by Patrick Wohlscheid
Looking through the Library of Congress Digital Archives for items related to poetry and early American religious culture, I found a printed broadside entitled “The Wages of Sin; or, Robbery justly Rewarded: a Poem Occasioned by the untimely Death of Richard Wilson, Who was Executed on Boston Neck, for Burglary, on Thursday the 19th of October, 1732.” This page caught my eye not only because it was a poem occasioned for such a specific public event, and an execution no less, but that it is also fairly compact and visually striking. The poem and its illustration, a square printed woodcut depicting a man hanging, with his executioner and judge even larger in the foreground, are not hidden in a volume of other poetry and prose works, nor are they part of a larger everyday text like a newspaper, but is its own self-contained piece of printed ephemera that combines the religious, political, and literary. Under the illustration and title, the poem is divided into two columns, and at the bottom reads “Boston: Printed and Sold at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill,” which I found was a rather popular publisher in the mid to late 18th century. The printed script is easy to read, despite the typical typographical feature of “s” appearing more like a modern “f.” The condition of the page looks quite good for its age, with a minimal amount of smudging and discoloration.
The poem itself consists of 19 rhyming quatrains, and chronicles the specific crime of Richard Wilson—marking a home as a target in the daytime and robbing it at night—and more broadly details the social and religious implications of crime and sin. Against the backdrop of the Great Awakening and the lingering influences of Puritanism in New England, we receive lines like “No human pardon can he get, / by intercession made; / but flee he must unto the Pit, / and by no Man be stay’d” and “there is no Places sure, / where Workers of Iniquity / can hide themselves secure.” Though the speaker of the poem does say that hopefully Wilson may receive a pardon because he grieves his sins and bemoans a life lived immorally, it is more a public lesson for other thieves and sinners before it is too late, like it essentially is for Richard Wilson. This poem, referencing the Bible verse that the wage of sin is death, and that this death is a just reward for robbery, combines Calvinist doctrine and religious fervor with the power of the carceral state to enact punishment on its citizens.
Overall, I think that this text from the archives provides us with a lot of interesting questions about the connections between the state and religion in 18th century America, especially in thinking about the way that the public sphere is a space to display punishment not only for illegality, but immorality, and that poetry is utilized not for its aesthetic value, but as moral/behavioral education and correction. Compared to contemporary times as well, it seems that the American carceral state is often just as harsh in its judgment and punishment, but is able to act “depoliticized” due to the abstracting away from specific moral or religious principles, which seems often just as oppressive in different ways.