Justice was swift and severe in colonial America when judged by modern standards. A common tool of punishment was the pillory, where the unfortunate wrong-doer was fastened by neck and wrists in the public square to be ridiculed and sometimes abused.
Most colonial communities had a pillory. Lancaster was no different. Its pillory and whipping post were located in the northwestern corner of Centre Square near the courthouse. It was here that lawbreakers could be displayed in agonizing positions, often with bare backs streaked with dried blood and purple welts.
In these early days, horse stealing was a frequent crime but still a serious offense. It was usually punished by public whipping. On one occasion, a man accused of sedition against the King was sentenced to stand for an hour in the pillory and to receive 15 lashes across his bare back.
Women were not immune from such punishments either. Just ask Anne Towes.
In 1757, Towes was convicted of adding a zero to a one-shilling note, raising it to ten. Her cleverness cost her an ear and a public whipping of 21 lashes “well laid” across her bare back.
Public punishment, whether on the scaffold or the pillory, was believed to provide a warning to everyone that crime does not pay. Counterfeiting was a fairly frequent offense, and one counterfeiter was sentenced to twenty lashes at the whipping post and to have both of his ears cut off.
Thieves were publicly whipped and wore a large letter “T” on their coats for six months. Even persons “who should be clamorous with their tongues” by shouting or scolding could be sentenced to be gagged and made to stand in the pillory.
It was the practice at the time that all county trials be held in the county seat. During much of the 1700s, Lancaster County extended over a large area of almost 5,000 square miles. As a result, many of the offenders were strangers to Lancaster and easy targets of abuse by town residents or mischievous pranksters while trapped in the pillory.