The whipping post, 1828-37

A whipping post stood permanently on the northeast corner of Springfield’s public square from 1828 to 1837. It apparently was used infrequently, but often enough that whippings stuck in the minds of those who saw them. The post – which quickly gained a nickname, “the Widow Robinson” – also played a role in a love triangle in which both of a women’s suitors underwent whippings, one legally inflicted and one not.

Some criminals apparently were whipped prior to erection of the permanent whipping post. “We had no public whipping post before that (1828) time, an impromptu post serving the purpose when one was needed,” James Matheny told the Springfield Sunday Journal in 1890.

It’s not clear how many convicted criminals underwent public whippings. Matheny, whose account of local whippings seems to be the most detailed, identified only three legally imposed ones, plus the surreptitious one given the second suitor. There almost certainly were more, however.

According to staff at the Illinois Regional Archives Directory at the University of Illinois Springfield, most local whippings probably were ordered by justices of the peace, who  oversaw misdemeanor cases; felonies were heard before circuit judges. In addition, most whippings would have taken place before Springfield had a newspaper – the Sangamo Journal was founded in 1831 – which means even unofficial records are scant.

For a while, the whipping post was the only structure on the square (now the home of the Old Capitol State Historic Site). “The square itself, swampy and grown over with weeds, contained only the whipping post, a gruesome monument which stood bare and awesome across from the present Marine Bank,” historian Paul Angle wrote in his 1935 classic, Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield.  (The bank building now is a Chase Bank outlet.)

Pioneer merchant Elijah Iles wrote a brief account of the whipping post in his memoir, Sketches of Early Life and Times in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois (1883).

Our court house was of rough logs, daubed with black mud. A platform for the judge’s seat, and the seats for the lawyers, jurors and others, were of split logs, and the jurors had all out-doors in which to decide on their verdict. …

This rough log court house for many years answered the purpose for which it was built, as a place for holding court. As yet we had no jail, and no taxable lands from which to raise funds. County orders were worthless. We erected a whipping-post, as we had laws to punish theft or other lawless acts. If convicted, the culprit had to be whipped upon his bare back.

Our sheriff, Gen. J.D. Henry, was tender-hearted and merciful, and laid the lash on lightly. Some, after being whipped, left the district; some made good citizens, and those who did not reform altogether were careful not to commit any act that might subject them to again hug the post and have their backs slashed. This mode of punishment seemed to have a better effect in checking crime than imprisonment in jail or in the penitentiary, and at much less cost.

Douglas Giger, in his Story of the Sangamon County Court House (1901), tells a similar story, but with a darker reference to John York Sawyer, who was the second man to serve as judge in the circuit that included Sangamon County. (The question mark is in the original.)

Another ornament(?) once adorned the public square, but which has long since been removed. This was the whipping post which stood near the northeast corner of the square, adjacent to the jail. This post has passed out of the recollection of many of the old inhabitants, and a majority of our citizens of today do not know that one was ever established. Such is the fact, however, and several persons “paid the penalty of their misdeeds” at that post. An old settler informed the writer that it was only used for “little offenses like petty stealing and wife-beating.”

It is said that James D. Henry was the last sheriff who used the post, and he often remarked that he was so chicken-hearted that he suffered more when inflicting the penalty than the offender he punished. On the other hand, Judge Sawyer rather enjoyed seeing the punishment inflicted. It finally came to be looked upon as a “relic of barbarism” and dropped into disuse.

James Henry (1797-1834) won terms as Sangamon County sheriff in 1828, 1830 and 1832. He also was a hero of the 1832 Black Hawk War and was gearing up to run for governor when he died in 1834.

His years as sheriff apparently did not overlap with those of Circuit Judge John York Sawyer (1788-1836), who heard cases in the circuit from 1825 to 1827. Sawyer was a huge man – he reportedly weighed more than 400 pounds – and an avid Democrat. From 1830 until his death, Sawyer edited a leading Democratic newspaper, the Vandalia-based Illinois Advocate, and engaged in frequent disputes with Whig papers around central Illinois.

Coles County lawyer Usher F. Linder left a harsh impression of Sawyer in his Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois (1879) – although it should be noted that Linder never actually met Sawyer, and he doesn’t say where he got his information.

“For a fat man,” Linder wrote, “Sawyer was one of the most ill-tempered and bitter men in Illinois, or perhaps anywhere.”

Linder also reported an anecdote (again, there’s no indication who told Linder about it), that, if true, may have epitomized Sawyer’s attitude toward whipping. It involved a man who had been convicted of stealing a hog in Greene County.

“At that time the law provided for whipping men for petit larceny,” Linder wrote. “Sawyer was a terror to all such offenders, and was fond of snapping up the lawyers who defended them.”

