The following are extracts from debates in the British Parliament in 1815, where members of the Houses of Commons and Lords argued for (and against) the abolition of the pillory.
Mr. M A Taylor rose, in pursuance of his notice, to move for leave to bring in a Bill for the Abolition of the punishment of the Pillory.
He did not conceive it necessary, in introducing this motion, to enter into any discussion of the origin of crimes and punishments. The authors who had written upon this subject were already in, the hands of most of the members of that House; it would be sufficient for him, therefore, to make a few general observations upon the legitimate objects of punishments, as the ground upon which his motion was founded.
The first end of punishment was the reformation of the offender; and the next was, when the crime committed was of so deep a die as not to admit of a hope of amendment, to punish the criminal by death; and at the same time, by the severity of his punishment, to afford an example to deter others from the commission of similar offences.
With this view of the subject, he was at a loss to imagine under what head to class the punishment of pillory. It could not be called a reforming punishment, because it rather tended to deaden the sense of shame than to have any other effect. Besides, it appeared to him as contrary to law, because the culprit was left to meet the fury of the populace. It was not attended with any good to the spectator, because it only gave rise to the assemblage of a tumultuous rabble, who either contravened the sentence of the Court by exalting the criminal, or violated the law by an outrageous attack upon him. It was therefore evidently a punishment of a very unequal nature.
As illustrative of this remark, he begged to cite a few cases. In the year 1759, doctor Shebbeare was sentenced to be pilloried for a libel of a political description—and in what manner was that punishment executed? Why, when he arrived at the pillory he mounted it in full dress, attended by a servant in livery, who held an umbrella over his head and the under-sheriff, who participated in the popular feeling, instead of calling upon him, as usual, to place his head in the pillory, was satisfied to let him simply rest ins hands on the machine, and in that way he underwent his sentence.
Then again, in the case of Daniel Isaac Eaton, who two years back was pilloried for a religious libel, this man, instead of being regarded, as might have been expected, with indignation, was treated with, respect, and viewed with silent pity.
There were other cases, however, in which a different course was pursued. He alluded particularly to the case of four men who were pilloried in four different parts of the metropolis, for conspiring to take a man's life away upon a charge of robbery, for the sake of the reward. He did not mean to say, that if the law directed such offenders to be punished by death, that they did not deserve it; but unless the law did direct such a sentence, he thought they ought not to be exposed to the risk of that fate—one of these men was actually killed, while the other three escaped with difficulty. This was a species of violence which, he thought, ought to be avoided.
There was another case, where the caprice of the public on such occasions was strongly demonstrated. Two men were pilloried at Brentford, one for compromising a Dui Tam action, and the other for a crime of a detestable nature, not less atrocious; and yet such was the indignation felt towards the informer, that he was nearly killed, while his companion in suffering escaped unhurt.
The punishment, he insisted, was unequal: to a man in the higher walks of life, it was worse than death: it drove him from society, and would not suffer him to return to respectability; while, to a more hardened offender, it could not be an object of much terror, and it could not affect his family or his prospects in the same degree.
To show the severity with which legal punishments pressed upon persons in the higher walks of life, he adverted to the case of Dr. Dodd, who had been justly sentenced to die for forgery; a crime, with respect to which the law could permit no variation in the sentence. Before he received sentence of death, Dr. Dodd addressed the Court, and set forth the circumstances of his former life. He stated, that many who had been among his hearers had become better men from hearing him in the pulpit, that he had thus been the means of rescuing others from vice, and he added these words, "Condescend to reflect, my lord, if these considerations aggravate my offence, how much they must imbitter my punishment."
The hon. gentleman concluded with, saying, that it was grating to his feelings to leave such a punishment as that of the pillory in the hands of a court, who might treat the admirable author of Junius, if he were discovered, in the same manner as the most atrocious criminal. The punishment of the pillory was the remnant of a barbarous age, and the cruel instrument of Star-chamber authority. He then moved and obtained leave to bring in a bill "to abolish the punishment of the pillory."
The Earl of LAUDERDALE rose to move the committal of the Pillory Punishment Abolition bill. The punishment of the pillory had been condemned by almost all those who had studied and written upon the philosophy of criminal law, almost by all the politicians who had attended to its nature and effects, and even by some of the Judges who had to apply it. No principle in criminal law was better established than this, that the punishment ought to be commensurate to the offence. In this respect the punishment of the pillory was extremely objectionable.
