Home Rules of an Asylum Insane British Curious Punishments

The Bilboes

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-sensitiveness 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 lawes" 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 1635, on April 7, Griffin Montagne "shal be sett in ye
bilbowes for stealing boards and clapboards and enjoyned to move his
habitacon." 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

Next: The Ducking Stool

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 3805