DELAWARE DIARY – Whipping of prisoners was family affair
By Michael Morgan, April 13, 2011

For many southern Delaware families, it was an event that was not to be missed; and on a cold winter morning, residents from across Sussex County swarmed into Georgetown. On Feb. 19, 1932, the Delaware Coast News reported, "More than two thousand people, men, women, and children, some of the women with babies in their arms, stood crowded about the wire enclosure surrounding the new Sussex County a chilly February wind, waiting from 10 o'clock until 1:30 to see 5 prisoners whipped."

When English colonists arrived in southern Delaware during the 17th century, they brought with them an attitude toward criminals that had its roots in the dark corners of the Middle Ages. After the colonists built a courthouse, they set up a whipping post and began flogging law-breakers into model citizens. When John Johnson sang a, "scurrilous, disgraceful song" that Samuel Gray found objectionable, the Sussex County court ordered that Johnson be fined, "five hundred pounds of tobacco or whipped twenty-one lashes on the naked back."

It is not known whether Johnson paid the fine or suffered the flogging; but such physical punishments were common in colonial Sussex County. At that time, jails were temporary holding places for those awaiting trials. Instead of incarceration, criminals were sentenced to a variety of corporal penalties that included whipping, branding, lopping off the ears, and in the most severe cases, they could be drawn and quartered, meaning each leg and arm would be attached to horses who would pull in four directions.

After the American Revolution, the county courthouse was moved to Georgetown, and a new whipping post and a set of stocks were built so that sentences could be carried out swiftly. Although most states abandoned corporal punishment of criminals, the whipping post remained an entrenched feature of the Delaware legal system.

In the years following the Civil War, some Delaware residents began to question the wisdom of flogging criminals. April 21, 1869, the New York Times, quoting a Wilmington newspaper, reported: "The semi-annual barbarities in this state commenced mildly this year, with the flogging of a single colored man, named Joseph Godfrey, at Georgetown, today, he having been convicted of petty larceny at the present term of Court in Sussex County. He receives twenty lashes, is to be imprisoned for six months and wear a convict's jacket six months thereafter. The disgusting exhibition will probably be repeated on a larger scale at Georgetown next Saturday, and then it will work its way up through Kent to New Castle, where in May, more backs will shrink beneath the cruel lash, to the destruction of manhood and the shame of the state."

Four years later, the Times published a longer examination of the use of the whipping post: "Corporal punishment is an important feature of the Delaware penal code. For instance, whipping is a part of the punishment of all minor degrees of murder, and for burglary, mayhem, violent assault, kidnapping, highway robbery, attempted poisoning, arson, larceny, counterfeiting, and other felonies and misdemeanors." The number of lashes administered ranged from 20 to 60; and, in general, the whipped person also had to spend an hour in the pillory. Forgery, perjury, fortune-telling, conspiracy, and other offenses were punishable only by a stay in the pillory.

By the beginning of the 20th century, support for the whipping post began to wane, and floggings became rare. In 1932, when the five men were whipped at Georgetown, it was an event so rare that families braved the cold wind and weather to witness what may have been the last flogging in Sussex County. The last flogging in Delaware occurred in 1952; and the practice that had crowds of families including babies in arms was formally abandoned 20 years later.

Michael Morgan taught high school history for 32 years and holds a master's degree in history from Morgan State University. He may be reached at


  1. Delaware Coast News, Feb. 19, 1932.
  2. New York Times, April 21, 1869, and Dec. 11, 1873.
  3. Craig Horle, ed., Records of the Sussex County Delaware, 1677-1710, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, Vol. 1, p. 88.

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