The English-American colonies were autocratic and theocratic, with a patriarchal system of justice: magistrates and religious leaders, sometimes one and the same, made the laws, and the burden of obeying them fell on the less exalted—the tradesmen, soldiers, farmers, servants, slaves, and the young. That burden could be weighty.
In his History of American Law, Lawrence M. Friedman wrote, "The earliest criminal codes mirrored the nasty, precarious life of pioneer settlements." A good example is the set of statutes imposed on Jamestown, the "Articles, Lawes and Orders Diuine, Politique, and Martiall for the Colony in Virginia," by the Virginia Company of London in 1611. They were, with some justice, described by the colonists in a letter to the crown in 1624 as "Tyrannycall Lawes written in blood." They said:
The cause of the vniust and vndeserved death of sundry . . . by starveinge, hangeinge, burneinhge, breakinge upon the wheele and shootinge to deathe, some (more than halfe famished) runninge to the Indians to gett reliefe beinge againe retorned were burnt to deth. Some for stealinge to satisfie thir hunger were hanged, and one chained to a tree till he starved to death; others attemptinge to run awaye in a barge and a shallop (all the Boates that were then in the Collonye) and therin to adventure their lives for their native countrye, beinge discovered and prevented, were shott to death, hanged and broken upon the wheele, besides continuall whippings, extraordinary punishments, workinge as slaves in irons for terme of yeares (and that for petty offenses) weare dayly executed.
Alice Earle's 1896 Curious Punishments of Bygone Days
showed readers what bilboes did to the legs of lawbreakers.
A brank, the "gossip's bridle," effectively silenced an offender.
Every Virginia minister was required to read the "Articles, Lawes and Orders" to his congregation every Sunday, and, among other things, parishioners were reminded that failure to attend church twice...