The Pillory

Hawthorne says in his immortal Scarlet Letter:

"This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine which now, for

two or three generations past, has been merely historical or

traditionary among us, but was held in the old time to be as effectual

in the promotion of good citizenship as ever was the guillotine among

the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory;

and above it ro
e the framework of that instrument of discipline, so

fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold

it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and

made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no

outrage, methinks--against our common nature--whatever be the

delinquencies of the individual--no outrage more flagrant than to

forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame."

This "essence of punishment"--the pillory or stretch-neck--can be traced

back to a remote period in England and on the Continent--certainly to

the twelfth century. In its history, tragedy and comedy are equally

blended; and martyrdom and obloquy are alike combined. Seen in a

prominent position in every village and town, its familiarity of

presence was its only retrieving characteristic; near church-yard and in

public square was it ever found; local authorities forfeited the right

to hold a market unless they had a pillory ready for use.

A description of a pillory is not necessary to one who has read any

illustrated history of the English Church, of the Quakers, Dissenters,

or of the English people; for the rude prints of political and religious

sufferers in the pillory have been often reproduced. Douce, in his

It was an upright board, hinged or divisible in twain, with a hole in

which the head was set fast, and usually with two openings also for the

hands. Often the ears were nailed to the wood on either side of the

head-hole. Examples exist of a small finger-pillory or thumb-stocks, but

are rare.

It would be impossible to enumerate the offences for which Englishmen

were pilloried: among them were treason, sedition, arson, blasphemy,

witch-craft, perjury, wife-beating, cheating, forestalling, forging,

coin-clipping, tree-polling, gaming, dice-cogging, quarrelling, lying,

libelling, slandering, threatening, conjuring, fortune-telling,

"prigging," drunkenness, impudence. One man was set in the pillory for

delivering false dinner invitations; another for a rough practical joke;

another for selling an injurious quack medicine. All sharpers, beggars,

impostors, vagabonds, were liable to be pilloried. So fierce sometimes

was the attack of the populace with various annoying and heavy missiles

on pilloried prisoners that several deaths are known to have ensued. On

the other side, it is told in Chamber's Book of Days that a prisoner,

by the sudden collapse of a rotten footboard, was left hanging by his

neck in danger of his life. On being liberated he brought action

against the town and received damages.

The pillory in England has seen many a noble victim. The history of

Puritanism, of Reformation, is filled with hundreds of pages of accounts

of sufferings on the pillory. When such names as those of Leighton,

Prynne, Lilburne, Burton and Bastwick appear as thus being punished we

do not think of the pillory as a scaffold for felons, but as a platform

for heroes. Who can read unmoved that painful, that pathetic account of

the punishment of Dr. Bastwick. His weeping wife stood on a stool and

kissed his poor pilloried face, and when his ears were cut off she

placed them in a clean handkerchief and took them away, with emotions

unspeakable and undying love.

De Foe said, in his famous Hymn to the Pillory:

"Tell us, great engine, how to understand

Or reconcile the justice of this land;

How Bastwick, Prynne, Hunt, Hollingsby and Pye--

Men of unspotted honesty--

Men that had learning, wit and sense,

And more than most men have had since,

Could equal title to thee claim

With Oates and Fuller, men of fouler fame."

Lecture-day, as affording in New England, in the pious community, the

largest gathering of reproving spectators, was the day chosen in

preference for the performance of public punishment by the pillory.

Hawthorne says of the Thursday Lecture: "The tokens of its observance

are of a questionable cast. It is in one sense a day of public shame;

the day on which transgressors who have made themselves liable to the

minor severities of the Puritan law receive their reward of ignominy."

Thus Nicholas Olmstead, in Connecticut, is to "stand on the pillory at

Hartford the next lecture-day." He was to be "sett on a lytle before the

beginning and to stay thereon a lytle after the end."

The disgrace of the pillory clung, though the offence punished was not

disgraceful. Thus in the year 1697 a citizen of Braintree, William

Veasey, was set in the pillory for ploughing on a Thanksgiving day,

which had been appointed in gratitude for the escape of King William

from assassination. The stiff old Braintree rebel declared that James

II was his rightful king. Five years later Veasey was elected a member

of the General Court, but was not permitted to serve as he had been in

the pillory.

Throughout the Massachusetts jurisdiction the pillory was in use. In

1671 one Mr. Thomas Withers for "surriptisiously endeavoring to prevent

the Providence of God by putting in several votes for himself as an

officer at a town meeting" was ordered to stand two hours in the pillory

at York, Maine. Shortly after (for he was an ingenious rogue) he was

similarly punished for "an irregular way of contribution," for putting

large sums of money into the contribution box in meeting to induce

others to give largely, and then again "surriptisiously" taking his gift

back again.

There was no offense in the southern colonies more deplored, more

reprobated, more legislated against than what was known as "ingrossing,

forestalling, or regrating."

This was what would to-day be termed a brokerage or speculative sale,

such as buying a cargo about to arrive, and selling at retail, buying a

large quantity of any goods in a market to re-sell, or any form of

huckstering. Its prevalence was held to cause dearth, famine and

despair; English "regratours" and forestallers were frequently

pilloried. Even in Piers Plowman we read:

"For these aren men on this molde that moste harm worcheth,

To the pore peple that parcel-mele buyggen

Thei rychen thorow regraterye."

The state archives of Maryland are full of acts and resolves about

forestallers, etc., and severe punishments were decreed. It was, in

truth, the curse of that colony. All our merchandise brokers to-day

would in those days have been liable to be thrust in prison or pillory.

