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Judicial CP - February 2007

Corpun file 18913

The Trentonian, Trenton, New Jersey, 20 February 2007

Trenton doled out punishments at whipping post

By Charles Webster

Today the state is on the verge of pulling back on the death penalty. Convicted murders on Death Row could escape their dates with the needle of death.

Before the current system of lethal injection, death sentences were doled out at the gallows.

For lesser crimes, there has always been a city lock-up, a county jail or the state prison system.

In years past there have been debtor’s prisons, and in Trenton there was also the sentence of being publicly flogged at the whipping post.

A petty crime was all it took to win a date with the whipping post - shoplifting, simple assault, and even public drunkenness could be enough to get sentenced to be stripped bare and whipped.

For more than 75 years, the people of Trenton were well-acquainted with the whipping post.

In 1839, a newly arrived citizen of Trenton got an opportunity to witness a public flogging. The event would have a profound effect on his life, and provide far-reaching effects on daily life in Trenton.

It was a typical autumn day in October of that year, Franklin Mills, who had moved into Trenton less a year before, was invited by a friend to witness the punishment handed out by a local magistrate to a man for petty theft.

After the sentence was passed, the shackled man was immediately marched out of the new City Hall at the corner of State and Broad streets. With his startled family in tow, the convicted man made his way up Broad Street to Academy Street, where his sentence was to be carried out.

"The sentences for petit larceny in the late 1830s were lashes on the bare back to any number not exceeding 39, and sometimes accompanied by the words ‘well laid on,’" Mills explained in an interview years later.

The man was tied to the whipping post -- then standing in front of the old town hall that stood on the site of the current Trenton Public Library on Academy Street -- and the sentence carried out.

"Sometimes the unfortunates were followed by sobbing wives and children. Although the officers would drive them away from the scene, they would be heard some distance off shrieking at the sound of every blow," Mills recalled years after the incident had faded from the memories of many in Trenton. "Many times the prisoners would weep as they laid off their clothing at the command of the officers. Others would grin and bear it."

"It was always a shocking sight and witnessed seldom by any of the principal men of the city," Mills lamented. "I remember one special occasion, two men had been sentenced to be tied up and each were to receive 39 lashes."

There standing in the area of the whipping posts as spectators were several prominent Trentonians: Samuel McClurg, William Boswell, William S. Barnes, Alexander H. Armour and Mills.

When the beatings were finished, the five men remained to talk about what they had just witnessed.

"We remained to talk of the inhumanity of the proceeding and of the iniquitous law which authorized it," Mills recalled with a hint of anger building. "Some vowed they would never witness such an exhibition again. Others suggested that the post should be taken down.

"The idea of criminal prosecution and the probability that our own backs might be thus bared and lacerated in the presence of hundreds was also suggested.

"But the outrage upon civilization then and there enacted seemed to be so great and the disgrace so deep and so insulting to every sentiment of humanity that [we] then and there resolved that this monument of the cruelty of a past age should be taken down, come what may.

"We knew our act was revolutionary and might involve serious consequences to us personally but we resolved to stand by each other in any event and for the sake of humanity take the consequences.

"The necessary tools were procured, the whipping post was taken up and quietly laid by the side of the post hole, and, as everybody knows, it has never had a resurrection."

A few nights later, in late autumn darkness, the five men met at the whipping post with various tools, picks and shovels. The men quickly went to work and ripped the offending post out of the ground.

Daring the city fathers to replace the dreaded post, the men threw the post on the ground next to the hole in the ground that once supported it.

The action caused a stir around town. Although several people called for the whipping post to be returned, no one in city government was willing to call for its resurrection. The controversy quickly died out and the whipping post was never used again in Trenton.

Every Tuesday, Charles Webster offers his weekly insight into the region’s past.

The Trentonian 2007

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