Burke Proposes Abolition of the Pillory, 1780

The brutal treatment and subsequent death of two sodomites in the pillory in 1780 prompted the conservative statesman Edmund Burke to give a speech in Parliament proposing the abolition of the pillory. For this humane gesture, he was attacked in some newspapers for being soft on sodomites. The Attorney General ordered an inquiry into the deaths, and the Under-Sheriff of Surrey was tried as a result of the inquiry but was acquitted. Burke was able to secure a pension of £36 a year on the Civil List for the widow of one of the sodomites, William Smith. The pillory was not abolished until 1816 (except as punishment for subornation and perjury) and not totally abolished until 1837.

Monday 10 April 1780

This Day at Twelve oíClock Theodosius Reade, a Plaisterer, and William Smith, a Hackney Coachman, will stand in the Pillory near the Obelisk for Sodomy pursuant to their Sentence. (Public Advertiser)

Tuesday 11 April 1780

Yesterday Morning, at about Three Quarters past Eleven oíClock, Read and Smith, convicted of Sodomitical Practices at the Magdalen Coffee-house some little Time since, stood in the Pillory at St. Margaretís hill, pursuant to their Sentence. They were escorted from the New Jail at Ten oíClock, in a very private Manner, in a Hackney Coach, to prevent the Rage of the Mob, and locked up in the Bail-dock belonging to the Sessions-house till the Time aforesaid. The Under Sheriffs, with their Officers, and a very great Number of Constables, attended; notwithstanding which they were very severely treated by the populace. When they had stood about Half an Hour, the Coachman sunk down, and endeavoured to strangle himself; in which Position he remained till he appeared black in the Face, the Blood gushing from his Ears, when he was taken out, and laid on the Pillory. The Plaisterer stood the whole Time.

When Smith the Coachman was brought back to the New Gaol, a Surgeon was sent for, who bled him, but he was quite dead. Read, the Plaisterer, was so severely treated, that it is doubtful whether he will recover.

A Maid Servant of Read, who stood Yesterday in the Pillory at St. Margetís-hill [sic], is now suffering a Sentence of Imprisonment in Bridewell for accusing him of the Practice of which he was convicted and sentenced to that Punishment. (Public Advertiser) (The identical report, except for the last paragraph, appears in the London Chronicle for 8-11 April, the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser for 11 April, and the Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser for 11 April 1780.)

Tuesday 11 April 1780

Yesterday Reed and Smith for committing an unnatural crime at the Magdalen Coffee-house, in St. Georgeís fields, stood in the pillory at St. Margaretís Hill, and were severly [sic] handled by the populace, who were very numerous, and supposed to be upwards of 20,000 persons. After Smith had stood about half an hour, he received a blow by a stone under the right ear, which killed him instantaneously, and he was immediately taken out and laid upon the flooring of the pillory. Read continued the whole hour, and was much bruised by the missive weapons that were levelled at his person; the body of the deceased was carried to the New-Gaol, and the Coronerís Inquest is summoned to sit thereon this evening. (Morning Chronicle, and London Advertiser)

Tuesday 11 April 1780

[Yesterday in Parliament] Mr. Burke, with great Humanity, expatiated on the Cruelty of the Punishment of the Pillory; and informed the House, that one of the Men who stood on the Pillory was inhumanly murdered, partly owing to the wanton Cruelty of the Mob, but more so to the Neglect of the Persons who have the Execution of the Law on these Occasions. It seems the Man was short, and the Pillory was so contrived, that he could not be fastened in it without suspending his Body. He represented this to the proper Officer, but the Mob would not permit any Alteration, and the Man was absolutely strangled. He called upon the Attorney-General to take some Measure to punish the Offenders, and to abolish a Punishment which is meant only to expose a Man to open Shame and Reproach, but which puts in the power of an enraged mob, or negligent Officers, to make the Punishment capital.

