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Curious Punishments of Bygone Days

Curious Punishments of Bygone Days

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by Alice Morse Earle

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This collection of literature attempts to compile many of the classic, timeless works that have stood the test of time and offer them at a reduced, affordable price, in an attractive volume so that everyone can enjoy them.


This collection of literature attempts to compile many of the classic, timeless works that have stood the test of time and offer them at a reduced, affordable price, in an attractive volume so that everyone can enjoy them.

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Curious Punishments of Bygone Days

By Alice Morse Earle, Frank Hazenplug

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-78088-7



There is no doubt that our far-away grandfathers, whether of English, French, Dutch, Scotch or Irish blood, were much more afraid of ridicule than they were even of sinning, and far more than we are of extreme derision or mockery to-day. This fear and sensitiveness they showed in many ways. They were vastly touchy and resentful about being called opprobrious or bantering names; often running petulantly to the court about it and seeking redress by prosecution of the offender. And they were forever bringing suits in petty slander and libel cases. Colonial court-rooms "bubbled over with scandal and gossip and spite." A creature as obsolete as his name, a "makebayt," was ever-present in the community, ever whispering slander, ever exciting contention, and often also haled to court for punishment; while his opposite, a make-peace, was everywhere sadly needed. Far-seeing magistrates declared against the make-bait, as even guilty of stirring up barratry, or as Judge Sewall, the old Boston Puritan termed it, at least "gravaminous."

Equally with personal libel did all good citizens and all good Christians fiercely resent of word, not only of derision or satire, but even of dispassionate disapproval of either government or church. A tithe of the plain-speaking criticism cheerfully endured in politics to-day would have provoked a civil war two centuries ago; while freedom of judgment or expression in religious matters was ever sharply silenced and punished in New England.

That ultra-sensativeness which made a lampoon, a jeer, a scoff, a taunt, an unbearable and inflaming offence, was of equal force when used against the men of the day in punishment for real crimes and offenses.

In many — indeed, in nearly all — of the penalties and punishments of past centuries, derision, scoffing, contemptuous publicity and personal obloquy were applied to the offender or criminal by means of demeaning, degrading and helpless exposure in grotesque, insulting and painful "engines of punishment," such as the stocks, bilboes, pillory, brank, ducking-stool or jougs. Thus confined and exposed to the free gibes and constant mocking of the whole community, the peculiar power of the punishment was accented. Kindred in their nature and in their force were the punishments of setting on the gallows and of branding; the latter, whether in permanent form by searing the flesh, or by mutilation; or temporarily, by labeling with written placards or affixed initials.

One of the earliest of these degrading engines of confinement for public exposure, to be used in punishment in this country, was the bilboes. Though this instrument to "punyssche transgressours ageynste ye Kinges Maiesties Jawes" came from old England, it was by tradition derived from Bilboa. It is alleged that bilboes were manufactured there and shipped on board the Spanish Armada in large numbers to shackle the English prisoners so confidently expected to be captured. This occasion may have given them their wide popularity and employment; but this happened in 1588, and in the first volume of Hakluyt's Voyages, page 295, dating some years earlier, reference is made to bilbous.

They were a simple but effective restraint; a long heavy bolt or bar of iron having two sliding shackles, something like handcuffs, and a lock. In these shackles were thrust the legs of offenders or criminals, who were then locked in with a padlock. Sometimes a chain at one end of the bilboes attached both bilboes and prisoner to the floor or wall; but this was superfluous, as the iron bar prevented locomotion. Whether the Spanish Armada story is true or not, bilboes were certainly much used on board ship. Shakespeare says in Hamlet: "Methought I lay worse than the mutines in the bilboes." In Cook's Voyages and other sea-tales we read of "bilboo-bolts" on sailors.

