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Curiosities of Old Time Punishments


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Two remarkable facts in regard to punishments of the past are the bewildering number of instruments employed and the publicity of the places where they were set up. The drunkard, the tramp, the slanderer, the perjurer and the thief each met with the particular punishment that fitted his crime; and hundreds of stocks, whipping-posts, ducking-stools, pillories and cages, in town marketplaces and on village greens, bore witness to the age-old belief in public ridicule as a cure for private wrong-a belief which died so hard that a century has not yet passed since these medieval instruments were abolished by law and began to vanish one by one from the countryside.

By far the oldest are the stocks, which have been in continual use in England from the time of the Anglo-Saxons up till sixty or seventy years ago. Even now almost every county can boast of several examples, those at Aldbury in Hertfordshire, Lymm in Cheshire, and Abinger, Atfold and Shalford in Surrey being among the best; but in the Middle Ages every town and village was bound by law to provide a pair.

They consisted of two horizontal beams placed one on the other and fastened to the ground by a short post at either end. Round holes were cut at intervals along the line where the two beams joined, and through these the prisoner's legs were passed by raising the upper beam, which was then restored to its place and padlocked to the lower one. With his legs in this uncomfortable position, and with a heap of stones, or at best the lowest step of the market cross, as his only seat-the stocks were often put at the foot of the cross for this purpose-the culprit was left by the constable to pursue his reflections as best he might amid the jeers of the passers-by.

Drunkenness was the offence which usually brought him there, and among the drunkards were included those frivolous parishioners whom the churchwardens found tippling and gambling at the inn on Sunday morning when they ought to have been in church. Drinking, in fact, once brought no less a person than Cardinal Wolsey to the stocks, when as a young man he was incumbent of Limington in Somerset; and some stocks of a later 'day still remain in the village to hand on the story of his humiliating experience. At Shalford and Aldbury, and also at Odiham in Hampshire, one of the posts of the stocks is much taller than the other. This is the old whipping-post, which was often combined with the stocks and was in constant use in old days for the correction of vagrants and petty thieves, both men and women. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the country was overrun by rogues and vagabonds, and since the State was unable to deal with their numbers, it ordered them to be whipped from one parish to another till they reached the parish where they were born and where they could claim maintenance. Every village and town was therefore bound to provide a whipping-post, and it was the duty of the constable, after stripping the culprit to the waist and securing his wrists to the iron clasps on either side of the post, to whip him on the back till he bled. A good example of one of these posts is now in the crypt of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and another, dated 1598, is at Waltham Abbey, an ingeniously contrived specimen which could be used either as stocks or as a whipping-post. Women, however, were not usually whipped in public during the eighteenth century, and in 1791 the whipping of female vagrants was forbidden by law.

Far less easy to find are the pillories, which once stood in every market square as one of the conditions on which the town held its right to a market, but excepting those at Wallingford Castle, East Looe and Saffron Walden, they have nearly all disappeared. A frame made of two parallel boards joined by hinges was fixed in a vertical position on a post, which stood on a wooden platform. As in the stocks, round holes were cut where the two boards met, one for the head and a smaller one on either side for the hands, and behind this frame stood the prisoner, with his head and hands thrust through the holes, rather like a man looking out of a window.

The chief offenders who were pilloried in the Middle Ages were impostors and fraudulent tradesmen, the details of whose punishment varied according to their crime. The guilty baker had his faulty loaf slung round his neck as he stood in the pillory, the wine merchant was drenched in his sour wine, and the provision merchant had his rotting food burnt under his nose. Others had their ears nailed to the pillory, and all alike were liable to be pelted with rotten eggs, filth and stones by an angry crowd, sometimes with such effect as to cause death.

But from 1637 onwards the pillory was chiefly reserved for those who printed and published books without a licence, like Lilburne and Warton, and also for the authors and publishers of seditious pamphlets. Among the latter were Dr. Leighton and Dr. Bastwick, who were pilloried in the reign of Charles I for writing books against the bishops, and William Prynne for exposing the immorality of stage-plays, and in accordance with the barbarous custom of the time their ears were cut off as they stood there. More famous still was Daniel Defoe. He was pilloried in 1704 for upholding the rights of nonconformists, and was surrounded by a sympathetic crowd who pelted him with flowers and sang his famous "Hymn to the Pillory" to encourage him during his ordeal. Perjurers were still liable to be pilloried up to the year 1837, although it ceased to be a punishment for other offences in 1816.

