Corpun file 18913
The Trentonian, Trenton, New Jersey, 20 February 2007
Trenton doled out punishments at whipping post
By Charles Webster
Today the state is on the verge of pulling back on the death
penalty. Convicted murders on Death Row could escape their dates
with the needle of death.
Before the current system of lethal injection, death sentences
were doled out at the gallows.
For lesser crimes, there has always been a city lock-up, a county
jail or the state prison system.
In years past there have been debtor’s prisons, and in
Trenton there was also the sentence of being publicly flogged at
the whipping post.
A petty crime was all it took to win a date with the whipping
post - shoplifting, simple assault, and even public drunkenness
could be enough to get sentenced to be stripped bare and whipped.
For more than 75 years, the people of Trenton were
well-acquainted with the whipping post.
In 1839, a newly arrived citizen of Trenton got an opportunity to
witness a public flogging. The event would have a profound effect
on his life, and provide far-reaching effects on daily life in
It was a typical autumn day in October of that year, Franklin
Mills, who had moved into Trenton less a year before, was invited
by a friend to witness the punishment handed out by a local
magistrate to a man for petty theft.
After the sentence was passed, the shackled man was immediately
marched out of the new City Hall at the corner of State and Broad
streets. With his startled family in tow, the convicted man made
his way up Broad Street to Academy Street, where his sentence was
to be carried out.
"The sentences for petit larceny in the late 1830s were
lashes on the bare back to any number not exceeding 39, and
sometimes accompanied by the words ‘well laid
on,’" Mills explained in an interview years later.
The man was tied to the whipping post -- then standing in front
of the old town hall that stood on the site of the current
Trenton Public Library on Academy Street -- and the sentence
"Sometimes the unfortunates were followed by sobbing wives
and children. Although the officers would drive them away from
the scene, they would be heard some distance off shrieking at the
sound of every blow," Mills recalled years after the
incident had faded from the memories of many in Trenton.
"Many times the prisoners would weep as they laid off their
clothing at the command of the officers. Others would grin and
"It was always a shocking sight and witnessed seldom by any
of the principal men of the city," Mills lamented. "I
remember one special occasion, two men had been sentenced to be
tied up and each were to receive 39 lashes."
There standing in the area of the whipping posts as spectators
were several prominent Trentonians: Samuel McClurg, William
Boswell, William S. Barnes, Alexander H. Armour and Mills.
When the beatings were finished, the five men remained to talk
about what they had just witnessed.
"We remained to talk of the inhumanity of the proceeding and
of the iniquitous law which authorized it," Mills recalled
with a hint of anger building. "Some vowed they would never
witness such an exhibition again. Others suggested that the post
should be taken down.
"The idea of criminal prosecution and the probability that
our own backs might be thus bared and lacerated in the presence
of hundreds was also suggested.
"But the outrage upon civilization then and there enacted
seemed to be so great and the disgrace so deep and so insulting
to every sentiment of humanity that [we] then and there resolved
that this monument of the cruelty of a past age should be taken
down, come what may.
"We knew our act was revolutionary and might involve serious
consequences to us personally but we resolved to stand by each
other in any event and for the sake of humanity take the
"The necessary tools were procured, the whipping post was
taken up and quietly laid by the side of the post hole, and, as
everybody knows, it has never had a resurrection."
A few nights later, in late autumn darkness, the five men met at
the whipping post with various tools, picks and shovels. The men
quickly went to work and ripped the offending post out of the
Daring the city fathers to replace the dreaded post, the men
threw the post on the ground next to the hole in the ground that
once supported it.
The action caused a stir around town. Although several people
called for the whipping post to be returned, no one in city
government was willing to call for its resurrection. The
controversy quickly died out and the whipping post was never used
again in Trenton.
Every Tuesday, Charles Webster offers his
weekly insight into the region’s past.
© The Trentonian 2007
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