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

ngland 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.