The Stocks

One of the earliest institutions in every New England community was a

pair of stocks. The first public building was a meeting-house, but often

before any house of God was builded, the devil got his restraining

engine. It was a true English punishment, and to a degree, a Scotch; and

was of most ancient date. In the Cambridge Trinity College Psalter, an

illuminated manuscript illustrating the manners of the twelfth century,

/> may be seen the quaint pictures of two men sitting in stocks, while two

others flout them. So essential to due order and government were the

stocks that every village had them. Sometimes they were movable and

often were kept in the church porch, a sober Sunday monitor. Shakespeare

says in King Lear:

"Fetch forth the stocks

You stubborn ancient knave!"

In England, petty thieves, unruly servants, wife-beaters, hedge-tearers,

vagrants, Sabbath-breakers, revilers, gamblers, drunkards,

ballad-singers, fortune-tellers, traveling musicians and a variety of

other offenders, were all punished by the stocks. Doubtless the most

notable person ever set in the stocks for drinking too freely was that

great man, Cardinal Wolsey. About the year 1500 he was the incumbent at

Lymington, and getting drunk at a village feast, he was seen by Sir

Amyas Poulett, a strict moralist, and local justice of the peace, who

humiliated the embryo cardinal by thrusting him in the stocks.

The Boston magistrates had a "pair of bilbowes" doubtless brought from

England; but these were only temporary, and soon stocks were ordered. It

is a fair example of the humorous side of Puritan law so frequently and

unwittingly displayed that the first malefactor set in these strong new

stocks was the carpenter who made them:

"Edward Palmer for his extortion in taking £1, 13s., 7d. for the plank

and woodwork of Boston stocks is fyned £5 & censured to bee sett an

houre in the stocks."

Thus did our ancestors make the "punishment fit the crime." It certainly

was rather a steep charge, for Carpenter Robert Bartlett of New London

made not long after "a pair of stocks with nine holes fitted for the

irons," and only charged thirteen shillings and fourpence for his work.

The carpenter of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, likewise, as Pepys said of a

new pair of stocks in his neighborhood, took handsel of the stocks of

his own making.

In Virginia a somewhat kindred case was that of one Mr. Henry Charlton

of Hungar's Parish in 1633. For slandering the minister, Mr. Cotton,

Charlton was ordered "to make a pair of stocks and set in them several

Sabbath days after divine service, and then ask Mr. Cotton's forgiveness

for using offensive words concerning him."

In Maryland in 1655 another case may be cited. One William Bramhall

having been convicted of signing a rebellious petition, was for a second

offense of like nature ordered to be "at the Charge of Building a Pair

of Stocks and see it finished within one Month." There is no reference

to his punishment through the stocks of his own manufacture.

With a regard for the comfort of the criminal strangely at variance with

what Cotton Mather termed "the Gust of the Age," and a profound

submission to New England climate, a Massachusetts law, enacted June 18,

1645, declares that "he yt offens in excessive and longe drinkinge, he

shalbe sett in the stocks for three howers when the weather is


Just as soon as the Boston stocks had been well warmed by Carpenter

Palmer they promptly started on a well-filled career of usefulness. They

gathered in James Luxford, who had been "psented for having two wifes."

He had to pay a fine of £100 and be set in the stocks one hour upon the

following market-day after lecture, and on the next lecture-day also,

where he could be plainly seen by every maid and widow in the little

town, that there might be no wife Number Three. Then a watchman of the

town, "for drinking several times of strong waters," took his turn. Soon

a man for "uncivil carriages" was "stocked." Every town was enjoined to

build stocks. In 1655 Medfield had stocks, and in 1638 Newbury and

Concord were fined for "the want of stocks," and Newbury was given time

till the next court session to build them. The town obeyed the order,

and soon John Perry was set in them for his "abusive carriage to his

wife and child." Dedham and Watertown were "psent'd" in 1639 for "the

want of stocks." Ipswich already had them, for John Wedgwood that same

year was set in the stocks simply for being in the company of drunkards.

In Yarmouth, a thief who stole flax and yarn, and in Rehoboth, one who

stole an Indian child, were "stocked." Portsmouth, New Hampshire, built

stocks and a cage. Plymouth had a constant relay of Quakers to keep her

stocks from ever lying idle, as well as other offenders, such as Ann

Savory, of unsavory memory. Rhode Island ordered "good sufficient

stocks" in every town. In the southern and central colonies the stocks

were a constant force. The Dutch favored the pillory and whipping-post,

but a few towns had stocks. We find the Heer officer in Beverwyck

(Albany) dispensing justice in a most summary manner. When Martin de

Metslaer wounded another in a drunken brawl, the authorities hunted

Martin up, "early hauled him out of bed and set him in the stocks."