The Attorney General said he was always ready to obey the Command of the House; that he certainly would make a strict Inquiry into the Cause of the Manís Death; and if an enraged Mob could by any Means be got at, certainly the Offenders should find they were amenable to the Laws of the Land. As to those whose painful Duty it is to see the Criminal Laws executed, he would likewise take Care to inform himself if any such shameful Neglect as that complained of had happened. As to the abolishing the Punishment, he left that to the Judges to consider.

Sir Charles Bunbury mentioned an Instance of a Man being convicted at Bury of the same Offence, and he represented his Dread of the Inveteracy of the Mob against him to be so great, that his Life would be in Danger; upon which Sir Charles applied to the Judge (the late Judge Blackstone) who told him he could not alter the Sentence of the Law. The Man took Poison over Night, and as he had foreseen, he was so roughly used in the Pillory, that he must have died without the Poison; and he observed, that as Persons were sometimes put on the Pillory for lighter Offences; such as writing or publishing Papers, called Libels, and were equally liable to be murdered by the Negligence of the Officers of Justice, or by an enraged Party Mob, he thought the Mode of Punishment ought to be totally abolished. (Public Advertiser) (This report was repeated in Adamsís Weekly Courant [Chester] on 18 April 1780.)

11-13 April 1780

Last night the Coronerís Inquest sat on the body of Smith the coachman, who was murdered in the pillory at St. Margaretís-hill, on Monday last, and brought in their verdict Wilful Murder against a person or persons unknown. (General Evening Post)

11-13 April 1780

HOUSE OF COMMONS Tuesday, April 11

Mr. Burke called the attention of the House to a very particular matter. He said, they sat there to make laws for the subject; that the laws which chiefly came under their consideration were laws of Civil Polity, but those which most claimed their attention and care were the criminal laws. The first only regarded menís property, criminal laws affected menís lives, a consideration infinitely superior to the former.

In making criminal laws, it behoved them materially to consider how they proceeded, to take care wisely and nicely to proportion the punishment so that it should not exceed the extent of the crime, and to provide that it should be of that kind, which was more calculated to operate as an example and prevent crimes, than to oppress and torment the convicted criminal. If this was not properly attended to in the criminal laws which passed that House, they forced his Majesty to violate his Coronation oath and commit perjury, because his Majesty, when he was crowned, and was invested with the executive government, had solemnly sworn to temper mercy with justice, which it was almost impossible for him to do if that House suffered any penal laws to pass on principles repugnant to this idea, and in which justice, rigid justice was solely attended to, and all sight of mercy lost, and foregone. He said the matter which had induced him to make these reflections, was the perusal of a melancholy circumstance stated in the news-papers of that morning. He hoped to God the fact was mistated, and that the whole relation had no foundation in truth. It had, however, made a very strong impression on his mind, and he conceived it of a nature sufficiently interesting to merit the notice and attention of that House, because if it should turn out to be true, he thought it would be incumbent on that House, to take some measure in consequence of it.

The relation he alluded to, was that of the unhappy and horrid murder of a poor wretch, condemned to stand in the pillory the preceding day. The account stated that two men had been doomed to this punishment; that one of them being short of stature, and remarkably short-necked, he could not reach the hole made for the admission of the head, in the aukward and ugly instrument used in this mode of punishment; that the officers of justice nevertheless forced his head through the hole, and the poor wretch hung rather than walked as the pillory turned round; that previous to his being put in, he had deprecated the vengeance of the mob, and begged that mercy, which from their exasperation at his crime, and their want of considering the consequences of their cruelty, they seemed very little inclined to bestow. That he soon grew black in the face, and the blood forced itself out of his nostrils, his eyes, and his ears. That the mob nevertheless attacked him and his fellow criminal with great fury. That the officers seeing his situation, opened the pillory, and the poor wretch fell down dead on the stand of this instrument. The other man, he understood, was likewise so maimed and hurt by what had been thrown at him, that he lay now without hope of recovery.

