Debtor Prison: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Brian Muhammad
If you were unable to pay your debts, should you be required to go to prison? This was a common practice in colonial America. Learn more about the definition and history of debtor's prison, and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Debtor's prison was a common practice in England and the American colonies. It involved imprisoning persons who failed to pay their debts.

History of Debtor's Prison In England

The debtors in London stayed in prison as long as their creditors chose to have them incarcerated. Around 1641, approximately 10,000 people were incarcerated for debt in England.

A debtor's prison housed men and women in filthy conditions for months or even years. The time spent in debtor's prison depended on the size of the debt and the family's ability to raise the money.

Family stressed by prison
Debtors Prison

Debtor's Prison in Colonial America

The earliest record of a debtor's prison in the Americas goes as far back as 1678 in Salem, Massachusetts. It is estimated that as many as two out of every three Europeans that came to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were debtors as soon as they arrived. Many served in indentured servitude to pay off the price of their excursion to the Americas. Some historians go as far to argue that the American Revolution was a form of debt relief to those indebted to the Royal Crown.

If a debtor filed for bankruptcy in Pennsylvania, prison might have been the better option! Debtors in that state were frequently flogged in public and could be subjected to having their ear nailed to a post or outright cut off. To assure no one would lend to them again, an old English method for punishment and identification was used. The bankruptcy petitioners were branded on the thumb with a 'T' for thief.

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