HL_RP_1476-Branding Irons Whipping Posts-Brad H Ferguson Lawyer Blog
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Brad H. Ferguson

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense | Family Law | Personal Injury Lawyer

Branding Irons & Whipping Posts | North Carolina Punishment 1800s

Today’s Featured Image is a postcard created in 1880 by Arthur Livingston of Patton Ave in Asheville, NC. Special thank you to Western Carolina University Archives for their permission to use it.


Before North Carolina revised its constitution in 1868, two instruments used in punishment for breaking the law were branding irons and whipping posts. It sounds barbaric, and it was, but keep in mind this was a different time in Western North Carolina history.  Punishments handed down from the judicial system were carried out in public to be a lesson to others to prevent further crime. Even if you had a skilled defense attorney such as General Bayles Edney, whose client we will get to in a moment, it didn’t guarantee that these forms of reprimand were not used. 

Thankfully, we no longer use punishments as harsh as these in North Carolina today. By comprehending our predecessors’ more drastic disciplinary actions, we can glean the impact that crime left on those around them and gain insight into the evolution of current laws.

Let’s begin our Miscreants of North Carolina Series with a story from Burningtown. Burningtown is a small township located northwest of Franklin in Macon County.

Ham-Stealing Husband

A very popular columnist from the Asheville Citizen-Times, John Parris, once shared a story that his Grandfather had told him about a flogged man near Burningtown.

A husband and wife had a smokehouse full of hams, but the wife kept noticing that they were being stolen. Whenever she would bring up the issue to her husband, he would chalk it up to animals getting inside the smokehouse. Since she could not get him to take the issue seriously, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

The wife hid behind the smokehouse one day to see what would happen. It wasn’t long before she noticed her husband going into the smokehouse and carrying out a ham. Instead of confronting him, she decided to follow him as he went down the road.

Her husband then arrived at another woman’s house that the wife had long suspected he had been having an affair with. When he went inside with the ham, the wife quickly stole across the field to get the local Sheriff.

She had her husband arrested on the spot and told the Sheriff that she wanted him punished.

“And they did, too. Give him thirty-nine lashes on his bareback. That was the proper number. Couldn’t give him no more. That was the law.” Parris’ Grandfather recounted.

Indeed a harsh punishment for stealing a ham and taking it to your forbidden lover, but smoked hands were significant during that time. Smoked meat is what kept families alive during the winter months, so stealing a ham could be the difference between survival and starvation.

A Lawyer’s Failed Attempt

Manslaughter is a serious offense that involves someone else’s death, whether intentional or not at the time, but it is not premeditated. Today, the penalties can be classified from a misdemeanor to aggravated felony and carry prison punishment. However, in a case witnessed by the late Dr. J.S.T. Baird of Asheville in 1855, he saw firsthand the sentence that a backwoodsman received: branding.

During the 1800s, if you were convicted of manslaughter, your sentence would be to be branded on your right palm with the letter “M” for the length of time it would take you to repeat “God Save the State” three times.

The client’s lawyer was General Bayles Edney, who had a reputation for never getting flustered and was also an eloquent speaker. However, even though he was an experienced defense attorney, he was unable to free his client.

Branding was conducted in the courtroom, and when the prisoner was brought in to receive his punishment, he was shaking. They strapped his arm to the rail of a bar, and knowing that his client had a speech impediment, General Edney requested permission to assist his client one last time.

“This man, your honor, is in no condition to do himself justice, as you can well see,” General Edney pleaded. “Please permit me to talk for him when the time comes.”

A speech impediment would make it even more difficult for the prisoner to repeat the phrase required three times, thus prolonging his palm’s branding, so the judge agreed. 

Sheriff Tate went across the street to a tinner’s shop and brought back a small hand stove and live coals to heat the branding iron. When it was glowing red, he let the judge know that he was ready. The judge asked General Edney if he was ready, and he stated that he was.

When the judge nodded to Sheriff Tate to go ahead, the man who was condemned began to shriek and scream when the iron touched his right palm. The wailing of the backwoodsmen rattled General Edney so much that even though he was known as a fast talker, he could not get any word out but, “God…God…God.”

His words were stuck in his throat, and he could not say them, so finally, he ran across the room and knocked the branding iron off of his client’s hands, and told the courtroom his client had been burned enough.

The presiding judge told them to release the prisoner, but he was shaking his head. I’m sure what he thought was that this lawyer had failed his client twice.

Needless to say, but neither punishment of whipping or branding would be something anyone would want to experience. Crime was taken seriously then as it is today, but I believe we can all be thankful that we did not live during the 1800s in North Carolina. I know I am grateful that my clients do not face these penalties.

If you would like to read these stories in more detail, they were sourced from John Parris’ 1967 collection titled “Mountain Bred.”

Brad H. Ferguson | Criminal Defense Attorney

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