The Whipping Post of Kanawha County, West Virginia

By Tom. Swinburn

Strolling into the rooms of the West Virginia Historical Society one day, I had a pleasant chat with its venerable president, in which he called my attention to the stump of the old whipping post there preserved. This recalled what I had heard of the last man whipped at the post. He requested me to write a sketch about it for the Magazine.

Not satisfied to depend on my own recollections, which were but second-hand at best, nor even on the memories of those yet remaining who were cognizant of the events related. I searched the county records at such odd intervals as I could spare from other duties chiefly at the noon hour.

I wished to present a complete and accurate history of the post and some account of each whipping. But though the number of punishments was not great, I found the limited time at my disposal utterly inadequate to the task. I got such assistance from old citizens in regard to persons who had been whipped as their memories could furnish. Then I went to the records of the county, but found the older ones without indexes, which of course made the task the harder.

As to the incidents of the last legal whipping at the Kanawha post, I had the assistance of Mr. A. P. Fry, Col. John Clarkson, Hon. Jacob Goshorn and others.

The Kanawha whipping post is supposed to have been set up about the time when the brick court-house was built. This was in the year 1817. But I doubt if the piece now in the Society's room could have lasted so long. It was more than a mere post. It was probably 18 feet high. I was divided into two stories by a platform. On this platform, reached by steps or ladder, stood the culprits condemned to the pillory. There was room for two. This pillory was made by passing two stout planks through a slot in the post, on edge, one above the other. Holes were made in the planks to receive the necks and wrists of the criminals, one on either side of the post. The slot in the post was of sufficient length to let the upper plank be raised to admit the heads and hands of the victim, then it was let down and secured by a wedge-shaped key which locked them fast and utterly helpless against the pelting's of mischievous men and boys.

The whipping was done under this platform. The condemned one stood on the ground, his arms round the post, his wrists strapped to staples in the post. The number of lashes varied with the enormity of the offense, and the temper of the judges. The severity of the infliction was with the officer who administered it. In one instance I found in the record, the sheriff was directed to see the number of lashes on the culprit's bare back "well laid on." And I am told that one application affected a cure, so that a man was hardly ever, or never known to incur the punishment a second time. This leads many persons to regret the abolition of the post, and advocate its return. The following article from The Literary Digest of last December 13 voices the public sentiment for and against. The article is entitled:

The Whipping Post in Delaware

The survival of the whipping post in the State of Delaware, and the recent flogging of a fourteen year old boy for petty theft, has aroused some discussion in the press as to the efficacy of this method of punishing crime. In the opinion of the New York Journal, the practice is a "relic of barbarism" and belongs to the days of the 'thumb-screw and rack. "Only Delaware," it says, "has continued to enforce this degrading law, in defiance of progress and the sentiment of other States of the American sisterhood and it calls upon this State to put an end to the 'hideous anachronism before the dawn of the new century. On the other hand, the Washington Post expresses the belief that in cases of hardened crime, such as incorrigible viciousness, wife beating, etc. the effect of the "cat-o-nine-tails" is most salutory. It continues:

"Every rational observer in this direction knows that for such monsters there is no deterrent save plain and simple physical suffering. The so called humane and civilized methods have been tried and found wanting. The brute goes to jail, fares sumptuously every day, while his wretched family suffer cold and hunger, and in almost every instance returns with unabated energy to the practice of his favorite cruelty. For such beasts as these the whipping post is the only adequate prescription. They are open to no argument less eloquent than the lash. They fear this as they fear nothing else. And if the custom were adopted and rigidly enforced in every city, town, and neighborhood throughout the land, the ends of Christian mercy would be better served."

Harpers Weekly (New York), looks at the matter in the same light, declaring that "a good whipping administered in private would probably be more effective as a preventative than a period of comfortable sequestration upon the banks of the Hudson River or in any other of the first-class criminal hostelries of the country." Now it seems to me that if punishment is intended to deter crime that form which does deter would be the proper one to adopt. True, the whipping post is a relic of barbarism. But is not every kind of physical punishment barbarous? Have we not derived the practice of inflicting physical pain upon offenders from our barbarian ancestors? What is more clearly barbarous than dangling a man or woman by the neck at the end of a rope till strangled to death? Why do we not abolish all relics of barbarism in modes of punishment, such as the ball and chain, the water hose, etc.? Because, like out barbarian forefathers we believe the fear of pain the best deterrent. On this principle the best deterrent is that which criminals most fear, and I believe the fear of whipping is more effectual than any other.

But I am in favor of removing all barbarous punishments. Yet, it were better to remove the need of punishment than the instrument. The instrument will inflict no pain if not used. The instrument will not be used if there be no need. There will be no need if the cause be removed. And is not the law-breaker the cause? Partly, but more than he the law-maker. I shall hardly be understood here. But under the term law I mean not only, statutory law, but that wider and stronger law, public opinion and social custom. Not to be tedious, I hold that our civilization fosters millionaires and paupers, philanthropists and criminals. The paupers and criminals far outnumbering the former. The pauper may be to blame. Civilization always is. The criminal is probably to blame. Civilization certainly is. But to my story.

Sometime in the thirties Col. Andrew Donnally visited the city of Philadelphia, and there found a young Irishman named Arthur Mowbry, who as was customary in that day, had secured his passage to this broad land of freedom and plenty under a contract to hire himself out to someone who should pay the amount of his passage, and be repaid by the services of the immigrant. Being a voting man of parts. Col. Donnally, who was himself an Irishman, took a fancy to him paid his passage, and brought him to Kanawha. Here he became a general favorite, lived in the family of Col. Donnally, and was treated as a member of it. He served as clerk in the store of his employer, and had a fair prospect of success in life. But he seems to have become vain, fond of the company of other young men and of dressing beyond his means. He took to drinking too much, and lost favor with his patron, and eventually forged an order on Lewis Rutliner & Co., which eventually landed him in the penitentiary. But he did not remain there long for his counsel, Jacob Goshorn, took an appeal in his case and reversed the Circuit Superior Court, and brought his client hack to Kanawha. The whipping was not for this forgery, but seems, some of my informants thought, to have grown out of it in this way:

Mowbray, (his name is spelled in various ways) and some boon companions had a sort of club room where they spent their leisure time. In the free and easy life they led they thought nothing of wearing each other's clothes. Now it appears by the county records that the first indictment against Mobray was quashed on some technical defect. Perhaps thinking that would be the end of it, and not willing to let him off so easily, my informants are of opinion that a charge of stealing the coat of one Samuel Hickock, one of the boon companions, was trumped up against him, and for this he was whipped. Unfortunately for this theory the indictment for stealing was examined a month before the examination for forgery: The charge of stealing, however, may have been held back to see the result of the charge of forgery, and when that was quashed this was pressed. At any rate he was whipped for stealing the coat. I have not been able to ascertain who did the whipping. Col. Clarkson thinks it was Wm. Hatcher, deputy sheriff, who was severe. Mr. Goshorn thinks it was John Slack, and thinks he did it early in the morning when there were no spectators, and that it was very lightly given.

West Virginia AHGP

Source: The West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly, Charleston West Virginia, 1901.

 

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