How to Punish Slaves for Burglary in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: Philadelphia, 1707. What did happen to the two thieves?

Should Tony and Quashy be executed or whipped publicly on their bare backs for three times in three days and then transported out of the colony?

On 20 November 1705 the Council debated how to punish black slaves for rape (execution, not imprisonment) and for stealing a small amount, five pounds or less (owner pays restitution). Any item that exceeds that amount, then it is execution, and the master shall have satisfaction for the loss of his slave, by the public (pp. 217-18). But the problem is that it was not finally decided at the times of these cases. Then the issue was taken up again and other (unspecified) amendments were added on 17 Dec 1705 (p. 223, see also p. 239).

So what is to be done?

Here is a real-life case of burglary, which is more elaborate than just stealing.

25 Feb 1707

John Evans, Esquire and Lt. Governor

Samuel Carpenter, William Trent, Richard Hill, George Roche, Joseph Pidgeon, James Logan

Modernized transcription begins:

A petition from William Righton and Robert Grace, directed to the Governor alone, being presented to him, the Governor thought fit to lay it before the Council and desires their advice therein.

The matter of which petition was that Tony, a negro slave of the said Righton, and Quashy, a like slave of the said Grace, were lately at a special court held for that purpose in this town, condemned to death for burglary proved against them.

But forasmuch as it will be of very great damage to the petitions should their said slaves’ lives be taken, since there is no provision in this government as is usual in other places for a competent restitution to the owners who lose their slaves by the hand of public justices.

Therefore they humbly pray [petition] that in mercy to the said owners the lives of their slaves may be spared and that they may be suffered [allowed] to transport them and instead of death that they may have liberty to inflict on them such corporal punishment as may be requisite, for a terror to others of their color, which the said owners will take care to have duly executed upon them.

All which being taken into consideration, the Board thought fit to give it as their opinion that the death of these slaves would be greater loss to the owners that they could well bear; and therefore seeing there is no provision made for restitution for the loss by the public, it may be as convenient to make slaves examples of terror to others of their complexion, by a most severe corporal punishment, and that the petitioners may have liberty to transport them as requested.

And it is here upon resolved:

That the owners may have liberty to punish their slaves, notwithstanding the sentence of death passed upon them, which in case they will perform in the following manner, the said sentence [of death] shall be taken off, and their owners shall transport them tot heir own benefit and advantage.

That the punishment shall be as follows:

They shall be lead from the marketplace up Second Street and down through Front Street to the Bridge, which their arms extended and tied to a pole across their necks, a cart going before them;

And that they shall be severely whipped all they way they pass upon the bare back and shoulders; the punishment shall be repeated for three market days successively;

In the meantime they shall be in irons, in the prison at the owners’ charge until they have such an opportunity as shall best please them for transportation.

All which being duly performed, the sentence of death shall be entirely remitted.

Transcription ends.

The council said execution would be too costly for William Righton and Robert Grace, since the province of Pennsylvania did not have a provision to compensate the owners for their losses. Instead Toney and Quashy should be whipped for three days straight for as long as the cart took to go down two streets, kept in iron chains in the meantime, and then shipped and sold out of the province, so Righton and Grace could not lose everything of value.


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Minutes from the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, vol. 2, 1700-1717 (Harrisburg: Theophilus Fenn, 1838), pp. 421-22.

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