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Early American Criminals: Punishment of the Harvard-Educated Burglars

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Note: This post is the conclusion of the story of the “Harvard-Educated Burglars.”

In his History of New England, John Winthrop notes on June 5, 1644,

Two of our ministers’ sons, being students in the college, robbed two dwelling houses in the night of some 15 pounds. Being found out, they were ordered by the governours of the college to be there whipped, which was performed by the president himself–yet they were about 20 years of age; and after they were brought into the court and ordered to two fold satisfaction, or to serve so long for it. We had yet no particular punishment for burglary.

The burglaries committed by Harvard students James Ward and Joseph Welde created a sensation throughout New England. They also presented a quandary. When Rev. Nathaniel Ward, the father of James Ward, composed his “Body of Liberties,” which served as a basis for Massachusetts law, he did not classify burglary as a capital offense. In fact, Massachusetts law in 1644 did not specify any punishment for burglary beyond the stipulation that it should be “severely punished.”

The question of how the General Court would punish the two offenders, in other words, remained an open question. In addition, since the two young men were students at Harvard, they were also subject to punishment by the college.

Punishment at Harvard

Given their age, Ward and Welde were technically classified as adults, so according to Harvard’s disciplinary statute they were merely subject to public admonition. The public embarrassment that the actions of the two perpetrators brought upon Harvard, however, was too much for the officials of the college to bear. They instead sentenced the two young men to the severe penalty of being publicly whipped in the college as an act of correction. Along with this penalty, the two were expelled from the school.

The public whipping of Ward and Welde wasn’t the first time corporal punishment was used by the college on its students. In 1637, Nathaniel Eaton filled the position of Head Master over the first classes of Harvard College. Less than a year later, Eaton was caught beating his assistant with a cudgel, which Winthrop described as “a walnut tree plant, big enough to have killed a horse.” During the inquiry into the event, information came out that Eaton had also been abusing the students at the college in a similar manner. Eaton was consequently put on trial.

Eaton acknowledged during testimony that it wasn’t unusual for him to apply 20 to 30 stripes at a time to the students and that “he would not give over correcting till he had subdued his party to his will.” Eaton might have been found innocent if he could have showed that his students were obstinate, unruly, and ill-behaved, but he made no attempt to prove that this was the case. Instead, he maintained his innocence by claiming that as master he had the absolute right to punish the students as he saw fit. The court found Eaton guilty and sentenced him to quit his job and pay a large fine. After his dismissal, Eaton eventually returned to England and died after many years in a debtor’s prison.

The punishment of Ward and Welde was carried out by Henry Dunster, Eaton’s successor as head of the college and officially the school’s first president. Two years before administering the penalties to the two young men, Dunster was involved in another case of corporal punishment. In 1642, he whipped two students after their conviction for ribaldry. Apparently, these other two men were also kicked out of the college, since their names do not appear on the school’s graduation lists.

After their punishment at Harvard, Ward and Welde appeared before the General Court of Massachusetts, which made them compensate the victims of their burglary by paying them twice the value of what they stole. Three years later, the General Court finally set specific penalties for burglary: first-time offenders had a “B” branded on their foreheads, second-time offenders were severely whipped, and third-time offenders received the death penalty.

Return to England

The fact that Joseph Welde’s father sat on the Board of Overseers at Harvard apparently did not help his son receive a reduced sentence or help him regain admittance to the school. After being expelled, Joseph Welde eventually followed his father back to England. Even though Welde’s father never returned to America after leaving in 1641, he continued to send large amounts of money back in support of Harvard College.

In December 1646, Rev. Nathaniel Ward also returned to England. With his departure, he left the College 600 acres of land near Andover, MA. Even though the actions of Ward and Welde greatly embarrassed Harvard at the time, in the end the school profited quite nicely from the events.

While Joseph Welde never made anything of himself after being kicked out of Harvard, his companion in crime, James Ward, did. Ward must have appeared before the college governors seeking forgiveness and showing true remorse for his actions, because he was readmitted and received his A.B. from Harvard in 1645. In 1646, Ward returned to England with his father apparently a changed man. He became a Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford and earned a degree in medicine.

Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.


  • Adams, Charles Francis, ed. Antinomianism in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1636-1638. Boston: The Prince Society, 1894.
  • Dean, John Ward. A Memoir of the Rev. Nathaniel Ward, A.M. Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1868.
  • Moore, Kathryn McDaniel. “The Dilemma of Corporal Punishment at Harvard College.” History of Education Quarterly 14.3 (Autumn, 1974), 335-346.
  • Powers, Edwin. Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.
  • Sibley, John Langdon. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, In Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vol. I, 1642-1658. Cambridge: Charles William Sever, 1873.
  • Stout, Harry S. “University Men in New England, 1620-1660: A Demographic Analysis.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4.3 (Winter, 1974), 375-400.
  • Winthrop, John. The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. Ed. James Savage. Vol. II. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1853.

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