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.