Punishment Prior to 1868

TThe punishment for law breakers was much different in NC prior to 1868. WNC had few jails, and the whipping post and branding iron were the common forms of punishment. A man could lose an ear for lying under oath and both ears for malicious maiming. Some crimes were punished by being tied to the whipping post and flogged. Large crowds would show up to witness.

One man was arrested and flogged because his wife brought him up on charges. She had been complaining because someone kept stealing hams from the family’s smokehouse. One day, she hid and watched for the ham thief. She saw her husband come out of the house. He looked around to see if his wife was around, and then went into the smokehouse. He left with a ham and started down the road. His wife followed, staying out of sight. He went straight to the house of another woman she thought he had been cheating on her with.

The wife went to the sheriff’s office and got the sheriff to arrest her husband. As punishment, the husband had to take off his shirt and receive 39 lashes with a whip. It was the number of lashes required by law.

The punishment for manslaughter at that time was branding. The sheriff had a branding iron with the letter “M” shaped on the tip of the iron. After heating the end of the iron in a fire, he would then place it in the palm of the offender’s hand and hold it there for as long as it took the man to say “God save the state.”

Dr. J. S. T. Baird witnessed a branding in Asheville in 1855. A man was convicted of manslaughter and ordered to be branded. General Bayles Edney was the man’s attorney. Even though Edney was an eloquent speaker, he failed to keep the man from being found guilty.

The man was literally shaking in his boots when they strapped his right arm to the rail of the bar. Sheriff David Tate went across the street and got a little hand stove filled with live coals. He took the branding iron and stuck it in the hot coals until it turned white from the heat. The sheriff took the hot iron from the coals and moved toward the prisoner, who was trembling and dripping with perspiration. Sheriff Tate pressed the white-hot iron into the man’s hand. He shrieked with pain, so much so that he could not say “God save the state.”

General Edney went over and knocked the iron out of the sheriff’s hand. He told the sheriff that he had burned him enough. The judge agreed and ordered the prisoner to be released.

Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview-area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or
828-771-6983 (call/text).

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