Having stated this to the House, Mr. Burke proceeded to remark, that the punishment of the pillory had always struck him as a punishment of shame rather than of personal severity. In the present instance it had been rendered an instrument of death, and that of the worst kind, a death of torment. The crime for which the poor wretches had been condemned was such as could scarcely be mentioned, much less defended or extenuated. The commission of sodomitical practices! a crime of all others the most detestable, because it tended to vitiate the morals of the whole community, and to defeat the first and chief end of society. Sodomitical practices was however of all other crimes a crime of the most equivocal nature, and the most difficult to prove. When criminals convicted of sodomitical practices were sentenced to the pillory, they were adjuged that punishment with a view to expose them to public reproach and contempt, not to popular fury, assault and cruelty. To condemn to the pillory with any such idea, would be to make it a capital punishment, and as much more severe than execution at Tyburn, as to die in torment was more dreadful than momentary death, almost without sensation of pain.

He submitted it, therefore, to the consideration of the House, whether, if the facts turned out as they were stated in the news-papers, and as he had reported them to the House, on news-paper authority, it would not be right to abolish the punishment of the pillory, since it was liable to such violent perversion, as to be rendered not the instrument of reproach and shame, but of death and murder. If no man would take the matter in hand, he would bring in a bill for this purpose; he saw, however, a learned and respectable gentleman in the House, from whose high character and distinguished place, it was fair to infer that the matter would be much better lodged in his hands, and would be more properly conducted than it could be by him. He hoped that learned and respectable gentleman would take it up, and he hoped likewise that the House, if the facts should turn out to be true, and the poor wretch to have been murdered, as he had mentioned, would direct the learned gentleman to proceed against those to whose neglect, or to whose cruelty the murder was ascribeable.

The Attorney-General complimented Mr. Burke on his having brought the matter to the House with those striking features of humanity which distinguished and characterized his conduct on every occasion; he said most certainly a tale of so extraordinary a nature merited the attention of that House in general, and his attention in particular. He should do the Hon. Gentleman the justice to pay immediate regard to what he had said, and though he had the utmost respect for the house, and should on every occasion most readily pay obedience to its commands, it did not strike his mind that their interference was necessary on the present occasion. If the facts were as the Hon. Gentleman had stated them to be, the matter immediately called for legal enquiry, in order to lead to a conviction and punishment of those who were guilty, and had been accessary to the murder. The Judges who sentenced the men to the pillory, were clearly innocent of the guilt of their deaths, because, undoubtedly, they had done no more in condemning them to that punishment, than they were obliged to do by the laws now in being, and could have no idea that they were sentencing the criminals to a punishment that would affect their lives.

There were two descriptions of persons who were the objects of punishment in the present case, those who by neglect of duty had suffered the criminal to be murdered, and such of the mob as were most immediately concerned in the murder, if they could be come at. It was unquestionably proper that offenders, guilty of an atrocious crime, should be convinced that what they had done was within the reach of the laws of the country, and that no men, however they might be misled by ill-judged indignation, would be suffered to commit such enormities with impunity. In doing this, however, proper care must be taken that in endeavouring to answer the ends of justice, injustice was not committed. It certainly was necessary for the officers appointed to put the sentence of the law in execution upon criminals, to do their duty with a certain degree of spirit. He should therefore first institute an enquiry in order to substantiate the facts, and then proceed regularly upon them. With regard to an alteration of the law as it stood, the Hon. Gentleman would give him leave to pause upon it a little, and before he took any step for that purpose, to consult those more conversant with the nature of criminal punishments, than he was himself.

Sir Charles Bunbury, in confirmation of the perversion of the punishmen t of the pillory, stated the case of a man convicted of sodomitical practices at Bury, who had been recommended to mercy by the Jury, and in whose favour application hyad been made to the Judge who tried him. This man had been sentenced to the pillory, and having been a respectable house-keeper, had the greatest dread of that punishment, from a conviction that the populace would be so exasperated against him, that they would take his life. The man had stated his fears to him, and he had been the person who applied to the Judge in the criminalís behalf. The Judge was a very distinguished character, and a man of true benevolence, whose loss every man had lately had cause to lament, and whose name would always be remembered with respect. The Judge had told him, that he thought the law required alteration, but as it stood, it was impossible for him to sentence the man to any other punishment. When this was reported to the prisoner, it threw him into despair, and so great was his dread of the pillory, that the night before the sentence was to be put in execution, he took poison. The next day, however, he was placed in the pillory, and, as he had predicted, was so severely treated by the populace, that he died that night in jail, and whether he died from the poison, or in consequence of his ill treatment from the mob, had never been ascertained. (General Evening Post) (The identical report and summary appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and London Advertiser for 12 April 1780.)

