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Shaming punishment

The stocks

Credit: ’Canadian Illustrated News, 17 June, 1876, vol. XIII, no. 25, 389Until the Confederation period, executions of felons were carried out by hanging, usually in view of the public at the county jail or court house. The law’s terror, based on the theory of deterrence, was tempered by discretion and mercy.

Trial juries exercised discretion to limit capital punishment, and the executive level of government (the governor prior to the 1850s, then the provincial premier and his cabinet until 1867, then the federal cabinet) exercised the prerogative of mercy by commuting death sentences to penitentiary sentences.


The justice system, at its lower levels, was staffed by amateurs. Justices of the peace were appointed in each county to try minor criminal offences and civil disputes. The magistrates, who tended to be educated men of property with political connections, also conducted preliminary examinations in serious cases such as homicide.

The JP was an amateur judge, guided only by common sense, experience and magistrates’ manuals. Magistrates also met periodically on the county level as the Sessions of the Peace, which, prior to the incorporation of county governments, supervised aspects of county administration. By the mid to late 19th century, justice was dispensed in towns and cities by full-time stipendiary or police magistrates.