Connecticut was a firm advocate of the stocks, and plentiful examples

might be given under New Haven and Connecticut laws.

Web Adey, who was evidently a "single-man," for "two breaches of the

Saboth" was ordered to be set in the stocks, then to find a master, and

if not complying with this second order the town would find one for him

and sell him for a term of service. This was the arbitrary and not

unusual method of disposing of lazy, lawless and even lonely men, as

well as of more hardened criminals, who, when sold for a term of

service, usually got into fresh disgrace and punishment through

disobedience, idleness and running away.

I do not find many sentences of women to be set in the stocks. Jane

Boulton of Plymouth was stocked for reviling the magistrates; one of her

neighbors sat in the stocks and watched her husband take a flogging.

Goody Gregory of Springfield in 1640, being grievously angered by a

neighbor, profanely abused her, saying "Before God I could break thy

head." She acknowledged her "great sine and fault" like a woman, but she

paid her fine and sat in the stocks like a man, since she swore like


And it should be noted that the stocks were not for the punishment of

gentlemen, they were thoroughly plebeian. The pillory was aristocratic

in comparison, as was also branding with a hot iron.

Fiercely hedged around was divine worship. The stocks added their

restraint by threatened use. "All persons who stand out of the

meeting-house during time of service, to be set in the stocks."

In Plymouth in 1665 "all persons being without the dores att the meeting

house on the Lords daies in houres of exercise, demeaneing themselves by

jesting, sleeping, and the like, if they shall psist in such practices

hee (the tithing-man) shall sett them in the stocks."

Regard for church and state were often combined by making public

confession of sin in church with punishment in front of the church

after the service. This was simply a carrying out of English customs.

Mr. Hamilton, author of that interesting book, Quarter Sessions from

Queen Elizabeth to Queen Anne, says, dealing with Devonshire:

"A favorite punishment for small offenses, such as resisting the

constable, was the stocks. The offender had to come into the church at

morning prayer, and say publicly that he was sorry; he was then set in

the stocks until the end of the evening prayer. The punishment was

generally repeated on the next market-day."

It seems scarcely necessary to describe the shape and appearance of

stocks, for pictures of them are so common. They were formed by two

heavy timbers the upper one of which could be raised, and when lowered,

was held in place by a lock. In these two timbers were cut two

half-circle notches which met two similar notches when the upper timber

was in place and thus formed round holes, holding firmly in place the

legs of the imprisoned culprit; sometimes the arms were thrust into

smaller holes similarly formed. Usually, however, the culprit sat on a

low bench with simply his legs confined. Thus securely restrained, he

was powerless to escape the jests and jeers of every idler in the


The stocks were the scene of many striking figures, and many amusing

ones; what a sight was that when an English actor who had caused the

playing of the Midsummer-Night's Dream in the very house of the Bishop

of Lincoln, and on Sunday, too, was set in stocks at the Bishop's gate

with an ass's head beside him and a wisp of hay--in derision of the part

he had played, that of Bottom the weaver. This in 1631--after both

Plymouth and Boston had been settled.

And the stocks were not without their farcical side in New England.

Governor Winthrop's account of the exploits of a Boston Dogberry in 1644

is certainly amusing.

"There fell out a troublesome business in Boston. An English sailor

happened to be drunk, and was carried to his lodging, and the constable

(a godly man and much zealous against such disorders), hearing of it,

found him out, being upon his bed asleep, so he awaked him, and led him

to the stocks, no magistrate being at home. He being in the stocks, one

of La Tour's French gentlemen visitors in Boston lifted up the stocks

and let him out. The constable, hearing of it, went to the Frenchman

(being then gone and quiet) and would needs carry him to the stocks.

The Frenchman offered to yield himself to go to prison, but the

constable, not understanding his language pressed him to go to the

stocks: the Frenchman resisted and drew his sword; with that company

came in and disarmed him, and carried him by force to the stocks, but

soon after the constable took him out and carried him to prison, and

presently after, took him forth again, and delivered him to La Tour.

