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About this Website

The history of crime in early America has received scant attention, especially when compared with the vast treatment of crime history that England has received for the same time period. Unfortunately, when the topic of crime in early America is raised, the discussion almost immediately turns to witchcraft trials or unusual punishments handed out to religious blasphemers. While from our contemporary point of view such tales of crime have the merit of mixing the scandalous with the quaint, they provide an incomplete account of crime in early America.

I plan to use this website to help fill out more fully the history of crime in early America. Crimes in colonial America can be divided into two broad categories: sinful actions (idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft) and social transgressions (theft, arson, and murder). Given that there are plenty of resources available that cover the former–books about the Salem witchcraft trials being a prime example–I will be focusing on crimes that mainly fall under the latter category and more closely coincide with our current notions of crime.

In the context of this website, I will be defining “early” quite loosely, so as to accommodate a broad range of interesting crime topics. Our idea of crime changes with time, and I am drawn to crime topics that appear foreign to our contemporary sensibilities. Most of the topics I plan to cover will focus on colonial America and the early Republic, although accounts of crimes and punishments from later in the nineteenth century, and even into the twentieth century, may also appear. Even though I am interested in crimes, criminals, and punishments that appear obsolete by contemporary standards, they will nonetheless provide insight into present-day crime and punishment.

I will also use “America” to refer to what later became the continental United States, as well as the surrounding waters of the Atlantic and the islands of the Caribbean. Pirates who were active during the Golden Age of Piracy centered their operations in colonial America and the Caribbean islands. I consider them to be important criminal figures in early America, since they were a major threat to trade and the economic well-being of both sides of the Atlantic. England also has an important role to play in the history of crime in early America, especially since America started out as an English colony and used the British criminal justice system as a basis for creating its own.

Crime and its punishment are among the top social concerns in the United States today. Over one percent of the adult population in the United States now lives in prison, and even though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Stories of crime fill our newspapers and affect the elections of our public officials. Yet, we as Americans know little about the history of crime and punishment that has brought us to this point. My hope is that this website will help provide a more complete understanding of crime and punishment in America by focusing on its early appearance and practice.

8 Comments

  1. Martha Heller wrote:

    very nice!

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  2. Ken Vancini wrote:

    Love the site. Interesting and informative. With the internet and CSI mentality I would love to read more about how our criminal justice (or injustice) system evolved.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  3. Thanks, Ken. I will keep your suggestion in mind as I develop the site. Many of the American colonies borrowed practices from the British criminal justice system. However, since many of the people who crossed the ocean to America didn’t have direct experience with British laws and courts, they often tried to copy British practices based on their limited knowledge of the system. Each state, then, basically had different ways of handling crimes and punishments.

    Friday, September 19, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  4. jeanne wrote:

    This is fascinating! I’ll look forward to future postings!

    Monday, September 22, 2008 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Laura wrote:

    Tony, this is great stuff — Robert told me about your site. Please feel free to visit our library for your research any time!

    Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  6. Michael wrote:

    Well done Tony!

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  7. akaGaGa wrote:

    This is fascinating stuff! I’ve added you to my feeds.

    FYI, you’re also providing a nice balance point to all the “Christian Nation” conversation, which usually makes it sound like the founding era was full of virtuous and pious souls. Hah!

    Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  8. bridgett wrote:

    I love these vignettes. Thanks for writing so intelligently about these people, their actions, and the circumstances and legal setting that made those actions criminal.

    I’ll browse the back numbers and look forward to your next post.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

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