In the late 1700s, Congress passed the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, dealing with “cruel and unusual punishment.” Over the years, numerous lawsuits have been filed about just what violates that mandate, such as the death penalty and corporal punishment in schools, both of which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled did not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition.
I had never given much thought to the concept of cruel and unusual punishment until a recent conversation with a friend about one of her ancestors, a most unusual early Allen County resident named Rowdy Richardson. When I heard about him, I was so intrigued by one of his occupations and its possible link to the Eighth Amendment that I decided to do a little research on him.
William Byrd “Rowdy” Richardson was born in Virginia on Sept. 20, 1765, and died in Paulding County, Ohio, on Nov. 14, 1873. He had a most interesting and unusual life, right up to the circumstances of his death, which we will save for later.
At age 17, he fought skirmishes in the Revolutionary War and later served with Gen. William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. He was a first cousin to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and they were said to have spent some time together during the Revolutionary War.
He fought with renegade Native Americans in Pennsylvania and Ohio and lived for a while in Miami County, Ohio. He moved to the wilderness of Allen County in 1831, living in a portion of it which later was split off to become part of Auglaize County. He was said to drink a little whiskey, preach the gospel on Sundays at some neighbor’s cabin, enrapturing his listeners with a fiery hour-long sermon, then end the Sabbath with a bloody fight, which he always won. He was such a fighter that eventually no one could beat him, and everyone was scared to offend him.
One of the things our friend told me was that Rowdy had at one time been Wapakoneta’s “town flogger.” I knew that flogging, or being hit repeatedly with a whip or stick, was used as punishment in Colonial America. I had no idea that flogging persisted until well after the Constitution was passed.
According to the “Find a Grave” website, “Due to his great physical strength and fearlessness, Richardson was pressed into service by law-abiding settlers to do the public flogging at Wapakoneta for offenses against the community. Offenders were given a certain number of lashes across the bare back with a long whip, depending on the nature of the offense. Sometimes blood would flow freely, and the offender would beg for mercy.”
I also found a mention of Richardson having been employed as the flogger for “Marietta Prison.” I had studied some of southern Ohio’s early history, partly because I had a great-grandfather who was an Indian trader at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio rivers as early as 1747, but I had never heard of Marietta Prison. I researched a little more and learned that it was a name for the Washington County jail, the first jail in Ohio. I also learned that prior to statehood, Marietta, the first white settlement in Ohio, finished the jail in 1799 to house people who broke the “laws” of the Northwest Territory. Those laws were written by Territorial Gov. Arthur St. Clair and two judges and published in 1788. Punishments included whipping, stocks and pillories, binding one over to service, fines and forfeiture of life and property.
So apparently Rowdy Richardson really was a person who held the occupation of flogger, an act which today would most likely be called cruel and unusual punishment because it invariably resulted in bloodletting.
Rowdy lived in Paulding County for the last years of his life. He had married at least five wives — some accounts say seven, including a native princess — and his death was as interesting as his life. He was killed while trying to break a horse, when it bucked him off its back. The interesting part is that Rowdy was 108 years old when it happened. He is buried in Fought Cemetery in Mandale, Ohio.
Don Stratton is a retired inspector for the Lima Police Department. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.