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The Punishment of Rebellious Children and Witches

The following is a guest post by David Mao, Deputy Law Librarian of Congress.

Throughout the year, the Law Library has visitors that want to see and hear about our exceptional collections and services.  Visitors come from near and far; over the past several months we’ve seen visitors from as close as Capitol Hill and as far as Bangladesh, Brazil, and the Netherlands.  In addition to giving our guests an overview of the work we do and showing them the Law Library stacks, the Law Library’s Collection Services Division often prepares a special display of rare materials from the collection for visitors to see.  Recently, we prepared a display of early American materials.  As I looked at the display, rare book technician Nathan Dorn pointed out a very interesting title:  An Abstract or the Lawes of New England, As they are now established.

Following are a few of the “laws” that caught my attention:

CHAP. VI. Of Trespasses.

. . .

4. If a man’s Oxe, or other beast, gore or bite and kill a man or a woman, whether Child or of riper age, the beast shall be killed, and no benefit of the dead beast reserved to the owner, but if the Oxe, or beast, were wont to push or bite in time past, and the owner hath beene tould of it, and hath not kept him in; then both the Oxe, or beast shall be forfeited and killed, and the owner also put to death, or fined to pay what the Judges and the persons damnified shall lay on him.

. . .

CHAP. VII., Of Crimes.

. . .

And first, of such as deserve capitall punishment, or cutting off from a mans people, whether by death or banishment.

3. Witchcraft, which is fellowship by covenant with a familiar Spirit, to be punished with death.

4. Consulters with Witches not to be tolerated, but either to be cut off by death or banishment.

16. Rebellious children, whether they continue in riot or drunkenness after due correction from their parents, or whether they curse or smite their Parents, to be put to death.

. . .

Given such draconian punishment, I wondered if these laws really were once on the books and decided to find out more about the publication.

The book was written by John Cotton, a Puritan leader, and first published in 1641.  Apparently, Cotton and other officials of the time were tasked with creating a “draft of laws.”  The Law Library’s copy is the first print edition of Cotton’s draft from 1641.

While Cotton’s draft was never adopted, much of its form and content influenced the development of a document called the Body of Liberties.

According to the Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance:

The Body of Liberties is a document originally published in 1641 containing 100 liberties intended for use as guidance for the General Court of the time. This document is considered by many as the precursor to the General Laws of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Constitution. It incorporates rights that were later judged to be ahead of their time, with some of these rights eventually appearing in the Bill of Rights. Scholars do not agree as to whether these liberties were ever adopted, adopted provisionally or approved of by the General Court (they would then have been “codified” and become law).

In addition to a copy of Cotton’s Abstract, the Law Library has copies of various reprints of the Body of Liberties, and an excellent historical collection of Massachusetts laws from the colonial period to the present.

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