In the year 1648 I learn from the Maryland archives that one John

Goneere, for perjury, was "nayled by both eares to the pillory 3 nailes

in each eare and the nailes to be slitt out, and whipped 20 good

lashes." The same year Blanch Howell wilfully, unsolicited and unasked,

committed perjury. The "sd Blanche shall stand nayled in the Pillory and

loose both her eares." Both those sentences were "exequuted."

In New York the pillory was used. Under Dutch rule, Mesaack Maartens,

accused of stealing cabbages from Jansen, the ship-carpenter living on

't maagde paatje, was sentenced to stand in the pillory with cabbages

on his head. Truly this was a striking sight. Dishonest bakers were set

in the pillory with dough on their heads. At the trial of this Mesaack

Maartens, he was tortured to make him confess. Other criminals in New

York bore torture; a sailor--wrongfully, as was proven--a woman, for

stealing stockings. At the time of the Slave Riots cruel tortures were

inflicted. Yet to Massachusetts, under the excitement and superstition

caused by that tragedy in New England history, the witchcraft trials, is

forever accorded the disgrace that one of her citizens was pressed to

death, one Giles Corey. The story of his death is too painful for


Mr. Channing wrote an interesting account of the Newport of the early

years of this century. He says of crimes and criminals in that town at

that time:

"The public modes of punishment established by law were four, viz.:

executions by hanging, whipping of men at the cart-tail, whipping of

women in the jail-yard, and the elevation of counterfeiters and the like

to a movable pillory, which turned on its base so as to front north,

south, east and west in succession, remaining at each point a quarter of

an hour. During this execution of the majesty of the law the neck of the

culprit was bent to a most uncomfortable curve, presenting a facial mark

for those salutations of stale eggs which seemed to have been preserved

for the occasion. The place selected for the infliction of this

punishment was in front of the State House."

A conviction and sentence in Newport in 1771 was thus reported in the

daily newspapers, among others the Essex Gazette of April 23:

"William Carlisle was convicted of passing Counterfeit Dollars, and

sentenced to stand One Hour in the Pillory on Little-Rest Hill, next

Friday, to have both Ears cropped, to be branded on both Cheeks with the

Letter R, to pay a fine of One Hundred Dollars and Cost of Prosecution,

and to stand committed till Sentence performed."

Severe everywhere were the punishments awarded to counterfeiters. The

Continental bills bore this line: "To counterfeit this bill is Death."

In 1762 Jeremiah Dexter of Walpole, for passing on two counterfeit

dollars, "knowing them to be such," stood in the pillory for an hour;

another rogue, for the same offense, had his ears cropped.

Mr. Samuel Breck, speaking of methods of punishment in his boyhood in

Boston, in 1771, said:

"A little further up State Street was to be seen the pillory with three

or four fellows fastened by the head and hands, and standing for an hour

in that helpless posture, exposed to gross and cruel jeers from the

multitude, who pelted them constantly with rotten eggs and every

repulsive kind of garbage that could be collected."

Instances of punishment in Boston by the pillory of both men and women

are many. In the Boston Post-Boy of February, 1763, I read:

"BOSTON, JANUARY 31.--At the Superiour Court held at Charlestown last

Week, Samuel Bacon of Bedford, and Meriam Fitch wife of Benjamin Fitch

of said Bedford, were convicted of being notorious Cheats, and of having

by Fraud, Craft and Deceit, possess'd themselves of Fifteen Hundred

Johannes the property of a third Person; were sentenced to be each of

them set in the Pillory one Hour, with a Paper on each of their Breasts

and the words A CHEAT wrote in Capitals thereon, to suffer three months'

imprisonment, and to be bound to their good Behaviour for one Year and

to pay Costs."

From the Boston Chronicle, November 20, 1769:

"We learn from Worcester that on the eighth instant one Lindsay stood in

the Pillory there one hour, after which he received 30 stripes at the

public whipping-post, and was then branded in the hand his crime was


The use of the pillory in New England extended into this century. On the

15th of January, 1801, one Hawkins, for the crime of forgery, stood for

an hour in a pillory in Salem, and had his ears cropped. The pillory was

in use in Boston, certainly as late as 1803. In March of that year the

brigantine "Hannah" was criminally sunk at sea by its owner Robert

Pierpont and its master H. R. Story, to defraud the underwriters. The

two criminals were sentenced after trial to stand one hour in the

pillory in State Street on two days, be confined in prison for two years

and pay the costs of the prosecution. As this case was termed "a

transaction exceeding in infamy all that has hitherto appeared in the

commerce of our country," this sentence does not seem severe.

The pillory lingered long in England. Lord Thurlow was eloquent in its

defence, calling it "the restraint against licentiousness provided by

the wisdom of past ages." In 1812 Lord Ellenborough, equally warm in his

approval and endorsement, sentenced a blasphemer to the pillory for two

hours, once each month, for eighteen months; and in 1814 he ordered Lord

Cochrane, the famous sea-fighter of Brasque Roads fame, to be set in the

pillory for spreading false news. But Sir Francis Burdett declared he

would stand on the pillory by Lord Cochrane's side, and public opinion

was more powerful than the Judge. By this time the pillory was rarely

used save in cases of perjury. As late as 1830 a man was pilloried for

that crime. In 1837 the pillory was ordered to be abandoned, by Act of

Parliament; and in 1832 it was abolished in France.