Robert Coles – skeletons in the colonial closet

drunkards cloak

One of the founding fathers of the United States was an ancestor on my mother’s family tree, named Robert Coles. He connects to my maternal ancestors of Western Pennsylvania through his daughter Ann, who married into the Townsend family of Long Island.

Robert came to the American colonies with the “Winthrop Fleet” of ships that transported about 1000 Puritans from England in the late 1620s. He was one of the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Commonwealth, being granted freeman status by their General Court held in 1630, presided over by Governor John Winthrop. Coles was later one of twelve original landowners who settled with Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1630s, when Williams bought wilderness land from the Naragansett Indians.

With this impressive history as an American founding father, it’s surprising when a little more research reveals Robert Coles’ history of prosecutions for public drunkenness. In 1633, while residing in Boston, early court records show that Robert Coles was

“…fyned ten shillings and enjoyned to stand with a white sheet of paper on his back whereon Drunkard shalbe written in great lres & to stand therewith soe longe as the Court finde meete, for abuseing himself shamefully with drinke.”

After several monetary fines for drunkenness, Robert had apparently not mended his ways, because a year later he was again brought before the court and sentenced with a sterner punishment:

“…about his necke, & soe to hange vpon his outwd garment a D. made of redd cloth & sett vpon white; to continyu this for a yeare, and not to have itt off any time hee comes among company…”

Luckily for Coles, this sentence was reversed after about two months, so he no longer had to wear his scarlet letter “D” when he went out in public. Even more fortunately for him, he doesn’t seem to have been subjected to another Puritan penalty for drinking, the “Drunkard’s Cloak”. This humiliating and particularly uncomfortable looking device was made from a large wooden barrel. With holes cut for the head and arms, the barrel was worn upside down by the victim, for parading through the streets to the jeers of unlookers.

In their zeal for public humiliation, the Puritan settlers employed several variations on scarlet letters, such as

  • “V” for lewdness
  • “T” for thievery
  • “I” for incest
  • a woman found guilty of consorting with an Indian was forced to wear a red Indian’s head patch on her sleeve for a year

It seems that over-indulgence in alcohol didn’t prevent our Robert Coles from risking life and limb repeatedly, by sailing to unknown continents and founding new settlements in areas of New England previously unseen by Europeans.



  1. The Winthrop Society, Pre-1634 Planters of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 2012: list of passengers on the ships of the Winthrop Fleet ships of 1628-1630.
  2. The Winthrop Society, The Freeman of Massachusetts Bay, 2012: list of men granted freeman status at the General Court session of October 19, 1630.
  3. Annals of the Town of Providence, from its first settlement to the organization of the city government, William R. Staples, Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, 1843.
  4., Roger Williams, 2015: purchase of Providence Rhode Island land from Naragansett Indians.
  5. Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, Alice Morse Earle, 1896: Robert Coles’ sentences from early court records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  6. Brookston Beer Bulletin, The Drunkard’s Cloak, Jay R. Brooks, 2104: the drunkard’s cloak through history, including photos of use during the civil war and in prisons of the 1930s.
  7. The Letter of the Law: Reading Hawthorne and the Law of Adultery, Elizabeth Perry Hodges, 1996: Puritan criminal penalties.

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