Moving Forward, Looking Back / Fairfield's whipping-post mystery
The Fairfield Museum and History Center, in preparing a fall exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation, came across a 1996 article written by our current Town Historian, Marcia Miner, referring to the existence of a whipping post on the town green.
That's right, a whipping post -- a post to which people were affixed when they got whipped.
The museum inquired about Miner's sources, not wanting to shed light on an unflattering, dark corner of Fairfield history without documentation. Miner checked her notes and reported that the idea was derived from two sources: old books on the history of Fairfield, and local lore. An 1889 history, for example, contained a re-creation of an early town street plan that pinpointed the location of a "whipping post" on northern edge of the town green. And many Fairfielders recall, not the actual whipping post, but the retelling of its existence.
Like any good historian, Miner began to make some connections. At about the exact spot on the early street plan in that 1889 history book, there is today a wooden "signpost." According to 1870 selectman minutes, it was erected by "five gentlemen" at no expense to the town. Old postcards of the town green show this signpost, and refer to it as "the whipping post."
Hmm. Miner asked the town Department of Public Works to do a little exploratory surgery on the signpost, and when the front panel was removed, it revealed a much older post within, furrowed and darkened with age, around which the "new" signpost was constructed. You can go down and see it for yourself. It's been sawed off at about four feet above the ground, and riddled with nails.
Is this the whipping post of legend? Maybe, but we can't jump to conclusions. The street plan in the 1889 history was not an original map; the author may have simply placed the whipping post there on hearsay. It would already have been covered up by the 1870 signpost. We also can't prove that the old post was already in the ground in 1870. Perhaps it was scrap that got used for the foundation of the signpost. No one knows.
But all this talk about whipping gets one to thinking. Were people getting whipped in Fairfield? And for what?
To date, no evidence has been found in town records of an actual whipping having taken place, but there is good reason to consider the possibility. At the beginning of the 17th century, the General Assembly of the Connecticut colony passed a law to address the problem of "Rogues & Vagabonds, & other Persons of Evil Name & Fame, for Rude & Profane Discourse..." For these evildoers, said the law, the county and town jails would serve not only as houses of detention, but also as correctional facilities -- a refreshingly enlightened approach, until you learn that the correctional method of choice was whipping. Mercifully, the number of "stripes" administered for any one offense was limited to fifty. Our constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment did not come soon enough for the Rogues and Vagabonds of colonial Connecticut, let alone the Persons of Evil Name & Fame.
Whipping may also have been used in Fairfield for misbehaving slaves. Slaves in Fairfield? I'm afraid so. Slavery was prevalent in the New England colonies early on, starting with Indians conquered in the bloody Pequot Wars. Africans were in the New England colonies practically from the start, and though some may have been free, soon enough almost all colonial Africans were slaves. African slaves were preferred over Indians, because the Indians knew the land and could escape to protective communities. Our forebears eventually devised a practical solution to this problem: captured Indian males were shipped off to the Caribbean to swap for Africans.
In the same era as the "Rogues & Vagabonds Act," a series of laws were enacted that spelled out the rights and responsibilities of slave and master. New England slavery appeared to be of the "kinder, gentler" variety: slaves, for example, could be freed by their masters, and slavery was not hereditary. On the other hand, slaves were required to carry identification documents, and had to obtain permission to drink alcohol or sell property. Also enumerated were offenses punishable by whipping: "unseemly language," offering to strike a white person, or being out after 9 p.m.
After 1750, spurred by economic growth, there was a considerable uptick in the Connecticut slave population, and Fairfield contributed significantly to the increase. By the Revolution, there were about 6,500 slaves in Connecticut, and perhaps a third of Fairfield families had slaves. The typical family had a few slaves for household work, but other families, such as the venerable Sillimans, had many more, for household as well as farm labor.
In 1848, seven years after the famous Amistad trial, slavery was abolished in Connecticut, but there were still rogues and vagabonds to deal with. By this time, the country had moved on to other forms of punishment, and Fairfield got a nice new signpost on the town green.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.