THOU SHALL NOT SWIM ON SUNDAY (April 22/08)

In 1786, Kings County constable Samuel Witter lodged two charges “against individuals” for breach of the Sabbath. One of the charges involved “several apprentice boys swimming in the river.” The other charge Witter lodged was against three men who were seen carrying scythes on Sunday.

In 1787, one David B—— of Kings County was indicted by a jury and found guilty of “profane swearing.” Apparently David committed his offence in public. He was fined two shillings.

Obviously it was against the law to swim on Sunday in Kings County in the late 18th century. It also was an offence to mow hay on Sunday; you could even be charged for carrying work tools on Sunday even if you had no intentions to use them. You couldn’t swear in public either, Sunday or otherwise.

Looking at how liberal the laws are today – or how liberally they’re interpreted – and realizing they were once rigorous and strict to the point of being ridiculous is difficult to comprehend. Your mind kind of boggles when you read that swimming or simply carrying farm tools on Sunday was a crime in the eyes of the law.

This was the case, however. It seems that in some instances, the Planter settlers of Kings County were puritanical to the extreme, and their laws were strict and unforgiving. There’s a document in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia (PANS) for example, indicating how harshly lawbreakers could be treated. Dated 1784, the document is an invoice and itemized account on the cost of apprehending and keeping prisoners in the Kings County jail. In the list of items in the invoice are “irons,” a “pilory and a catt,” (sic) and the cost of hiring a “man to whip a criminal.” The “catt” must refer to a cat-o’-nine-tails which a man hired to “whip a criminal” would necessarily require.

A similar document, dated 1800, contains Grand Jury actions dealing with matters such as enforcing the laws against horse racing and with the construction of stocks and whipping posts. Beware, ye who would race horses or break the Sabbath, in other words.

The documents on Constable Witter’s charges and the trial of David B—— can be found in PANS as well. There’s a bibliography of hundreds of similar documents in PANS, dating between 1759 and 1800, in the book New England Planters in the Maritime Provinces. As mentioned in a previous column, the book can be found in the reference section of the Vaughan Memorial Library at Acadia. The contents of the documents listed in the book are summed of in one and two brief sentences and you can get the gist of what they contain at a glance. To read the entire document would require a visit to the Public Archives in Halifax.

As well as the documents that I’ve mentioned regarding laws, I found numerous references in the book about Kings County jails, and early Cornwallis river bridges and ferries. These documents will be discussed in a later column.

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