Branks And Gags

The brank or scold's bridle was unknown in America in its English shape:

though from colonial records we learn that scolding women were far too

plentiful, and were gagged for that annoying and irritating habit. The

brank, sometimes called the gossip's bridle, or dame's bridle, or

scold's helm, was truly a "brydle for a curste queane." It was a

shocking instrument, a sort of iron cage, often of great weight; when

overing the entire head; with a spiked plate or flat tongue of

iron to be placed in the mouth over the tongue. Hence if the offender

spoke she was cruelly hurt.

Ralph Gardner, in his book entitled England's Grievance Discovered in

Relation to the Coal Trade, etc., printed in 1665, says of


"There he saw one Anne Bridlestone drove through the streets by an

officer of the same corporation, holding a rope in his hand, the other

end fastened to an engine called the branks, which is like a crown, it

being of iron, which was musled over the head and face, with a great gag

or tongue of iron forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out; and

that is the punishment which the magistrates do inflict upon chiding and

scolding women; and he hath often seen the like done to others."

Over fifty branks of various shapes are now in existence in English

museums, churches, town halls, etc., and prove by their number and wide

extent of location, the prevalence of their employment as a means of

punishment. Being made of durable iron and kept within doors, and often

thrust, as their use grew infrequent, into out-of-the-way hiding-places,

they have not vanished from existence as have the wooden stocks and

pillories, which stood exposed to wear, weather and attack.

One of these old-time branks is in the vestry of the church at

Walton-on-Thames. It is dated 1632, and has this couplet graven on it:

"Chester presents Walton with a bridle

To cure women's tongues that talk too idle."

By tradition this brank was angrily and insultingly given by a gentleman

named Chester, who had through the lie of a gossiping woman of Walton

lost an expected fortune. One is in Congleton Town Hall which was used

as recently at 1824, upon a confirmed scold who had especially abused

some constables and church-wardens; and as late as 1858 a brank was

produced in terrorem to silence an English scold, and it is said with

marked and salutary effect. Several branks are still in existence in

Staffordshire. The old historian of the county, Dr. Plot, pleads

quaintly the cause of the brank:

"We come to the arts that respect mankind, amongst which as elsewhere,

the civility of precedence must be allowed to the women, and that as

well in punishments as in favours. For the former, whereof they have

such a peculiar artifice at Newcastle and Walsall for correcting of

scolds, which it does too, so effectually and so very safely that I look

upon it as much to be preferred to the ducking-stool, which not only

endangers the health of the party, but also gives her tongue liberty to

wag, twixt every dip, to neither of which is this at all liable, it

being such a bridle for the tongue as not only quite deprives them of

speech, but brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon,

before its taken off.... Which being put upon the offender by the order

of the magistrate, and fastened with a padlock behind, she is led

through the town by an officer, to her shame, nor is it taken off till

after the party begins to show all external signs imaginable of

humiliation and amendment."

Mr. Llewellyn Jewitt, editor of the Reliquary, gives an explicit

account of the way a brank was worn:

"The Chesterfield brank is a good example, and has the additional

interest of bearing a date. It is nine inches in height, and six and

three-quarters across the hoop. It consists of a hoop of iron, hinged on

either side, and fastening behind, and a band, also of iron, passing

over the head from back to front and opening dividing in front to admit

the nose of the woman whose misfortune it was to wear it. The mode of

putting it on would be thus: The brank would be opened by throwing back

the sides of the hoop, and the hinder part of the top band by means of

the hinges. The constable would then stand in front of his victim and

force the knife or plate into her mouth, the divided band passing on

either side of her nose, which would protrude through the opening. The

hoop would then be closed behind, the band brought down from the top to

the back of the head, and fastened down upon it, and thus the cage would

at once be firmly and immovably fixed so long as her tormentors might

think fit. On the left side is a chain, one end of which is attached to

the hoop, and on the other end is a ring by which the victim was led, or

by which she was at pleasure attached to a post or wall. On the front of

the brank is the date 1688."

This brank is depicted in the Reliquary for October, 1860. Mr. William

Andrews, in his interesting book, entitled Old-Time Punishments gives

drawings of no less than sixteen branks now preserved in England. Some

of them are massive, and horrible instruments of torture.

