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Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post

I ordered a copy of Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post by Robert Graham Caldwell, published in 1947, when I learned that there was a movement afoot to remove the historic whipping post in Georgetown due to its alleged racist symbolism. Unfortunately, two-day shipping wasn’t fast enough to beat the mad dash to topple any Delaware monument with an alleged connection to racism, and the book arrived after the post had already been removed. On the day of its removal, nearly every newspaper in the country ran a gushing story about how Delaware was finally removing this relic of oppression. Reportedly, a crowd gathered and cheered.

I was surprised by the haste with which the state acted, and vaguely skeptical of the argument that there was something inherently racist about the presence of the whipping post as an educational display. This was more of a gut feeling than an informed opinion on my part. I’d never heard anyone complain about the post before. Surely it had been used to punish whites and blacks alike. But I didn’t have any facts at my disposal, so I bit my tongue and hoped that I’d find answers in the book.

Red Hannah is an unapologetically biased and opinionated book aimed at the abolition of public whipping as a form of punishment in Delaware, which was still legal (but rare) when it was written. The preface offers this radical suggestion: “What is needed is not the replacement of whipping with some other method of punishment, but the elimination of all methods of punishment not only in Delaware but everywhere in the United States, and the introduction of a system of scientific treatment…” So Caldwell makes it very clear from the start that he is opposed to punishing criminals, and considers whipping to be an especially barbaric punishment.

The book is well-researched and includes extensive endnotes. Caldwell begins by tracing the history of whipping in Delaware from the Dutch and Swedish settlements through the English colonial era. During this period, corporal punishment was common, and imprisonment was rare. Criminals convicted of a variety of offenses could expect to be pilloried and/or whipped in a public setting. The humiliation of being ridiculed by an audience was intended to be part of the punishment. In the nineteenth century, imprisonment became common, but Delaware continued to use the whipping post and the pillory, even as other states outlawed them. Caldwell and many of his sources repeatedly condemn whipping as brutal, barbaric, and ineffective. The other side argued that the punishment deterred crime.

This portion of the book, covering the 17th through 19th centuries, does not focus on race. Whipping was a punishment for specific crimes, and whites and blacks who were convicted of these crimes were whipped. In fact, the book lists two groups of men who were whipped in New Castle County in the late 19th century, and most of them were white. Although Caldwell provides many examples of criticism of the practice, the criticism is based on the supposed cruelty of the punishment. The historical illustrations in the book also depict both white and black criminals going under the lash. It seems to me that, in general and probably with some exceptions, whipping as a punishment was not deliberately aimed at black Delawareans during this period.

Delaware finally abolished the pillory in 1905, but clung to the whipping post despite continuing controversy. It is at this point that Caldwell is able to offer and analyze detailed statistics about the use of the whipping post in the 20th century. From 1900 to 1942, more than 7,000 prisoners were convicted of crimes punishable by whipping (and the racial breakdown was about half and half), but only 22% of them were whipped. Of this minority, 66% were black. From 1940 to 1942, 80% of the prisoners who were whipped (36 out of a total of 45) were black. These are the statistics that have been used in modern times to support the argument that the whipping post was employed in a discriminatory fashion against blacks. This seems like a reasonable conclusion on the surface; racist white judges were more likely to order black convicts to be whipped, right? However, Caldwell offers a different explanation, citing New Castle County statistics which indicate that repeat offenders were more likely to be whipped, and there was a higher percentage of black repeat offenders. So, despite Caldwell’s fierce opposition to whipping, he concludes that the court of the 1940s did not directly discriminate against blacks in ordering whippings, while admitting that other social factors, including discrimination, probably caused black criminals to become repeat offenders and therefore be more likely to be whipped.

By 1942, fewer than 7% of criminals convicted of a crime punishable by whipping actually got whipped. So the vast majority of black convicts were not whipped, a fact which challenges the portrayal of the whipping post as a tool of racism.

It is important to note that during this period, all of the crimes punishable by whipping also carried a prison sentence. So, whether a criminal was whipped or not, he still went to prison. In my opinion, this is where Caldwell’s argument (as well as that of modern critics of the whipping post) falls apart: A whipping consisting of ten to twenty lashes, or rarely more, and lasting for only a few minutes, is considered to be cruel and unusual, but throwing the same criminal into prison for years of his life is not. I completely disagree. Personally, I think whipping is the lesser of the two punishments, by far. Even if Delaware judges were deliberately singling out black convicts for whippings during the first half of the 20th century, which is possible, the brief but painful whipping was a relatively minor add-on to a lengthy and life-shattering prison sentence, which was the true punishment.

Caldwell doubles down on his radical opposition to criminal punishment in the last chapter of the book, urging the adoption of experimental methods of “scientific treatment” of criminals which he does not explain. In the 1940s, this probably seemed like a progressive, enlightened position, full of promise. From my perspective in 2020, when the U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, beating even communist China, it seems arrogantly naïve.

Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post is an important slice of Delaware history, but it is primarily a work of opinion; its historical documentation serves to support the author’s opinion, and is secondary in importance. The central point of the book, written in 1947, is that Delaware should stop whipping prisoners. The author’s dream became reality in a couple of decades; the last whipping was carried out in the 1960s, and the practice was officially abolished in 1972. Therefore, much of the book feels obsolete from today’s perspective, but the historical sections are well-researched, and, overall, the book is a useful addition to our knowledge of Delaware history and a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

– Chris Slavens

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