The eighteenth spindle incorporated into Henry Sheldon’s relic chair is a red cedar part originating from a public whipping-post in Benson, Vermont.(1) Donated by Hon. E. L. Barbour, this piece of the Benson Whipping-Post was accepted and later incorporated by Sheldon because of the historical prominence of both the post and Egbert Benson himself.(2)
Prior to the mid-20th century, public whipping-posts were considered to be an essential adjunct of the criminal justice system with the purpose of executing judicial punishment.(3) By contemporary standards, corporal punishments of this kind are deemed to be rather severe. Particularly harsh sentencing was habitually carried out in Rutland County, Vermont, where the town of Benson is located. In 1808, a man was convicted in Rutland of distributing counterfeit money.(4) A severe white-collar crime that targeted the sanctity of working local capitalism, this crime, however, was nonaggressive. The nonviolent crime received a sentencing of an hour in the pillory, thirty-nine lashes at the whipping-post by a cat-o-nine-tails whip, $500 fine in addition to the prosecution fees, and seven years of hard labor in state prison.(5) The whipping was seen by then Rutland resident Amasa Pooler, who described there to be over a hundred carriages in attendance. Local residents flocked to observe the convicted criminal be stripped, lathered in rum and beaten despite the bitter cold and deep snow.(6) The event went further than a public display of justice. It was entertainment.
Whipping-posts were an essential part of public life in the 19th century. They were not merely a place of restitution, but also a landmark for governmental addresses, administration of warrants and local news.(7) While the Benson Whipping-Post did indeed serve the same purpose as neighboring whipping-posts in fulfilling these societal roles, it was incorporated into Sheldon’s relic chair specifically because of its historical connection to founding father Egbert Benson.
Born in New York City on June 21, 1746, renowned patriot Egbert Benson was a decorated Revolutionary War officer and law practitioner who played an instrumental role in the formation of the United States of America.(8) Benson, the third of four sons, grew up in a respected Dutch family.(9) His father, a brewer, and mother, a homemaker, lived respected middle-class lives and provided Benson a foundation for both academic and societal success.(10) Egbert Benson graduated fromKings College, New York, from now known as Columbia University, in 1765 with a law degree.(11) In 1769, he proceeded to pass the bar with relative ease and moved roughly one hundred miles north to find work in Red Hook, New York.(12)
Not long after Benson left New York City, the Revolutionary War broke out and Benson’s focus shifted from his progression as a lawyer to his advancement as an abolitionist.(13) He led the earliest meetings of organized resistance in Dutchess County and became a figurehead of progressive enlightenment as he rallied citizens to join in the revolutionary movement.(14) As his public notoriety expanded, he cemented his influential role in public office. He was appointed first attorney-general of New York by ordinance of the May 8, 1777 convention and held this position until his resignation in 1787.(15) He drafted the vast majority of bills passed by the assembly during the war and he quickly became considered a man of insurmountable aptitude.(16) Later, he played a vital role in the adoption of the constitution, and in 1789 he was elected as one of the six representatives from New York to the first congress.(17) In 1794, he was appointed as a New York supreme court judge where he excelled until his resignation in 1801.(18) At this time he was appointed to chief judge in the second circuit, but never ended up taking office and subsequently retired. Following his departure from political office, he moved to Jamaica, Queens and resided there until his death on August 24, 1833.(19)
The Benson Whipping-Post, in itself, is of minimal historical significance. It is not a site of a specific historical sentencing. It is not a historical landmark. And it is not a distinctive characteristic of Benson, Vermont. It is, however, a historical representation. The Benson Whipping-Post is a physical manifestation of how the material world reflects the historical past.(20)Therefore, through a piece of red cedar from a seemingly conventional whipping-post, Henry Sheldon accurately conveyed the complicated histories of corporal punishment and law and order, while concurrently illustrating the impact of those associated with the post itself.