Once upon a time, in seventeenth-century Boston, the Puritans executed an eight-year-old girl. Her crime wasn’t witchcraft, as you might expect. No- she had killed a classmate, by hitting the other girl in the head with a stone.

From what we can tell this girl was mentally ill. She suffered physical and emotional abuse at her family’s hands. In all likelihood she had no intention of killing her classmate. And she was only eight years old. Obviously, she was not the type of person we as a society would execute today.

These long-dead Bostonians, however, saw capital punishment as a deterrent. They weren’t hanging this girl to remove her from society or because it fit her crime; they were hanging her so others would fear the consequences of that crime. To that end they made a drama of it. The whole town gathered for the hanging, as they did for all such events. They lined up her classmates in front of the scaffolding, so the other children would learn from her example. A preacher gave a stirring sermon on sin and wasted youth, while enterprising folk hawked snacks and pamphlets containing transcripts of some of that preacher’s previous speeches- like a “Best of” album, but for hellfire and brimstone.

The girl herself gave a final statement, entreating all the other children to avoid her wicked, wicked ways, and thus dodge her tragic fate.

They hanged her to terrify children. They must have succeeded: what’s more terrifying than knowing that your elders, whom you’ve been taught to respect and obey, will kill you without a moment’s hesitation, if they believe you’ve transgressed?

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