The most perfect example of a pillory that now exists is in the church at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It held the culprit by his fingers instead of his neck, and consisted of two oak beams fixed on two short posts. In the lower beam were bored holes of different sizes, first in a horizontal and then in a vertical direction, so as to hold the bent finger up to the second joint, and when the upper beam was clamped down on the lower one, the finger was held in a vice. By such stern methods were unruly members of the congregation restored to order in the past.

A grim punishment which often accompanied the pillory and the whipping-post was branding with a hot iron. In early days it was inflicted on runaway-labourers and vagrants, and later on extended to other offenders such as William Prynne, who was branded on both cheeks. The hand, however, was the more usual place, the letter seared upon it varying according to the crime. B stood for blasphemer, P for perjurer, R for rogue and T for thief. Most of these branding irons have disappeared, but one still remains fastened to the back of the dock in the Crown Court at Lancaster. It is stamped with the letter M for malefactor, and close by are the two iron loops which secured the prisoner's hand while the iron was heated.

A nother means of confinement less painful than the pillory was the cage, a small wooden prison made of stout beams set a little apart, which stood beside the pillory in the market-place, and sometimes, as at Banbury, and Cornhill in London, carried the pillory on the top of it. The cage was not a punishment in itself. It was merely used in the days when prisons were scarce and police-stations unknown as a temporary lock-up for criminals caught in the neighbourhood and for suspicious-looking strangers who tried to pass through the town at night. Cornwall, however, was an exception. There the cage in several towns took the place of the ducking-stool as a less humiliating punishment for scolding women, and the one at East Looe still exists over the porch of the old Town Hall.

But this West Country courtesy did not extend to the rest of England, where brawling women and quarrelsome wives were subjected to the ducking-stool or the brank, punishments far more severe than the stocks in which their drunken husbands were condemned to sit. Many ducking-stools were fixtures at the edge of a river or a pond, and to realize what they looked like, one has only to imagine a see-saw placed at the water's edge with one end of the horizontal beam swung out over the pond and a legless chair fastened on the end of it. Unfortunately there are very few ducking-stools left, but one still remains at Beverley and another interesting specimen is kept in the church at Leominster.

This was a movable machine consisting of a small platform mounted on wheels. On the platform were two short posts carrying a long movable beam with a chair at one end, into which the victim was tied. At the other end stood the men who ducked her as many times as was necessary by lowering or raising the beam. Sometimes a long pole with an iron hook at one end, such as can still be seen at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, took the place of the beam. The hook was attached to the iron framework of the chair, the pole was lowered into the river, and the clattering tongue of the gossip definitely silenced beneath the cold water.

Another punishment for scolds was the brank, a far more modern instrument than the ducking-stool, and only introduced into England during the reign of Charles I, although it was in use in Scotland at least fifty years earlier for the punishment of scolds and blasphemers. In the church at Walton-on-Thames is a brank (brank being the Scotch word for gag) which is dated 1632 and engraven with the rhyme:

"Chester presents Walton with a bridle
To curb women's tongues that talk too idle."

The tradition is that this brank was presented to the town by a man named Chester, who lost a fortune through the lie of a gossiping woman of Walton. It consists of two jointed bands of iron. One went over the mouth and round the head, the other over the top of the head with an opening in front for the nose, and both were fastened together with a padlock at the back. Projecting inwards from the first hoop is a flat iron plate, which went into the victim's mouth and pressed her tongue down, and from the back hangs the chain by which she was led through the streets. This is typical of the fifty or more branks which are preserved in the museums at Newcastle-on-Tyne, Lancaster, Oxford, Edinburgh and other towns, and which were obviously intended to silence scolds, not to torture them. But at Stock-port and among the branks in Edinburgh are two terrible instruments with spiked mouthpieces, grim reminders of the days when wretched women were burnt to death as witches and cruelly gagged during their execution to prevent them from uttering curses broadcast on the crowd.

The use of certain instruments was confined to particular parts of the kingdom. The citizens of Newcastle-on-Tyne had a unique way of punishing a drunkard by shutting him up in a tub, and leaving him to walk about the town with his head sticking out of a hole in the top, his legs out of the bottom, and his hands thrust helplessly out of two holes in the sides. Halifax was renowned for its gibbet, which from the remotest times until the middle of the seventeenth century was the terror of all thieves caught within the Manor of Wakefield. It was the nearest thing in England to a guillotine, and to its terrible axe were consigned wretched men who perhaps had stolen no more than thirteen pence halfpenny. A square block of wood slid up and down in grooves between two tall upright posts, and in its lower side was set the axe which is now preserved in the Rolls Office at Wakefield. The block was kept suspended high up between the two posts by means of a wooden pin, and when this was pulled out the axe descended with such force on the neck of the recumbent criminal beneath that it cut off his head at a single blow.

