Theodore Dreiser visited Delaware in 1900 to write about the state’s whipping post.
When writer Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) came to Delaware in 1900 to write about the state’s whipping post, he didn’t describe it as “cruel” or “unprogressive,” as the Los Angeles Herald had a few years earlier. “Barbarism”? Cosmopolitan Magazine announced that verdict.
Dreiser was a naturalist, part of a literary movement less interested in emoting about what was felt than simply describing what was seen. Naturalists thought of themselves as scientists looking for evidence.
“(The whipping post) is a form of punishment so interesting in its historic aspect, that every school child is familiar with it,” Dreiser wrote in Ainslee’s Magazine, a literary periodical. “The staples in which the wrists are fastened, when the lash is to be applied; the perforated cross-beam, through which the hands are thrust, when public exposure is ordained. These are here as in the days when old John Winthrop ruled in Massachusetts, and Cotton Mather expounded the virtue of severity in dealing with human error.”
Not a critical word, yet we can see where this is going.
Born in Indiana, Dreiser was the ninth of 10 surviving children. His father was a frequently unemployed German immigrant whose rigid Catholicism contrasted starkly with the gentler, more compassionate outlook of his Mennonite wife.
“In later life Dreiser would bitterly associate religion with his father’s ineffectuality and the family’s resulting material deprivation,” wrote Dreiser biographer Lawrence E. Hussman. “But he always spoke and wrote of his mother with unswerving affection.”
Poverty, with simultaneous yearnings for wealth and success, would be dominant themes in Dreiser’s novels.
In his first 16 years, the Dreisers lived in five different towns. Consequently, his education was spotty, a special hardship for a bookish boy. Dreiser never finished high school and, at 16, left home for Chicago, where he washed dishes and worked in a hardware store. In 1889, he was rescued by a former teacher who recommended him for admission to Indiana University, though Dreiser had completed only one year of high school. The woman also paid his tuition for a year.
In 1892, Dreiser got a job as a reporter for the Chicago Globe. Over the next several years, he would write for a variety of newspapers and edit a woman’s magazine. But by the late 1890s, tired of the daily grind, he quit to freelance and write a novel. “Sister Carrie” was the tale of a young woman who became a movie star through random circumstance rather than actual achievement. Dreiser’s message—that neither success nor failure had any particular moral value—was shocking at the time. Dreiser also wrote about the issues of the day, which brought him to Delaware.
Dreiser’s method was simple. He looked at what people said and did, then listened to what they thought about it.
At New Castle, Dreiser saw a crowd of 200, mostly men and boys, watch prisoners lashed outside the courthouse on Delaware Street. “The spectators,” he wrote, “gaped with wide-eyed interest, winced unanimously at each separate lash, smiled sometimes at the contortions of the victim and laughed when his grimaces in torture seemed ludicrous.”
As each victim was fastened to the post, wrote Dreiser, discussion focused on his crime and how much he “deserved it.” Those who walked away without assistance were thought to have not suffered much, and certainly not deserved any further care.
“Of the mental scars, stretching red across the sensibilities and finer feelings, the spectators took no thought,” he wrote. “Of the influence which the contemplation of such a spectacle must have upon their own minds—not a thought.”
According to Dreiser, most of those who went to the post had committed petty larceny. Other crimes were also punishable by whipping, but were rare. So, the lash fell almost entirely on those guilty of theft, often of only a few dollars. Nor did the lash discriminate between those who had stolen $2 and those who had taken $30. Men sentenced to be whipped were also forever disenfranchised.
“Ninety percent of the cases so disposed of,” one sheriff told Dreiser, “are those involving Negroes. It is the only way we have of reaching them.” (According to Dreiser’s research, it was actually “only” 70 percent.) White men who were whipped often left the state in shame.
Dreiser asked an African-American witness what he thought of it all.
“I don’t think so very much of it, suh,” the man replied.
“Don’t you think it stops these people from doing the same thing over again,” pressed Dreiser.
“No, suh, not any mo’ than jail would,” he responded. “They is men here that has been whipped an’ whipped until they is so hard they don’t care no more foh it than foh a flea. It juss makes ’em wuss, I think.”
The whipping post did not lack for context. Delaware’s entire criminal justice system in 1900 was downright Colonial, Dreiser wrote. The state had no penitentiary. The New Castle County jail sufficed for all. Boys and old men and those serving 10-day sentences were housed with those who awaited execution. There was no prison labor, no reform schools.
“What do you think of whipping as a remedy for crime?” Dreiser asked the warden of the New Castle County jail.
“I think it is all wrong,” said the man.
“Because it degrades the man that does the whipping,” responded the warden, “and if it degrades him, I know it must have much the same effect upon those who see it.”
“Who does the whipping here?”
“I do,” the warden told Dreiser. He let the answer stand as authoritative.