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The Ducking Stool

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
Ducking-stool, 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

In the Statute Books of Virginia from Dale's time onward many laws may
be found designed to silence idle tongues by ducking. One reads:

"Whereas oftentimes many brabling women often slander and scandalize
their neighbours, for which their poore husbands are often brought into
chargeable and vexatious suits and cast in great damages, be it enacted
that all women found guilty be sentenced to ducking."

Others dated 1662 are most explicit.

"The court in every county shall cause to be set up near a Court House a
Pillory, a pair of Stocks, a Whipping Post and a Ducking-Stool in such
place as they think convenient, which not being set up within six month
after the date of this act the said Court shall be fined 5,000 lbs. of

"In actions of slander caused by a man's wife, after judgment past for
damages, the woman shall be punished by Ducking, and if the slander be
such as the damages shall be adjudged as above 500 lbs. of Tobacco, then
the woman shall have ducking for every 500 lbs. of Tobacco adjudged
against the husband if he refuse to pay the Tobacco."

The fee of a sheriff or constable for ducking was twenty pounds of

The American Historical Record, Vol. I, gives a letter said to have
been written to Governor Endicott, of Massachusetts, in 1634, by one
Thomas Hartley, from Hungars Parish, Virginia. It gives a graphic
description of a ducking-stool, and an account of a ducking in Virginia.
I quote from it:

"The day afore yesterday at two of ye clock in ye afternoon I saw this
punishment given to one Betsey wife of John Tucker who by ye violence of
her tongue has made his house and ye neighborhood uncomfortable. She was
taken to ye pond near where I am sojourning by ye officer who was joined
by ye Magistrate and ye Minister Mr. Cotton who had frequently
admonished her and a large number of People. They had a machine for ye
purpose yt belongs to ye Parish, and which I was so told had been so
used three times this Summer. It is a platform with 4 small rollers or
wheels and two upright posts between which works a Lever by a Rope
fastened to its shorter or heavier end. At ye end of ye longer arm is
fixed a stool upon which sd Betsey was fastened by cords, her gown tied
fast around her feete. The Machine was then moved up to ye edge of ye
pond, ye Rope was slackened by ye officer and ye woman was allowed to go
down under ye water for ye space of half a minute. Betsey had a stout
stomach, and would not yield until she had allowed herself to be ducked
5 several times. At length she cried piteously, Let me go Let me go, by
God's help I'll sin no more. Then they drew back ye Machine, untied ye
Ropes and let her walk home in her wetted clothes a hopefully penitent

Bishop Meade, in his Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia,
tells of a "scolding quean" who was ordered to be ducked three times
from the yard arm of a vessel lying in James River. A woman in
Northampton County, Virginia, suffered a peculiarly degrading punishment
for slander. In the lack of a ducking-stool she was "drawen ouer the
Kings Creeke at the starne of a boate or Canoux, also the next Saboth
day in the time of diuine seruise" was obliged to present herself before
the minister and congregation, and acknowledge her fault and beg
forgiveness. From the Decisions of Virginia General Court now being
printed by the Virginia Historical Society, we learn of one Margaret
Jones that at a court held at "James-Citty" on the 12th of October,
1626: "for ye severall offences aforenamed, of ye said Margaret Jones,
yt Shee bee toughed or dragged at a boats Starne in ye River from ye
shoare unto the Margaret & John and thence unto the shoare againe."

Toughed would seem a truly appropriate word for this ordeal. The provost
marshal's fees decreed by this court at this time were ten shillings
"for punishing any man by ducking."

In 1634 two women were sentenced to be either drawn from King's Creek
"from one Cowpen to another at the starn of a boat or kanew," or to
present themselves before the congregation and ask public forgiveness of
each other and God.

In 1633 it was ordered that a ducking-stool be built in every county in
Maryland, but I have no proof that they were ever built or used, though
it is probable they were. At a court-baron at St. Clements, the county
was prosecuted for not having one of these "public conveniences."

Half a century elapsed after the settlement of Massachusetts ere that
commonwealth ordered a ducking-stool. On the 15th of May, 1672, while
Richard Bellingham was Governor, the court at Massachusetts Bay passed
this law:

"Whereas there is no expresse punishment by any law hitherto established
affixed to the evill practise of sundry persons by exorbitancy of the
tonge in rayling and scolding, it is therefore ordered, that all such
persons convicted, before any Court or magistrate that hath propper
cognizance of the cause for rayling or scolding, shalbe gagged or sett
in a ducking stoole & dipt ouer head & eares three times in some
convenient place of fresh or salt water as the Court or magistrate shall
judge meete."

Governor Bellingham's sister was a notorious scold, who suffered death
as a witch.

John Dunton, writing from Boston in 1686, does not note the presence of
a ducking-stool, but says:

"Scolds they gag and set them at their own Doors for certain hours
together, for all comers and goers to gaze at; were this a Law in
England and well executed it wou'd in a little Time prove an Effectual
Remedy to cure the Noise that is in many Women's heads."

