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Early American Crimes: Burglary, Part II

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Note: This post continues Early American Crimes: Burglary, Part I.

In the earliest days of colonial America, burglary was not considered much of a problem. Most people in the community knew each other, and strangers could be quickly identified. But as more people settled in America and cities grew bigger, burglary became a much more frequent occurrence, and it increasingly was treated with harsh punishment.


Even though Massachusetts established harsh penalties for burglary in the seventeenth century, the rate of burglaries continued to rise as the province became more urbanized. Burglaries were a constant worry for people who lived in Boston, and in the spring and summer of 1712, Boston merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen experienced a spike in nighttime break ins. The rise in burglary in Boston prompted the General Court to take action, and in 1715 burglary became a capital crime in Massachusetts unless the offender could prove that the house was empty at the time of the break-in.

Despite the strengthening of the penalty, by 1770 burglary continued to be such a problem that the Massachusetts legislature made it a capital crime even if the house was empty when the burglar entered it. At the time, Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson claimed the reason why incidences of burglary were so high in Massachusetts was that burglars were coming from other colonies, where the punishment for the crime was death. Once burglars crossed into Massachusetts, they would only receive a small fine or light corporal punishment if they were careful enough to enter a house that was uninhabited.

After the American Revolution, burglary continued to be a capital offense in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, although after 1805 the death penalty only applied to burglaries where the occupants were in the house and where the offender was carrying a dangerous weapon or committed assault. Burglary did not cease to be a capital crime in Massachusetts until 1839.


While the general trend in the colonies during the eighteenth century was to increase punishment for burglary, Pennsylvania’s criminal code continued to remain relatively mild, mostly because its burglary rate remained fairly low. In 1705, Pennsylvania revised its criminal code and made burglary punishable by whipping, six month’s imprisonment at hard labor, and restitution for the victim. Even though this string of punishments was less severe in relation to other colonies, the fact that property crime was the only category of crime that was punished by a combination of penalties shows how seriously Pennsylvania took it.

Pennsylvania’s mild criminal code did not apply to all of its citizens, however. African Americans, slave or free, were subject to a different set of punishments. Under these separate provisions, burglary–as well as murder, the rape of a white woman, and buggery–was punished by execution.

No doubt inspired by England’s Transportation Act, Pennsylvania created a provision in 1718 whereby burglars and other felons could be banished from the colony in lieu of execution. After Ann Mitchell was convicted on burglary charges in 1725, she was pardoned on condition that she and her husband leave the colony, probably because she was pregnant at the time. Two other burglars, Cornelius O’Brien and Edward Fitzgerald, were pardoned in 1735 after they agreed to leave the colony and “never return.”

The low burglary rate in Pennsylvania did not last. Starting in 1760, the burglary rate began to soar, to the point where more burglaries were prosecuted in Pennsylvania during the decade of the 1760s than were prosecuted in Massachusetts between the years of 1750 and 1800. In the end, an astounding 61 burglars were executed in Pennsylvania during this time. Not surprisingly, most of the burglaries took place in and around Philadelphia.

In 1786, Pennsylvania reclassified burglary and other crimes as noncapital and substituted instead “continued hard labor, publicly and disgracefully imposed” in an attempt to rehabilitate the offender instead. Connecticut took a similar tactic after it founded New-Gate Prison in 1773. It passed an act making burglary, robbery, and counterfeiting punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years for the first offense, although second time offenders received sentences of imprisonment for life.

Go to Early American Crimes: Burglary, Part III.


Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

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