Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The scarlet letter, D: punishment for drunks in the 1600s

© Christy K. Robinson

1655: An alcoholic is punished in a Drunkard's Cloak,
what amounts to a pillory.
Alcohol addiction is a neurological disease which affects body and mind, and is characterized by an uncontrolled consumption of alcohol. Treatment of alcoholism includes detoxification, counseling, support group participation, education, and sometimes medication. But treatment for addiction is a relatively-recent innovation. More commonly in history, “treatment” was punishment and shame.

In 17th century England, nearly everyone drank alcoholic beverages, because water, especially in towns, was often contaminated and carried disease. Ale, beer, and cider were fermented and brewed at home, and had a relatively small alcohol content, about four percent. Wine was usually imported from warmer climates like France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Everyone drank alcohol, including children and pregnant women, and it may have saved many lives from infectious disease, poisoning, and parasites that they’d have picked up from polluted water.

Whiskey had been distilled in Ireland and Scotland for several hundred years, and the English used it not only as a beverage, but as the base for some medications. They called it variously “strong waters,” or aqua vitae, the water of life. Governor John Winthrop and his eldest son, John Jr., dispensed medication based on aqua vitae.

In the homemaker’s guide, The English Housewife, published in 1615, a remedy for “heartsickness” (heart disease, or a broken heart?) was this: “Take rosemary and sage, of each a handful, and seethe them in white wine or strong ale, and then let the patient drink it lukewarm.”

At the Great Migration beginning in 1630, the English brought their beverages and remedies with them to America. In the ships of the Winthrop fleet were 42 tuns of ale (about 10,000 gallons), an equal amount of wine, and 14 tuns of water (3,332 gallons). Fresh water went bad in the wooden casks on the 8-12 week crossings, so alcoholic drink was necessary for health—and not terrible for a feeling of well-being!

When the fleet arrived and people eventually settled in Boston and Cambridge, they remarked on the sweet water of the New World. 
“For the Countrey it is as well watered as any land under the Sunne, every family, or every two families having a spring of sweet waters betwixt them, which is farre different from the waters of England, being not so sharpe, but of a fatter substance, and of a more jetty colour; it is thought there can be no better water in the world, yet dare I not preferre it before good Beere, as some have done, but any man will choose it before bad Beere, Whey, or Buttermilke. Those that drinke it be as healthfull, fresh, and lustie, as they that drinke beere.” Source: William Wood, New-England’s Prospect
As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, alcohol use was widespread and considered beneficial to peoples’ health. The problems arose when drinking became drunkenness. The offenders were punished with time in stocks, disfellowship from the church, or whipping. Boston was the major port in New England, followed by Newport, Rhode Island, and drunk sailors often appear in court records and histories.
An outdoor tavern, probably in London
(roof tiles instead of thatch).

There were a number of entries in Winthrop’s Journal about alcohol abuse and their various penalties, including instances of ships blowing up, sexual escapades (straight, gay, and bestial) being blamed on excessive drink, and this story of combining Sabbath-breaking with drunkenness (implying Divine justice for the drunkards):
One Cowper of Pascataquack [near modern Portsmouth, New Hampshire], going to an island, upon the Lord's day, to fetch some sack [strong, dry, sweet, light-colored wine of the sherry family] to be drank at the great house, he and a boy, coming back in a canoe, (being both drunk,) were driven to sea and never heard of after.  

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop, in 1634, noted that Robert Cole (1598-1655), who had come to Massachusetts with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, “having been oft punished for drunkenness, was now ordered to wear a red D about his neck for a year.” Some literature professors suggest that this was the origin of the story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.

“Robert Cole was living in Roxbury, Massachusetts, when he petitioned to be made a "freeman" on 19 Oct 1630, and was granted that status by the General Court on 18 May 1631, along with 113 other men.  He was disfranchised 4 Mar 1634, for a short time on account of his problem with drinking too much wine, when he was also ordered to wear a red letter "D" on his clothing for a year; however, his freeman status was reinstated about two months later on 14 May 1634, and the requirement to wear the letter ‘D’ was also revoked at that time.”   Source::  http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~bbunce77/ColeChart.html

The Bible instructed churches not to keep company with a member who was “a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one not to eat.” 1 Cor. 5:18 KJV.

Robert Cole was actually treated with mercy, being removed from membership for a short time to clean up his act and be reinstated, compared to what he’d have endured as an alcoholic in his native England. There, he might have been sentenced to time in a torture device known as the drunkard’s cloak (see images), where he’d be driven around town (probably with sticks and stones), kicked, physically abused, spit or urinated on, and have feces flung at him. It's not a stretch to imagine that his tormenters would roll him down an incline in hopes that he'd crash.

In 1655, John Willis claimed that in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, “he hath seen men drove up and down the streets with a great tub or barrel opened in the sides, with a hole in one end to put through their heads, and so cover their shoulders and bodies, down to the small of their legs, and then close the same, called the newfangled cloak, and so make them march to the view of all beholders; and this is their punishments for drunkards and the like.”

Obviously to us in the 21st century, the drunkard’s cloak was cruel and inhumane. In previous centuries, even as recently as 150 years ago in America, alcoholics were not treated for their disease, but punished in the hope that the persecution would be a deterrent to future antisocial behavior. Alcoholics have also been held up for ridicule in TV shows which depicted chronic drunks as bewildered fools who would sleep it off or be cured by drinking enough coffee. More likely, chronic alcohol abusers are prone to commit domestic violence, sexual abuse, and destroying lives on the road, while plagued with the most serious of health and mental problems of their own. 

Perhaps we should think more about sweet spring water than an excess of alcoholic beverages. Those that drinke it be as healthfull, fresh, and lustie, as they that drinke beere.


  1. I'll drink to this marvelous post, Mistress Dyer!

  2. Dennis A. Howerton
    Thanks for posting!

    Christy K Robinson
    Thanks for sharing, Jo Ann. Your barrel dress is in the mail. Or would you prefer a sacque of sack?

    Jo Ann Butler
    Better than a tow sack dress. Wearing that itchy thing would be punishment in itself!

    Herodias Long
    We enjoyed our small beer and hard cider in my day, but as Mistress Mary Dyer notes, it is good to practice moderation. If you do not, there are consequences...


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