This was a law well-executed at the time in Scotland, though Dunton was
ignorant of it.

There are no entries to show that the law authorizing ducking ever was
executed in Massachusetts nor in Maine, where a dozen towns--Kittery,
York and others--were fined for "having no coucking-stool." It was
ordered on Long Island that every Court of Sessions should have a
ducking-stool; but nothing exists in their records to prove that the
order was ever executed, or any Long Island woman ducked; nor is there
proof that there was in New York city a ducking-stool, though orders
were issued for one; a Lutheran minister of that city excused himself
for striking a woman who angered him by her "scholding" because she was
not punished by law therefor.

Pennsylvania, mild with the thees and thous of non-belligerent Quakers,
did not escape scolding women. In 1708 the Common Council of
Philadelphia ordered a ducking-stool to be built. In 1718 it was still
lacking, and still desired, and still necessary.

"Whereas it has been frequently and often presented by several former
Grand Jurys for this City the Necessity of a Ducking-stool and house of
Correction for the just punishment of scolding Drunken Women, as well as
divers other profligate and Unruly persons in this Town who are become a
Publick Nuisance and disturbance to the Town in Generall, Therefore we
the present Grand Jury Do Earnestly again present the same to the Court
of Quarter Sessions for the City Desireing their Immediate Care That
these Public Conveniances may not be any Longer Delay'd but with all
possible Speed provided for the Detention and Quieting such Disorderly

For several years later the magistrates clamored for a ducking-stool,
and the following indictment was brought against an unruly woman:

"City of Philadelphia. We the grand Inquest for our Lord the King upon
respective oaths and affirmations Do present that Mary wife of John
Austin late of Philadelphia, Cordwainer, the twenty-ninth day of
September and divers other days and times as well before as after in the
High City Ward in the City afforsd within the Jurisdiction of this
Court was and yet is a Common Scold, And the Peace of our Lord the King
a common and publick Disturber, And Strife and Debate among her
neighbours a Comon Sower and Mover, To the Great Disburbance of the
Leige Subjects of our sd Lord the King Inhabiting the City afforsd, And
to the Evill Example of other Such Cases & Delinquents And also agt the
Peace of our Lord the King his Crown and Dignity."

As late as 1824 a Philadelphia scold was sentenced by this same Court of
Sessions to be ducked; but the punishment was not inflicted, as it was
deemed obsolete and contrary to the spirit of the time.

In 1777 a ducking-school was ordered at the confluence of the Ohio and
Monongahela rivers--and doubtless it was erected and used.

In the year 1811, at the Supreme Court at Milledgeville, Georgia, one
"Miss Palmer," who, the account says, "seems to have been rather glib on
the tongue," was indicted, tried, convicted and punished for scolding,
by being publicly ducked in the Oconee River. The editor adds:
"Numerous spectators attended the execution of the sentence." Eight
years later the Grand Jury of Burke County, of the same state, presented
Mary Cammell as a "common scold and disturber of the peacable
inhabitants of the County." The Augusta Chronicle says this of the

"We do not know the penalty, or if there be any, attached to the
offense of scolding; but for the information of our Burke neighbours
we would inform them that the late lamented and distinguished Judge
Early decided, some years since, when a modern Xantippe was brought
before him, that she should undergo the punishment of lustration by
immersion three several times in the Oconee. Accordingly she was
confined to the tail of a cart, and, accompanied by the hooting of a
mob, conducted to the river, where she was publicly ducked, in
conformity with the sentence of the court. Should this punishment be
accorded Mary Cammell, we hope, however, it may be attended with a more
salutary effect than in the case we have just alluded to--the unruly
subject of which, each time as she rose from the watery element,
impiously exclaimed, with a ludicrous gravity of countenance, 'Glory to

It is doubtful whether these Georgia duckings were done with a regularly
constructed ducking-stool; the cart was probably run down into the

One of the latest, and certainly the most notorious sentences to ducking
was that of Mrs. Anne Royal, of Washington, D. C., almost in our own
day. This extraordinary woman had lived through an eventful career in
love and adventure; she had been stolen by the Indians when a child, and
kept by them fifteen years; then she was married to Captain Royall, and
taught to read and write. She traveled much, and wrote several
vituperatively amusing books. She settled down upon Washington society
as editor of a newspaper called the "Washington Paul Pry" and of
another, the "Huntress"; and she soon terrorized the place. No one in
public office was spared, either in personal or printed abuse, if any
offense or neglect was given to her. A persistent lobbyist, she was
shunned like the plague by all congressmen. John Quincy Adams called her
an itinerant virago. She was arraigned as a common scold before Judge
William Cranch, and he sentenced her to be ducked in the Potomac River.
She was, however, released with a fine, and appears to us to-day to have
been insane--possibly through over-humored temper.

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