In Linder’s telling, the defendant’s lawyer, Alfred W. Cavarly, sought a new trial and asked Sawyer to let him go to his law office for material he wanted to present in support of the motion. Sawyer, “assuming one of the blandest looks possible,” said yes.

But while Cavarly was out of the courthouse, Sawyer had the defendant tied to a nearby tree – one Sawyer could see from his courtroom – and given 39 lashes. By the time Cavarly returned, the man was back in court, cleaned up and clothed. Unknowing, Cavarly made his argument for a new trial, and Sawyer at last said, according to Linder, “Mr. Cavarly, you have satisfied the court, and if you desire it I shall grant you a new trial.”

“But at this point,” Linder wrote, “his client whispered in his ear, ‘Don’t take it, Mr. Cavarly, or they will whip me again.’”

Despite Linder’s and Giger’s characterizations, a review of about half of the cases Sawyer oversaw as circuit judge in Sangamon County shows no record of Sawyer ordering any defendant to be whipped. Virtually all the sentences he levied for crimes such as larceny, assault and battery, “affray,” etc., required the defendants to pay fines and remanded them to the sheriff’s custody until the fines were paid.

Whatever Sawyer’s sentiments, Matheny backs up Iles’ and Giger’s report that Sheriff Henry, at least,  had no stomach for whipping.

The whipping post erected in 1828 “was about six feet high, and was a good, strong post. The first whipping occurred a short time after it was put up,” Matheny said. The man to be whipped, named Robinson, had stolen an iron bar from Iles and was sentenced to 20 lashes on the bare back.

It fell to the lot of the Sheriff to do the whipping. … Henry was a tender-hearted man, and as he had never officiated at a whipping before, he naturally went to work with some trembling and trepidation. In this “rattled” state of mind the first blow he struck Robinson was a tremendous one. The victim uttered a fierce yell and started around the post. His arms were simply thrust around the post and his hands tied together. He was thus enabled to go around the post as many times as he pleased. The sheriff followed him and excitedly struck at him with the raw-hide. The scene was a very grotesque one, and a shout of laughter went up from the spectators. When the last of the twenty lashes had been dealt out, the Sheriff had not struck the criminal more than twice, and Robinson was released without having any mark to tell of his whipping except the welt raised by the first blow.

When the next morning dawned, a rude wooden figure of a woman’s head, with a bonnet on it, was nailed to the top of the post. Under this figure was written the following inscription: “The Widow Robinson.”

Ever afterwards, that post was known as “the Widow Robinson,” and when anybody did anything bad people said, “That man will have to hug the widow.”

Matheny recounted two other whippings. In one, an elderly man named Watson was sentenced to 50 lashes for trying to hit a local merchant with a sledgehammer and steal his money. The sentence was to be delivered in two 25-lash installments, but the night before the second series was to be given, “the jail door was thrown open and Watson walked forth and left the town.”

The other whipping Matheny told of involved a stranger to town named Huntington, who became the rival of another man for the affections of a local woman. The rival accused Huntington of stealing his horse, and Huntington was convicted and received 50 lashes. As Matheny told the rest of the story:

He stood it without a murmur, and when his hands were untied he turned to the spectators and said: “You have witnessed the punishment of a man as innocent as a child unborn.” As he said this a woman dressed in black with a veil over her face rushed through the crowd, threw a shawl over Huntington’s bare and bleeding back, took his arm and hurriedly getting into a carriage drove away. Huntington was never seen in Springfield again, and where he and the woman in black went forever afterward remained a mystery.

Three weeks later, however, Huntington’s rival was found in the early morning “tied to the whipping post, gagged, with his bare back covered with bleeding whelts (sic). He was unable to give any intelligent account of the affair.”

“The verdict of the public was that Huntington’s rival had made a false charge against him,” Matheny concluded, “and that Huntington, after receiving his whipping and taking his mysterious departure, came back in the night and … avenged himself by whipping him at the same post at which he himself was whipped.”

Springfield’s whipping post came to an end the night the Illinois General Assembly voted to move the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, according to Matheny (who said the vote took place in 1836; it actually was on Feb. 28, 1837).

schs-logo-2When the news reached here the people went wild. They put in the day drinking whisky and going through the streets shouting and singing. That night bonfires were built all over town. A great crowd of men and boys piled goods around the old whipping post, poured a barrel of tar on top, and set it on fire, and “the Widow Robinson” went up in a blaze of glory. The penitentiary had then been established, and the whipping post, from that time forward, was a thing of the past.

Note: This entry has been edited to reflect Thomas Wood’s correction (in comments below) of an error by the editor.

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2 Responses to The whipping post, 1828-37

  1. Thomas J Wood says:

    Very interesting article! One slight elaboration: Justices of the Peace in Illinois weren’t required to keep detailed records (such as records of testimony), but starting in 1827 they were were required to keep dockets, which typically included summary information on cases.

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