The Massachusetts magistrates brought bilboes from England as a means of punishing refractory or sinning colonists, and they were soon in constant use. In the very oldest court records, which are still preserved, of the settlement of Boston—the Bay colony — appear the frequent sentences of offenders to be placed in the bilboes. The earliest entry is in the authorized record of the Court held at Boston on the 7th of August, 1632. It reads thus: "Jams Woodward shall be sett in the bilbowes for being drunk at the Newe-towne." "Newe-towne" was the old name of Cambridge. Soon another colonist felt the bilboes for "selling peeces and powder and shott to the Indians," ever a bitterly-abhorred and fiercely-punished crime. And another, the same year, for threatening — were he punished — he would carry the case to England, was summarily and fearlessly thrust into the bilboes.

Then troublesome Thomas Dexter, with his ever-ready tongue, was hauled up and tried on March 4, 1633. Here is his sentence:

"Thomas Dexter shal be sett in the bilbowes, disfranchized, and fyned £15 for speking rpchfull and seditious words agt the government here established." He also suffered in the bilboes for cursing, for "prophane saying dam ye come." Thomas Morton of Mare-Mount, that amusing old debauchee and roysterer, was sentenced to be "clapt into the bilbowes." And he says "the harmeles salvages" stared at him in wonder "like poore silly lambes" as he endured his punishment, and doubtless some of "the Indesses, gay lasses in beaver coats" who had danced with him around his merry Maypole and had partaken of his cask of "claret sparkling neat" sympathized with him and cheered him in his indignity.

The next year another Newe-towne man, being penitent, Henry Bright, was set in the bilboes for "swearynge." Another had "sleited the magistrates in speaches." In on April 7, Griffin Montagne "shal be sett in ye bilbowes for stealing boards and clapboards and enjoyned to move his habit-acon." Within a year we find offenders being punished in two places for the same offence, thus degrading them far and wide; and when in Salem they were "sett in the stockes," we find always in Boston that the bilboes claimed its own. Women suffered this punishment as well as men. Francis Weston's wife and others were set in the bilboes.

It is high noon in Boston in the year 1638. The hot June sun beats down on the little town, the narrow paths, the wharfs; and the sweet-fern and cedars on the common give forth a pungent dry hot scent that is wafted down to the square where stands the Governor's house, the market, the church, the homes of the gentlefolk. A crowd is gathered there around some interesting object in the middle of the square; visitors from Newe-towne and Salem, Puritan women and children, tawny Indian braves in wampum and war-paint, gaily dressed sailors from two great ships lying at anchor in the bay — all staring and whispering, or jeering and biting the thumb. They are gathered around a Puritan soldier, garbed in trappings of military bravery, yet in but sorry plight. For it is training day in the Bay colony, and in spite of the long prayer with which the day's review began, or perhaps before that pious opening prayer, Serjeant John Evins has drunken too freely of old Sack or Alicant, and the hot sun and the sweet wine have sent him reeling from the ranks in disgrace. There he sits, sweltering in his great coat "basted with cotton-wool and thus made defensive ag't Indian arrowes;" weighed down with his tin armor, a heavy corselet covering his body, a stiff gorget guarding his throat, clumsy tasses protecting his thighs, all these "neatly varnished black," and costing twenty-four shillings apiece of the town's money. Over his shoulder hangs another weight, his bandelier, a strong "neat's leather" belt, carrying twelve boxes of solid cartridges and a well-filled bullet-bag; and over all and heavier than all hangs from his neck — as of lead — the great letter D. Still from his wrist dangles his wooden gun-rest, but his "bastard musket with a snaphance" lies with his pike degraded in the dust.

The serjeant does not move at the jeers of the sailors, nor turn away from the wondering stare of the savages —he cannot move, he cannot turn away, for his legs are firmly set in the strong iron bilboes which John Winthrop sternly brought from England to the new land. Poor John Evins! Your head aches from the fumes of the cloying sack, your legs ache from the bonds of the clogging bilboes, your body aches from the clamps of your trumpery armor, but you will have to sit there in distress and in obloquy till acerb old John Norton, the pious Puritan preacher, will come "to chide" you, as is his wont, to point out to your fellow-citizens and to visitors your sinful fall, the disgracing bilboes, and the great letter that brands you as a drunkard.