Much tumult was there about this: many Frenchmen were in town, and other

strangers, who were not satisfied with this dealing of the constable yet

were quiet. In the morning the magistrate examined the cause, and sent

for La Tour, who was much grieved for his servant's miscarriage, and

also for the disgrace put upon him (for in France it is a most

ignominious thing to be laid in the stocks), but yet he complained not

of any injury, but left him wholly with the magistrates to do with him

what they pleased, etc. ... The constable was the occasion of all this

transgressing the bounds of his office, and that in six things. 1. In

fetching a man out of his lodging that was asleep upon his bed, and

without any warrant from authority. 2. In not putting a hook upon the

stocks, nor setting some to guard them. 3. In laying hands upon the

Frenchman that had opened the stocks when he was gone and quiet. 4. In

carrying him to prison without warrant. 5. In delivering him out of

prison without warrant. 6. In putting such a reproach upon a stranger

and a gentleman when there was no need, for he knew he would be

forthcoming and the magistrate would be at home that evening; but such

are the fruits of ignorant and misguided zeal.... But the magistrates

thought not convenient to lay these things to the constable's charge

before the assembly, but rather to admonish him for it in private, lest

they should have discouraged and discountenanced an honest officer."

Truly this is a striking and picturesque scene in colonial life, one

worthy of Hogarth's pencil. The bronzed English sailor, inflamed with

drink, ear-ringed, pigtailed, with short, wide, flapping trousers and

brave with sash and shining cutlass; the gay, volatile Frenchman, in the

beautiful and courtly dress of his day and nation, all laces and

falbalas; and the solemn pragmatic Puritan tipstaff, with long wand of

black and white, and horn lanthorn, with close-cropped head, sad-colored

in garments, severe of feature, zealous in duty; and the spectators

standing staring at the stocks; Indian stragglers, fair Puritan maidens,

fierce sailor-men, a pious preacher or sober magistrate--no lack of

local color in that picture.

It is interesting to note in all the colonies the attempt to exterminate

all idle folk and idle ways. The severity of the penalties were so

salutary in effect, that as Mrs. Goodwin says in her Colonial

Cavalier, they soon would have exterminated even that social pest, the

modern tramp. Vagrants, and those who were styled "transients," were

fiercely abhorred and cruelly spurned. I have found by comparison of

town records that they were often whipped from town to town, only to be

thrust forth in a few weeks with fresh stripes to another grudged

resting place. Such entries as this of the town of Westerly, Rhode

Island, might be produced in scores:

"September 26, 1748. That the officer shall take the said transient

forthwith to some publick place in this town and strip him from the

waist upward, & whyp him twenty strypes well layd on his naked back, and

then be by said officer transported out of this town."

The appearance of crime likewise had to be avoided. In 1635 Thomas Petet

"for suspition of slander, idleness and stubbornness is to be severely

whipt and kept in hold."

More shocking and still more summary was the punishment meted out to a

Frenchman who was suspected only of setting fire to Boston in the year

1679. He was ordered to stand in the pillory, have both ears cut off,

pay the charges of the court, and lie in prison in bonds of five hundred

pounds until sentence was performed.

These Massachusetts magistrates were not the only ones to sentence

punishment on suspicion. In Scotland one Richardson, a tailor, being

"accusit of pickrie," or pilfering, was adjudged to be punished with

"twelve straiks with ane double belt, because there could be nae

sufficient proof gotten, but vehement suspition."

Writing of punishments of bygone days, an English rhymester says:

"Each mode has served its turn, and played a part

For good or ill with man; but while the bane

Of drunkenness corrupts the nation's heart--

Discrediting our age--methinks the reign

Of stocks, at least, were well revived again."

There is, in truth, a certain fitness in setting in the stocks for

drunkenness; a firm confining of the wandering uncertain legs; a fixing

in one spot for quiet growing sober, and meditating on the misery of

drunkenness, a fitness that with the extreme of publicity removed, or

the wantonness of the spectators curbed, perhaps would not be so bad a

restraining punishment after all. Some of the greatness and self-control

of the later years of Cardinal Wolsey's life may have come from those

hours of mortification and meditation spent in the stocks. And over the

stocks might be set "a paper" as of yore, bearing in capital letters the

old epitaph found in solemn warning of eternity on many an ancient

tombstone but literally applicable in this temporal matter.

"All Ye who see the State of Me

Think of the Glass that Runs for Thee."