Heads Full of Larceny: the Rampant Crime of Saint John County
As previously explored, the City and County of Saint John, New Brunswick, was awash with crime throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Criminals prowled the streets and waterways of the Loyalist city—committing cases of assault, bastardy, nuisances, keeping disorderly houses and more. These lawbreakers and miscreants faced various punishments from the Law Courts for their misdeeds—mostly fines and/or imprisonments. One crime in particular, however, in Loyalist Saint John was treated with extreme caution and severity: larceny.
In the nineteenth century especially, the City of Saint John saw a turn towards urbanization, which in turn gave rise to the distinct social hierarchy present in any growing city. Even in the outlying parishes of the county, a gap between classes started to become more present in day-to-day life. It is unsurprising, then, that larceny—defined by Merriam Webster as “the unlawful taking and carrying away of personal property with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it permanently”—was one of the most commonly committed crimes in the County of Saint John. It was separated into two distinctions: grand larceny, for property of over a certain sum, and petit larceny, property under said sum. Petit Larceny usually did not make it to trial; often, the defendant pleaded guilty and paid a small fine. Grand larceny, however, often went to trial. The most common punishment for individuals found guilty of larceny in Saint John was “to be publically whipped 39 lashes” on the naked back. Such was the case of Pierre Powers and John Sexton in June 1825:
This oddly precise number of “39 lashes” has many origin stories. Firstly, in old Talmudic Law—one of the central texts of Rabbinic Judaism—it was believed that more than forty lashes would kill the victim. As there was a fear of miscounting the number of strokes, they set the cap of lashes at thirty-nine in order to avoid killing anyone. The Romans too used floggings as a common punishment for slaves and soldiers. More importantly, the Romans used flagellation as a prelude to crucifixion, which ties into the biblical background. Floggings or ‘scourges’, as the Romans called them, occur frequently in the Bible, and in 2 Corinthians specifically, it is said “I received forty stripes save one.” It is also supposed that prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was whipped 39 times as well. With that background, whipping was an important part of Christian states for years to come, and remained a common corporal punishment for such crimes as thievery in many countries—including Great Britain. This explanation therefore makes the most sense for a city populated mostly by devout loyalists.
While the punishment itself is explicitly stated within the Court Records, it is less clear with what the larcenous citizens of Saint John City and County were whipped. The infamous ‘cat-o’nine-tails” was still in common use in the United States, Great Britain, and other European Countries, but it was not the sole instrument of flagellation. Other popular tools were metal/wooden rods, simple strips of leather, or sometimes even chains! As it is, we are unable to determine which one(s?) were used in Saint John.
It is also important to note that whipping was the corporal punishment for those guilty of Grand Larceny in the City and County of Saint John, regardless of gender. Both men and women bore their lashes for their crimes, with only a minute different. Men received 39 lashes upon their naked backs in public, in order to be shamed in front of their entire communities. Women, though, were whipped in private so as to protect their modesty, but they were then imprisoned for a short time as a result. This can be seen in the sentence of Ellen Wilson:
Even though the punishment was severe, larceny was very popular in the City and County of Saint John throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Check out the Saint John County Court Records located on the 3rd floor of the Harriet Irving Library to learn more!
Cora Jackson is a student assistant for the Microforms Unit at the Harriet Irving Library. She is currently in her third year of her Bachelor of Arts degree at UNB in Joint Honours History-Classics.
SUBJECTS: loyalist, Saint John, New Brunswick, crime, law, law enforcement