It will be noted that the brank is universally spoken of as a punishment

for women; but men also were sentenced to wear it--paupers, blasphemers,


I am glad John Winthrop and John Carver did not bring cumbrous and cruel

iron branks to America. There are plenty of other ways to shut a woman's

mouth and to still her tongue, as all sensible men know; on every hand,

if gossips were found, a simple machine could be shaped, one far simpler

than a scold's bridle. A cleft stick pinched on the tongue was as

temporarily efficacious as the iron machine, and could be speedily put

in use. On June 4, 1651, the little town of Southampton, Long Island,

saw a well-known resident, for her "exorbitant words of imprication,"

stand for an hour in public with her tongue in a cleft stick. A neighbor

at Easthampton, Long Island, the same year received a like sentence:

"It is ordered that Goody Edwards shall pay £3 or have her tongue in a

cleft stick for contempt of court warrant in saienge she would not

come, but if they had been governor or magistrate then she would come,

and desireing the warrant to burn it."

About the same time Goodwife Hunter was gagged in Springfield for a

similar offense.

In Salem, under the sway of the rigid and narrow Puritan Endicott, the

system of petty surveillance and demeaning punishment seemed to reach

its height; and one citizen in mild sarcasm thereof said he did suppose

if he did lie abed in the morning he would be hauled up by the

magistrates,--and was promptly fined for even saying such a thing in

jest. Therefore of course "one Oliver, his wife" was adjudged to be

whipped for reproaching the magistrates and for prophesying. Winthrop,

in his History of New England, says of her scourging and her further


"She stood without tying, and bare her punishment with a masculine

spirit, glorying in her suffering. But after (when she came to consider

the reproach which would stick by her, etc.), she was much dejected

about it. She had a cleft stick put on her tongue half an hour for

reproaching the elders."

In Salem in 1639 four men got drunk--young men, some of them servants.

Two named George Dill and John Cook were thus punished:

"They be fined 40s for drunckenes, and to stand att the meeting-house

doar next Lecture day with a Clefte Stick vpon his Tong and a paper vpon

his hatt subscribed for gross premeditated lyinge."

The others, Thomas Tucke and Mica Ivor, were not so drunk nor such

wanton liars and their punishment was somewhat mitigated. The sentence

runs thus:

"They are also found guilty of Lyeing & Drunckenes though not to that

degree as the twoe former yett are fined 40s & their own promis taken

for itt. Alsoe two stand on the Lecture day with the twoe former but noe

clefte sticke on their Tong only a paper on his head subscribed for


So it will be seen that men suffered this painful and mortifying

punishment as well as women. And I may say, in passing, that slander and

mischief-making seemed to be even more rife among men than among women

in colonial times. This entry may be found in the Records of the

Massachusetts Bay Colony:

"6 September, Boston, 1636. Robert Shorthouse for swearinge by the bloud

of God was sentenced to have his tongue put into a cleft stick, and soe

stand for halfe an houre & Elizabeth wife of Thomas Applegate was

censured to stand with her tongue in a cleft stick for half an houre for

swearinge, railinge and revilinge."

Robert Bartlett in the same court in 1638 was "psented" for cursing, and

swearing, and had his tongue thrust in a cleft stick. Samuel Hawkes for

cursing, lying and stealing received the same sentence. In 1671 Sarah

Morgan struck her husband. He evidently ran whining to the constables,

and Wife Sarah received a just punishment. She was ordered to "stand

with a gagg in her mouth" at Kittery, Maine, at a public town-meeting,

and "the cause of her offense written and put on her forehead." Thus

gagged and placarded she must have proved a striking figure; jeered at,

doubtless, as an odious example of wifely insubordination, by all the

good citizens who came to shape the "Town's Mind" at the Town's


As years passed on the independent spirit of the times became averse to

gagging, though whipping and imprisonment still were for some years

dealt out for reviling and railing. America was in some ways earlier in

humane elements of consideration for criminals than England, and while

women were still wearing the brank in English villages American women no

longer feared either gag or cleft stick for unruly tongues.

Long after the punishment of which I write had been banished from

American courts it lingered in various forms in American schools--as did

the stocks, the penance-stool, and the whip. I have an example of a

"whispering-stick," a wooden gag, provided with holes by which it could

be tied in place, and which was used in a Providence school during this

century as a punishment for whispering. And many a child during the past

century had a cleft stick placed on his tongue for ill words or untimely

words in school. Sometimes, with an exaggeration of ridicule, a small

branch of a tree in full leaf was split and pinched on the tongue--a

true pedagogical torture.