The famous "Maiden" in the National Museum of Antiquities at Edinburgh, by which so many men famous in the history of Scotland perished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, worked on the same principle. The chief differences were that its axe was heavily weighted with lead on its upper edge, and the crossbeam on which the blade descended was fixed at a height of about three feet from the ground, so that the criminal was executed in a kneeling position. Those who had to " embrace the Maiden," so-called, according to tradition, because it remained for many years unused, were not thieves as at Halifax, but men convicted of treason and murder. Another instrument of punishment shown in the Museum of Antiquities is the jougs, which practically took the place of stocks, and were used in Scotland for all kinds of small offences such as drunkenness, slander and Sabbath-breaking. They consisted of an iron ring, jointed at the back, which was put round the culprit's neck and fastened in front with a padlock. A chain hung from the back of the ring, and by this the offender was fastened up in some public place, either to the church door or the churchyard gate-post, and there left to endure the derision of passers-by.

As for more brutal instruments of torture, their use was confined to a few castles and fortresses. For torture was never allowed by law in England, and even in the Middle Ages could only be inflicted by the special permission of the King and his Council; and it was not until the troubled days of the Tudors and the Stuarts that the thumbscrews and the rack came into regular use at the Tower of London for extorting confessions from unwilling prisoners. The thumbscrews, which can be seen in the Edinburgh Museum of Antiquities and at York Castle as well as at the Tower, were two small iron bars mounted on an upright frame. When the prisoner's thumbs had been placed between them, these bars were gradually brought together by means of a screw, which was turned with the thumb and finger (whence the name of the instrument) until the pain in his crushed thumbs forced the prisoner to confess his guilt.

This was considered a comparatively mild torture, and to extort more important confessions resort was had to the rack, which was known at the Tower as the Duke of Exeter's Daughter because it was introduced by a fifteenth century Duke of Exeter. Different patterns of rack were used at different periods, but the principle of all of them is plainly shown in the small model which is now at the Tower. This is a wooden frame with a large roller at each end and one in the middle. The prisoner was laid on the frame with the middle roller under his waist and his wrists and ankles fastened to ropes which were wound round the two end rollers, and by turning the latter outwards it was possible to stretch his limbs to such an extent as to dislocate all his joints. Several men well known in history have been submitted to this terrible torture at the Tower. One of them was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who led a rebellion against Queen Mary and was put to the rack in 1554 in the vain hope that he might implicate the future Queen Elizabeth; and another still more famous victim was Guy Fawkes, who was so broken after thirty minutes of torture that he promised to reveal all he knew about the Gunpowder Plot. A conspirator whom Charles I intended to rack was Felton, the murderer of the Duke of Buckingham, but the judges declared the proceeding to be contrary to English law, with the result that not only did Felton escape torture, but from that day forward the rack and the thumbscrews ceased to be used at the Tower. A companion of the Duke of Exeter's Daughter almost as low as herself was the Scavenger's Daughter, an instrument for compressing the limbs of its victim, which derived its name from Skeffington, a Lieutenant of the Tower in the reign of Henry VIII. At the top was an iron loop through which the prisoner's head was thrust, and from this ran two iron rods each about three feet long and each fitted with two shackles, the upper one for the wrist and a lower one for the ankle. This pattern now shown at the Tower is probably the mild successor of a much more cruel instrument which squeezed its wretched victim into a shapeless mass till the blood ran from his nose and mouth, and even hands and feet. In its present form the Scavenger's Daughter is merely an exceedingly uncomfortable fetter, not much more drastic than the bilboes, which are to be seen in the same room. These are said to have come from Bilboa in Spain, and were used as fetters for prisoners and for mutinous sailors on ships-of-war. They consisted of an iron bar, fastened at one end to the floor or the deck of a ship, and fitted with several sliding iron rings, which could be opened and riveted round the legs of prisoners.


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Pictures for Curiosities of Old Time Punishments

Stock of Varied Pattern which Chastened our Great Grandfathers
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THE SCOLD'S BRIDLE
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PILLORIES, LOCK-UP AND WHIPPING POST THAT STILL SURVIVE IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
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THE 'MAIDEN' OF EDINBURGH
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WHIPPING POST AND DUCKING-STOOL
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