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Faculty of Arts
UNB Saint John

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Criminal law

Terror and mercy

New Brunswick inherited the English common law, and developed its own statute and case law after receiving a legislature and courts in the 1780s. Much of the legal system was dedicated to protecting private property, hence the often severe penalties for crimes such as robbery, burglary and counterfeiting.

Research on the subject is limited, but based on practices in other British North American colonies, guilty individuals could be hanged for property offences as late as the early 1800s. In 1789 two men were hanged for burglary in Saint John. Four years later, eighteen-year old John Burgen, the ’boy burglar,’ was hanged from a jail window by a fellow prisoner.

The use of capital punishment in response to property offences was tempered somewhat by benefit of clergy, a plea originally limited to the literate minority, who could escape the gallows in return for being branded on the hand as a felon.

Other punishments included branding felons and whipping persons who had committed misdemeanors or minor offences, or subjecting them to humiliating punishments such as the public stocks or pillory. In the aftermath of rioting among loggers and raftsmen along the Miramichi river in 1822, a number of prisoners received fifty lashes or were placed in the pillory.

During the second third of the century, corporal and humiliation punishments were replaced by fines and imprisonment. This was a period in which servants and children were whipped by masters and parents, and when residents of county or municipal Poor Houses also were subjected to corporal punishment.