much like Northern ones, Francis Kemble Butler observed, except that they stocked “negro-whips” and “mantraps” on their shelves. A few slaves were never beaten at all, and for most, whippings were not a daily or weekly occurrence. But they were, of all Americans, by far the most vulnerable to violence. All slaves had, as William Wells Brown, an ex-slave himself, said, often “heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave” and knew that they were never more than a white man’s or woman’s whim away from a beating. With masters’ unchecked power came worse than whipping: the mutilating punishments of the old penal law including branding, ear cropping, and even occasionally castration and burning alive as penalties for severe offenses. In public places or along the road blacks were also subject to casual kicks, shoves, and cuffs, for which they could retaliate only at great peril. “Six or seven feet in length, made of cowhide, with a platted wire on the end of it,” as Brown recalled it, the negrowhip, for sale in most stores and brandished by masters and overseers in the fields, stood for a pervasive climate of force and intimidation.
The penal codes of the American states were far less bloodthirsty than those of England. Capital punishment was not often imposed on whites for crimes other than murder. Yet at the beginning of the nineteenth century many criminal offenses were punished by the public infliction of pain and suffering. “The whipping post and stocks stood on the green near the meetinghouse” in most of the towns of New England and near courthouses everywhere. In Massachusetts before 1805 a counterfeiter was liable to have an ear cut off, and a forger to have one cropped or partially amputated, after spending an hour in the pillory. A criminal convicted of manslaughter was set up on the gallows to have his forehead branded with a letter M. In most jurisdictions town officials flogged petty thieves as punishment for their crime. In New Haven, Connecticut, around 1810, Charles Fowler, a local historian, recalled seeing the “admiring students of [Yale] college” gathered around to watch petty criminals receive “five or ten lashes … with a rawhide whip.”
Throughout the United States public hangings brought enormous crowds to the seats of justice and sometimes seemed like brutal festivals. Thousands of spectators arrived to pack the streets of courthouse towns. On the day of a hanging near Mount Holly, New Jersey, in the 1820s, the scene was that of a holiday: “around the place in every direction were the assembled multitudes—some in tents, and bywagons, engaged in gambling and other vices of the sort, in open day.” In order to accommodate the throngs, hangings were usually held not in the public square but on the outskirts of town. The gallows erected on a hill or set up at the bottom of a natural amphitheater allowed onlookers an unobstructed view. A reprieve or stay of execution might disappoint a crowd intent on witnessing the deadly drama and provoke a riot, as it did in Pembroke, New Hampshire, in 1834.