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Rough justice ruled the American colonies and punishment was both brutal and public – from the pillory to branding, from branks, stocks and ducking stools to riding the wooden horse. Communities doled out these punishments in the heart of town, as a warning and as a strange form of public spectacle.
Erected in the public square this was an all-purpose punishment option, dealing with treason, arson, blasphemy, theft, witchcraft, perjury, wife-beating, cheating, forgery, gaming, libel, conjuring, fortune-telling, and even the bizarre crimes of ‘delivering false dinner invitations’ and selling quack medical cures.
In Maryland, branding with burning hot metal was common. The clear lettering system left onlookers in no doubt of the culprit’s crimes: SL – seditious libel, M – manslaughter, T -thief, R – rogue, F – forgery and B for burglary. Burglars had the letter B branded on their hand, but if the crime was committed on a Sunday it was branded onto their forehead.
Time in the stocks was earned by swearing, stealing, blasphemy, bigamy, brawling or trading with the natives. With head and hands fastened to a plank, convicts were pelted with rotten food by a baying crowd. Ironically, the first occupant of Boston’s stocks was the man who built them, carpenter Edward Palmer, convicted of overcharging for his services!
#4 Ducking Stool
This contraption offered spectators some variety by dunking convicts underwater. Occupants of the ducking stool ranged from: nagging women, bickering couples, brawlers, brewers of bad beer to bakers of bad bread. Simply being ‘poor’ or ‘unruly’ could also earn you an unwanted dip!
This was a pretty shocking punishment for women who talked, nagged or gossiped – also called the “gossip’s bridle” this was an iron cage around the head which forced a piece of iron onto the tongue that would cut you if you spoke.
Cutting off the ears also smartly marked a wrong-doer to anyone who came into contact with them. In Virginia, a hog stealer was pilloried and also had his ears cropped.
#7 Riding The Wooden Horse
This punishment was reserved for soldiers for the crimes of rioting, drinking or even stealing chickens. A thin horizontal pole was erected some 12 feet high and the upper edge sharpened. Convicts were forced to ‘ride it’ for extremely painful hours or days at a time.
But sometimes just one punishment was not enough – in 1771 one poor soul convicted of counterfeiting received: an hour in the pillory, both ears cropped, was branded on both cheeks with an R and had to pay a $100 fine!
(From Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, by Alice Morse Earl (1896), now a free Public Domain Book.)