The decade of life of the Boston bilboes was soon to end, it was to be "laid flat," as Sir Matthew Hale would say; a rival entered the field. In 1639 Edward Palmer made for Boston with "planks and woodwork," a pair of stocks.

Planks and woodwork were plentiful everywhere in the new world, and iron and ironworkers at first equally scarce; so stocks soon were seen in every town, and the bilboes were disused, sold perhaps for old iron, wherein they again did good service. In Virginia the bilboes had a short term of use in the earliest years of the settlement; the Provost-marshal had a fee of ten shillings for "laying by the heels;" and he was frequently employed; but there, also, stocks and pillory proved easier of construction and attainment.

I would not be over-severe upon the bilboes in their special use in those early colonial settlements. There had to be some means of restraint of vicious and lawless folk, of hindering public nuisances, and a prison could not be built in a day; the bilboes seemed an easy settlement of the difficulty, doing effectually with one iron bar what a prison cell does with many. It was not their use, but their glare of publicity that was offensive. They were ever placed on offenders in the marketplace, in front of the meeting house on lecture day, on market day; not to keep prisoners in lonely captivity but in public obloquy; and as has here been cited, for what appear to us to-day slight offenses.



The ducking stool seems to have been placed on the lowest and most contempt-bearing stage among English instruments of punishment. The pillory and stocks, the gibbet, and even the whipping-post, have seen many a noble victim, many a martyr. But I cannot think any save the most ignoble criminals ever sat in a ducking-stool. In all the degrading and cruel indignities offered the many political and religious offenders in England under the varying rules of both church and state, through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ducking-stool played no part and secured no victims. It was an engine of punishment specially assigned to scolding women; though sometimes kindred offenders, such as slanderers, "makebayts," "chyderers," brawlers, railers, and women of light carriage also suffered through it. Though gruff old Sam Johnson said to a gentle Quaker lady: "Madam, we have different modes of restraining evil — stocks for men, a ducking-stool for women, and a pound for beasts;" yet men as well as women-scolds were punished by being set in the ducking-stool, and quarrelsome married couples were ducked, tied back-to-back. The last person set in the Rugby ducking-stool was a brutal husband who had beaten his wife. Brewers of bad beer and bakers of bad bread were deemed of sufficiently degraded ethical standing to be ducked. Unruly paupers also were thus subdued.

That intelligent French traveler, Misson, who visited England about the year 1700, and who left in his story of his travels so much valuable and interesting information of the England of that day, gives this lucid description of a ducking-stool:

"The way of punishing scolding women is pleasant enough. They fasten an armchair to the end of two beams twelve or fifteen feet long, and parallel to each other, so that these two pieces of wood with their two ends embrace the chair, which hangs between them by a sort of axle, by which means it plays freely, and always remains in the natural horizontal position in which a chair should be, that a person may sit conveniently in it, whether you raise it or let it down. They set up a post on the bank of a pond or river, and over this post they lay, almost in equilibrio, the two pieces of wood, at one end of which the chair hangs just over the water. They place the woman in this chair and so plunge her into the water as often as the sentence directs, in order to cool her immoderate heat."

The adjectives pleasant and convenient as applied to a ducking-stool would scarcely have entered the mind of any one but a Frenchman. Still the chair itself was sometimes rudely ornamented. The Cambridge stool was carved with devils laying hold of scolds. Others were painted with appropriate devices such as a man and woman scolding. Two Plymouth ducking-stools still preserved are of wrought iron of good design. The Sandwich ducking-stool bore the motto:

"Of members ye tonge is worst or beste
An yll tonge oft doth breede unreste."

We read in Blackstone's Commentaries:

"A common scold may be indicted, and if convicted shall be sentenced to be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or ducking-stool."

