How to Punish a Servant-Thief in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: 25 September 1703: Servant John Noyse stole a watch, etc. and had to be punished. But how? This short primary source is perfect for students and teachers and other researchers.

Let’s begin with the councilmen.


Edward Shippen, John Guest, Samuel Carpenter, Griffith Owen, Samuel Finney, Caleb Pusey

25 Sep 1703, at a Council held at Philadelphia

The transcription has been modernized:

A petition from John Noyse, prisoner in the common jail of Philadelphia, to this board was read, humbly showing that:

The said petitioner, a servant of John Webb of they city of Philadelphia, was committed to the said jail for taking a watch etc., from John Guy; and being convicted of the same at the last Quarter Sessions [court of law], [he] was ordered to pay eight pounds and to receive five lashes on his back, at the bell of the said city, which punishment of the 5 lashes upon a hearty sorrow for his said offence and upon a due submission he humbly prays [begs, asks] this board that they would be pleased to remit.

Which prayer being taken into consideration, and the petitioner’s circumstances duly weighted, this board is favorably pleased to order the said punishment of five lashes, ordered by the court to be inflicted on the said John Noyse (as by a copy of the minutes of the court duly certified appears), be remitted, and accordingly they are hereby remitted and hereby the said John Noyse is discharged from the same;

Of which the sheriff of the city and county is hereby ordered to take notice and to act accordingly.

Transcription ends.

The Bible says lashes on the bareback is a valid punishment (Deut. 25:2-3). However, it looks like the Council withdrew or remitted this punishment because of Noyse’s circumstances. Which circumstances? Was the boy mentally or physically handicapped? We don’t know. But mercy is often the best way forward in certain circumstances.


Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania from the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, containing the Proceedings of Council from December 18 1700 to May 16 1717, vol. II, (Harrisburg Theophilus Fenn, 1838), p. 103.

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