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New Hampshire’s bad boys (and girls)

You can tell an awful lot about people and what they were thinking — what they believed, what they aspired to — by reading the laws of the time.

That’s the one thing The Legal Genealogist really hopes every genealogist eventually comes to understand: that we read the laws not just to get the answers to specific genealogical questions about our families, but to get the flavor of the places where and the times when our families lived.

And there can’t be a better example of that than a particular New Hampshire statute, passed in February 1791, that I came across last night while getting ready for Saturday’s Spring Seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists in Manchester. (There may still be a slot or two — you can email president@nhsog.org to see if NHSG can hold a space for you!)

NH3It’s entitled “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” and it was passed 15 February 1791.1

Now the statute has a lot of sections about authorizing the towns to build “a workhouse, in which to set their poor to work,”2 and the maintenance of paupers at town expense,3 and apprenticing poor children.4

But the real story here is the identification of the bad boys (and girls) under the law. The classes and categories of “rogues” and “vagabonds” that industrious New Hampshire did not want loitering about its streets. For the law allowed the towns to build houses of correction for the keeping and correction of these non-contributors to 18th century society.5

And who were these folks, these bad boys (and girls) of 1791? Well, they included:

any rogue, vagabond, lewd, idle or disorderly persons, persons going about begging, or persons using any subtle craft, juggling or unlawful games, or plays, or persons pretending to have knowledge in physiognomy or palmistry, or persons pretending that they can tell destinies or fortunes, or discover by any spells, or magic art, where lost or stolen goods may be found, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn servants or children, common drunkards, common night walkers, pilferers, persons wanton and lascivious in speech, conduct or behavior, common railers or brawlers, such as neglect their calling or employment, mispend what they earn, and such as do not provide for themselves or the support of their families…6

Now think about that… and think about what that tells you about those farmers and artisans of the late 1700s. Think about the mindset it reflects — the attitudes and work ethic it incorporates.

And whether our particular family was among those farmers and artisans — or we descend from one of the vagabonds or rogues of the day — this reflection of the time in the laws of the time is part of our family history.


SOURCES

  1. “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” in Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., for the State, 1805), 298; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 11 May 2016).
  2. Ibid., at 298.
  3. Ibid., at 299.
  4. Ibid., at 300.
  5. Ibid., at 299.
  6. Ibid.
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