It turned out that public shaming had once been a process. A book of Delaware laws I discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society revealed that if Jonah had been found guilty of “lying or publishing false news” in the 1800s, he would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes.” If the judge had chosen a whipping, local newspapers would have published a digest detailing the amount of squirming that had occurred. “Rash and Hayden squirmed considerably during the performance, and their backs were well-scarred,” wrote the Delawarean of an 1876 whipping. If Jonah’s whipper had been deemed to have not whipped hard enough, the reviews would have been scathing. “Suppressed remarks were expressed by large numbers. Many were heard to say that the punishment was a farce. Drunken fights and rows followed in rapid succession,” reported Delaware’s Wilmington Daily Commercial after a disappointing 1873 whipping.
The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail a transgressor through the city crowds. But according to the documents I found that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.
The movement against public shamings was already in full flow in March 1787 when Benjamin Rush, a United States founding father, wrote a paper calling for them to be outlawed – the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot:
ignominy [being] universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death. It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.
In case you consider Rush too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, it’s worth pointing out that his proposition for alternatives to public shaming included taking the criminal into a private room – away from the public gaze – and administering ‘bodily pain’.
To ascertain the nature, degrees, and duration of the bodily pain will require some knowledge of the principles of sensation and of the sympathies which occur in the nervous system.
– Benjamin Rush, ‘An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishments Upon Criminals and Upon Society’, 9 March 1787
Public punishments were abolished altogether within fifty years of Rush’s paper, with only Delaware weirdly holding out until 1952 (which is why the Delaware-located whipping critiques I excerpt above were published in the 1870s).
The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue them into change in an 1867 editorial:
If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.
– Quoted in Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post by Robert Graham Caldwell, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1947
As Jonah Lehrer stood in front of that giant-screen Twitter feed on 12 February 2013 he experienced something that had been widely considered appalling in the eighteenth century.