Law Enforcement



Profanity and Drunkenness Punished by Law
Tithingmen and their DutiesMinor OfficersEnglish Right.


At the time of the incorporation of Bedford, profanity and drunkenness had become flagrant crimes in the Province, and occasioned special legislation. In 1734 the following act was passed by the General Court:

“Whoever shall be convicted of prophane swearing or cursing shall, for the first offence, forfeit and pay the sum of ten shillings; and for every such oath or curse after the first, uttered at the same time and in the hearing of the same person or persons, the sum of two shillings, and for a second offence the fine was ten shillings.”

The fine for drunkenness was ten shillings for the first offence, and twice that for a repetition. In order that the law should be enforced, tithingmen were annually chosen as town officers. Their general duty appears to have been to promote the Divine honor and the spiritual welfare of the people, by encouraging family worship and discipline, and checking profanity, Sabbath-breaking, idleness, intemperance and kindred immoralities. The official title, “Tithingmen, or tenth men,” originated from their having a tithing, or a company of ten families, each to oversee, including their own. Two such officers only were chosen at the first town-meeting, and as subsequent records furnish no evidence of an increase in number, it may be inferred that the people were disposed to obey the laws here better than in some places.

The most respectable voters of the town, often the deacons of the church, were elected to this office and sworn to the faithful discharge of the duties. [^1] They were required by law to make complaint to

the magistrate of what they saw amiss in any one under their inspection. Long poles or staffs were furnished as instruments of authority, and especially used in the meeting-house during public worship. In the expenses for 1742, Oliver Pollard has a charge of

“4 shillings for tithing men’s staves.”

The faithfulness of the officers appears in a record of 1704, in which Stephen Davis, treasurer, gives credit for

“4 shillings for a fine for a prophane oath.”

It was the balance after deducting the cost of the prosecution. Tithingmen were annually chosen by the town until 1848, but their duties had long before fallen to other officers. In March, 1822, Deacon Michael Crosby, Zebedee Simonds, James Webber and Elijah Stearns, Esq., were chosen as tithingmen and sworn to the faithful discharge of the trust. They were instructed to keep such order on Lord’s day in the meeting-house and the Centre School-house as they may think proper. By virtue of a law of the Province of 1739–40, deer-reeves were annually chosen with the other officers of the town. [*1] The record of December 17, 1739, has the following:

Voted, “that violation of the act relating to killing of Dear in the province be legally prosecuted. Major John Lane and Mr. Thomas Woolley be for that service sworn to the faithful discharge of the trust.”

Hog-reeves were chosen at the first election of officers in the town, and annually thereafter. As the town voted that the swine should go at large, according to the restrictions of the law, the duty of the hog-reef was to see that the animals were properly yoked from April to October. The remaining months they were allowed to go free and untrammeled.

“The English Right,” an annuity from estates in the mother country, was of great assistance to some of the early families. The Lanes and Pages were the beneficiaries for several generations. It originated in New England with Job Lane (before mentioned) and came to the Page family, through the marriage of a granddaughter with Nathaniel Page, the second of the name in this country, who was born in England and came a youth with his father, Nathaniel, to Boston in 1682, and to Bedford (then Billerica) in 1687. A fragmentary correspondence, consisting of scores of letters and bills, dating from 1651, between the custodians of the English estates and Job Lane, is among the interesting papers treasured in Bedford. [*2] The annual remittance was sometimes made in merchandise according to the requests of the owners, as appears from items preserved.

“May 2, 1721, St. Stephen writes alone: Sende 6 large quarto bibles,”

one of which is now owned by Miss Sarah Chandler, of Lexington. It contains the Page family record. A letter dated

“London Mar. 20, 1754, to Job & John Lane,”

expresses regret that

“the Bibles did not suit.”

“July 20, 1748, Zach. Bourryan sends Mathew Henry‘s Exposition on ye Bible 5 and vols.”

Dress fabrics were often ordered and received, and two of

[ p 44 ]

the ladies of Bedford appeared on important occasions attired in the “English Gowns.” The arrival of the large leather-covered trunks were occasions of much interest to the several families. It is evident that the town did not fail to exact a tax on the income, as appears from the records of 1744:

Voted “not to abate the Rates that the Lanes and Pages — gentlemen — were assest for their income from England.”

During the Revolution the income was not received and the privations of that period were felt more severely by those families than by others that had depended upon their own energies entirely; but after peace was restored with England the full amount came in one remittance. The English law of primogeniture was not transferred to this country. New England adopted the older rule of the common law, by which all the children shared alike in their parents’ estate, except in Massachusetts, where the oldest son had a double portion. The legal claimants of the Lane income at length became very numerous, and the just division very difficult; hence the claims were sold in the early part of the present century.

Job Lane died in Malden, August 24, 1697, and his estate was inventoried at £2036 11s., the larger portion of which was in New England.

Other families received aid from England in the early years of the town’s history, as appears from the following:

“Feb. 23, 1750, Widow French’s rates abated for income at England.”

The following is a copy of the goods ordered by one of the heirs of the Lane estate:

“Bedford, September the 16, 1785.

Mr. Lane, this is to Inform you what Articles I am desirous to send to England for.

Art. Frst.  one Pice of Chents for one gound, Very Dark. [*3]
Art. 2d.  one Pice of Sattain for one Cloak.
Art. 3d.  One half Pice of Base.
Art. 4th.  one yard & three-quarters of Scarlet Brad Cloth.
Art. 5th.  one Silk Handkerchief.
Art. 6th.  The Rest in fine Linnen.

In So Doing you will oblige,

Chryt Page.” [*4]



  1. [[ paragraph break removed ]]


  1. “deer-reeves”: game wardens (of deer)
  2. “scores of”: (many) dozens of
  3. “gound”: [ evidently ] gown
  4. “Chryt”: [ perhaps ] an error (on Brown’s part) for “Christ”
Create your website with
Get started
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close