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 Â£1, 13s., 7d. for the plank
and woodwork of Boston stocks is fyned Â£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 Â£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."