The trebuchet, or trebucket, was a stationary and simple form of a ducking machine consisting of a short post set at the water's edge with a long beam resting on it like a see-saw; by a simple contrivance it could be swung round parallel to the bank, and the culprit tied in the chair affixed to one end. Then she could be swung out over the water and see-sawed up and down into the water. When this machine was not in use, it was secured to a stump or bolt in the ground by a padlock, because when left free it proved too tempting and convenient an opportunity for tormenting village children to duck each other.

A tumbrel, or scold's-cart, was a chair set on wheels and having very long wagon-shafts, with a rope attached to them about two feet from the end. When used it was wheeled into a pond backward, the long shafts were suddenly tilted up, and the scold sent down in a backward plunge into the water. When the ducking was accomplished, the tumbrel was drawn out of the water by the ropes. Collinson says in his History of Somersetshire, written in 1791: "In Shipton Mallet was anciently set up a tumbrel for the correction of unquiet women." Other names for a like engine were gumstool and coqueen-stool.

Many and manifold are the allusions to the ducking-stool in English literature. In a volume called Miscellaneous Poems, written by Benjamin West and published in 1780, is a descriptive poem entitled The Duckingstool, which runs thus:

    "There stands, my friend, in yonder pool
    An engine called the ducking-stool;
    By legal power commanded down
    The joy and terror of the town.
    If jarring females kindle strife,
    Give language foul, or lug the coif,
    If noisy dames should once begin
    To drive the house with horrid din,
    Away, you cry, you'll grace the stool;
    We'll teach you how your tongue to rule.
    The fair offender fills the seat
    In sullen pomp, profoundly great;
    Down in the deep the stool descends,
    But here, at first, we miss our ends;
    She mounts again and rages more
    Than ever vixen did before.
    So, throwing water on the fire
    Will make it but burn up the higher.
    If so, my friend, pray let her take
    A second turn into the lake,
    And, rather than your patience lose,
    Thrice and again repeat the dose.
    No brawling wives, no furious wenches,
    No fire so hot but water quenches."

In Scotland "flyting queans" sat in ignominy in cucking-stools. Bessie Spens was admonished: "Gif she be found flyteing with any neighbour, man or wife, and specially gains Jonet Arthe, she shall be put on the cuck-stule and sit there twenty-four hours." A worthless fellow, Sande Hay, "for troublance made upon Andro Watson, is discernit for his demerits to be put in the cuck-stule, there to remain till four hours after noon." The length of time of punishment— usually twenty-four hours — would plainly show there was no attendant ducking; and this cuck-stool, or cucking-stool, must not be confounded with the ducking-stool, which dates to the days of Edward the Confessor. The cuck-stool was simply a strong chair in which an offender was fastened, thus to be hooted at or pelted at by the mob. Sometimes, when placed on a tumbrel, it was used for ducking.

At the time of the colonization of America the ducking-stool was at the height of its English reign; and apparently the amiability of the lower classes was equally at ebb. The colonists brought their tempers to the new land, and they brought their ducking-stools. Many minor and some great historians of this country have called the ducking-stool a Puritan punishment. I have never found in the hundreds of pages of court records that I have examined a single entry of an execution of ducking in any Puritan community; while in the "cavalier colonies," so called, in Virginia and the Carolinas, and in Quaker Pennsylvania, many duckings took place, and in law survived as long as similar punishments in England.


Excerpted from Curious Punishments of Bygone Days by Alice Morse Earle, Frank Hazenplug. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author

ALICE MORSE EARLE (1851-1911) was a popular writer of the Colonial Revival movement. She was the author of seventeen books, many of them about daily life in early America, especially in New England. Thanks to her meticulous research and the timelessness of her writing, a number of these books are still in print. VIRGINIA LOPEZ BEGG is a landscape historian and designer, and author of numerous articles about the role of women in shaping the American landscape, particularly through the garden literature of the 1860-1940 period.

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