In one of the older statutes, it was put in the alternative, that a man should pay a fine of 20s. or be put in the pillory, so that the same punishment was to be inflicted on one who could not pay 20s as on one who had attempted to commit an unnatural and abominable crime. Such a state of the law was a disgrace to the age and country in which it existed.
Another remarkable feature in this punishment was its gross inequality and uncertainty. The punishment was not that which was consonant to the nature of the offence or to the intention of the Court which awarded it,, but depended on the humour of the mob. The case of Dr Shebbeare was a remarkable one. He had been sentenced to the pillory, but though this was intended as disgrace, it turned out a sort of triumph. He was put upon, but not in the pillory; the Sheriff held an umbrella over his head to shelter him from the rain or the sun; and a servant stood by to attend upon and hand him refreshments, while he was at the same time applauded by the spectators; so that the punishment, instead of being disgraceful to him, was an insult upon the law.
Another case applicable to the point was that of Daniel Isaac Eaton. He had been put in the pillory for a very serious offence, that of endeavouring to throw contempt and ridicule on the fundamental principles of the Christian religion; and as an example to the prisoners, he presumed, he was pilloried opposite to Newgate jail; but the crowd, probably from some mistake as to the nature of the offence, applauded him. In this case too, the punishment was far more lenient than the Judges intended.
In other cases it was more severe; for instance, when the punishment of the pillory was inflicted for offences which had a tendency to exasperate the feelings of the populace, such as the attempting to commit an unnatural and horrible crime. Neither the law nor the judge intended that this crime, abominable as it was, should be punished with death, and yet such was frequently the result. The death too, which such criminals sometimes met with was more severe than the punishment of death when inflicted in the ordinary way. He himself had witnessed an instance of this in 1780. A person was pilloried in Southwark for an unnatural crime, and the criminal by the fall of the pillory was killed.
He saw no great inconvenience in abolishing the punishment of the pillory at present, and leaving the offences in which it had been usually inflicted to the punishment by fine and imprisonment, till some additional regulations should be framed in a subsequent session. He therefore submitted that the bill ought to proceed even in this session, and moved that it be now committed.
Lord ELLENBOROUGH said, if the punishment were to be abolished, it would be requisite at the same [time] to substitute some other punishment in its place. This the bill had not done. He could not admit, however, that the punishment ought to be altogether abolished, because there were several offences to which it was more applicable than any other that could be found.
With respect to the inequality and uncertainty of which the Noble Earl had spoken, the objection might be in some degree applied to all other punishments, unless the officers of the law entrusted with the execution did their duty. As to the punishment being more severe than was intended, the officer was empowered to see to the proper execution of the sentence, and arm himself with the whole force of the posse comitatus for that purpose, if necessary; but it was no good argument against the punishment to saw that it was not properly executed.
Considering that the punishment had existed so long, and that no regulation was made for the substitution of another punishment, he could not agree to the passing of this bill. He was adverse, at any rate, to this sweeping abolition, though he admitted, that in that instance mentioned by the Noble Earl, where it might be inflicted on a person because he was not able to pay 20s. and in some other instances, it might be abolished; but in cases of perjury and fraud, and in some others, the punishment was particularly suited to the offence and ought to be preserved. The subject could not, however, be sufficiently considered this season. He moved that the bill be read a second time this day two months.
The Lord CHANCELLOR was of opinion that there were offences with respect to which it would be unwise to abolish the punishment of the pillory; for instance cases of perjury or fraud, or cheating, and especially in cases of mixed fraud and perjury. The best mode of proceeding would be, to desire the Judges in another session to prepare a bill on this subject, pointing out the cases where, according to their experience, the punishment of the pillory was proper, and the cases to which, though at present applicable, it was not suited.
The Earl of LIVERPOOL approved of the proceeding just suggested by the Noble and Learned Lord on the wool-sack.
Earl STANHOPE – As to the punishment of the pillory, he detested it on account of its inequality. Suppose, said his Lordship, the Noble Earl (Liverpool) and myself had been found guilty of publishing a libel, for which offence the punishment of the pillory has been sometimes inflicted, and suppose we had been pilloried about the time when the corn bill was passing, the Noble Earl would have been confoundedly pelted, and I should not.
The bill was then ordered to be committed this day two month. – Adjourned.
This bill was passed by the British Parliament (in an amended form) as the Pillory Abolition Act 1816. This did not abolish the pillory, but restricted its use to the offence of perjury. The pillory was not finally abolished in Britain until 1837.