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

t 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