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This is a contributing entry for Historic Hanna's Town and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

The Gaol was used to hold prisoners in between court days. It wasn’t used an punishment, it was used as a detainer for accused criminals until they could be tried. Hanna’s Town court practiced English Common Law. Court was held 4 times a year and went on for weeks in most cases. On quarter sessions, whoever could spectate would jeer and jest about each case. Hanna’s town court cases ran from the late colonial period into the very beginning of the republic, far before the U.S Constitution was in effect. The punishments were merciless. Men woman and children alike felt the sting of justice while living at Hanna’s Town. Hanna’s Town two punishment devices were the pillory and the whipping post.

  • The whipping post outside of the Gaol
  • The pillory, outside of the Gaol
  • The pillory, in front of the Gaol/Tavern
  • The Gaol and whipping post at Hanna’s Town.

Crime and punishment was very different from our legal system today. In today’s age, everyone is given the right of a fair trial by jury. The opposing side has to make an argument as to why they’re innocent. In colonial trials, the sole purpose of one’s appearance in court is to prove your innocence. To the judge, a person considered guilty until provided with evidence otherwise. The judges serving in the courts were hardly trained/educated in law. Although, they were appointed by peers, this made it more like a role of upstanding citizen than it was an actual practice.

Punishments at Hanna’s Town were a common means of keeping order. Hanna’s Town housed a pillory and a whipping post as the chosen methods of punishment. Jail time was not commonly used as a punishment. The reason behind this was the town and people didn’t have the means to feed and provide the prisoner for long periods of time. It was better that they be punished and sent on their merry way. A more common action was fines or even subjected labor for a fixed amount of time.

The pillory is designed as a mode of public humiliation meant to shame the convicted into ceasing their unlawful habits. It was often used for lesser crimes such as petty thievery or a disobedient indentured servent. More severe criminals would serve time in the pillory along with being assigned a certain amount of lashings on the whipping post. Your head and hands would be locked in the top with two wooden boards to enforce the lock. Some people were put in there for a few hours, sometimes even a day. It was actually English law that then allowed people passing by the ability to throw one stone and one only at the convicted while in the pillory. Although, this law wasn’t entirely enforceable, so people tossed rotten food and mud at those serving their time. 

The whipping post is the second device here at Hanna’s Town whose job is to carry out justice. The whipping post is, as the name suggests, a post to which the criminal would have their arms chained above their head and faced towards the post. Their shirt would be torn off of their backs, which in itself is a punishment. Many lower/middle class colonial families had a limited set of clothes for most of their life.So having ones clothes destroyed was more than a minor inconvenience. Next the Sheriff would brandish the whip, which could have pieces of metal and/or glass in it to really tear through the skin on someones back. Wounds from whips like these would take a lifetime to heal, and often never truly did. No one was safe from the whipping post, woman and children included. Anyone who had committed a crime worthy enough, would face the whipping post for punishment.

Hanna’s Town court cases ran from the late colonial period into the very beginning of the republic, predating any written documents giving prisoners or criminals rights. Hanna’s town records show that a clerk recorded each trial along with the outcome. During the destruction of Hanna’s Town, the clerk actually took the time to gather and carry the records from the court days of the current session. We now have those records thanks to him.

The degree and types of crime that happened here varies. Some of the lesser crimes tried at Hanna’s Town include one case of forcible entry. According to “The Law of the Commonwealth” Under Chapter 9, it states that any person accused of forcible entry must give the stolen goods back or pay retribution of those goods to the victim. Adultery was a little more serious of a crime. One case of Adultery in Hanna’s Town was recorded in the court records. According to Chapter 3 of “The law of the Commonwealth”, guilty Adulterers were punished to 21 lashings on the bare back, well laid on and a year of labor. ‘Well laid on’ was a term that describes the whippings to be merciless and tough, in order for the criminals to learn their lesson. Repeated offenses meant the punishments were even harsher. For a repeat offense of Adultery, the convicted were sentenced to 21 lashings and 7 years of labor. A third offense was the same but with the addition of branding an ‘A’ on their forehead, standing for the word ‘Adulterer’. 

As far as major crimes go, there is one case at Hanna’s Town that involves a horse thief, which back then was considered a felony. The reason for it being such an important crime is because livestock was so incredibly valuable. It was your food, if you owned any farm animals, as well as your transportation, if you owned a horse. With the nearest settlements being about a week's travel on foot, a horse was necessarily to travel fast and efficiently. John Smith was the name of the Horse Thief at Hanna’s Town. Of course, this is what he registered as in court, so whether or not that is his real name is up for speculation. John Smith was found guilty and sentenced to 39 lashings, well laid onto his bare back at the whipping post. He was then put into the pillory for 24 hours, where his ear was nailed to the wood and later to be cut off when he was released. He then would be forced to either pay a 20 pound fine or return the stolen horse. Second time offenders of horse theft would be the same in addition to ‘HT’ being branded on the thieves forehead, which stood for ‘Horse Thief’. The reason for the branding was to alert other towns and settlements that this person was distrustworthy. Taverns and tradesmen could and very much would avoid and turn down service to this person if spotted. 

Carey, Matthew. Bioren, J.. Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Volume 1. New York City, New York. Carey and Bioren, 1803.

Westmoreland County Historical Society. 2019. “Hanna’s Town Tour Manual”. Westmorland County Historical Society