Tuesday to Thursday, 11-13 April 1780

Tuesday, April 11. HOUSE OF COMMONS

Mr. Burke then in a very serious manner called the attention of the House to the fate of the two wretches, who were the day before brought to suffer a public punishment for a crime which was too infamous to be mentioned. But as the criminal laws were a grand and primary object of the Legislature, he should hold himself unworthy of his seat in that House, if he did not equally attend to enforce the use, and prevent the abuse of them. The King was bound by his Coronation oath "to administer justice in mercy;" and when the contrary to this oath was suffered to happen, those who suffered it were accomplices in causing his Majesty to break that oath. He then considered the nature of punishment by the pillory; the intention of which was no more than to hold up certain infamous characters to public shame. But the abuse of that punishment seemed to grow out of his own nature; for there is so little distance between the object of public shame and public detestation, that one produces the other, detestation then naturally begins outrage, and that law which meant a lesser punishment, produces in the end the greatest of all punishments.

He then observed, that if the newspaper reports upon that affair were true, one of the wretches whom he alluded to was a short man; that he complained of the pillory being too high for him; that he was nevertheless put into it, and after being there some time, and receiving some abuse from the populace, grew black in the face: the blood gushed from his eyes, nose, and ears, and thoí taken out immediately, was laid dead on the spot; but whether his death was caused by the abuse of the populace, or the too great height of the pillory, or both, he could not say. The other he understood then lay at the point of death: upon the whole, he recommended the amendment of this law, as well as an enquiry into this case and punishment, to the attention of the Attorney General. He condemned the pillory as an improper punishment for any offences, and said if it was not taken up by any Officers of the Crown, he declared he would undertake himself to remove a law that left the punishment of any offence open to the incensed passions of the people.

The Attorney General promised to make an immediate enquiry into the affair, and to advise with the Judges how such an evil should be remedied in future. (London Chronicle) (The identical report appeared in the Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser for 12 April.)

Wednesday 12 April 1780

Mr. Burke stated the melancholy fate of one of the unhappy wretches who stood on the pillory on St. Margaretís Hill on Monday; dwelt for a considerable time on the impropriety and cruelty of the punishment; said, if it was not taken up by the learned Gentleman over the way, (Attorney General) he would propose to bring in a bill for abolishing the punishment of the pillory, and likewise to enquire into the cause of the manís death, whether it was by the negligence of the persons appointed to see the sentence executed, or had fallen by the outrage of the mob. He spoke with singular humanity and good sense of the occasion, and with his usual ability.

The Attorney General, after passing some compliments on Mr. Burke, promised that he would make strict enquiry into the matter, and either to punish the officers for their neglect, or bring the offenders, if any such could be discovered or found, to justice. (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser)

Friday 14 April 1780

Wednesday an inquisition was taken on the body of the coachman who died in the pillory on Monday at St. Margaretís Hill. After a close examination of several of the officers and others, it appeared to the Coroner and his Jury, that Reid turning round rather faster than usual, and the deceased being just then seized with a giddiness and fainting, from the extreme severity he received from the populace, lost the strength of his legs, and hung by his head. The jury brought in their veredict, "Strangled in the Pillory." (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser)

Tuesday 18 April 1780

Saturday Nightís Post. LONDON, April 13

HOUSE of COMMONS. Tuesday, April 11

Mr. Burke then called the Attention of the House to the Fate of the two Wretches, who, the preceding Day, suffered for an infamous Crime. As the criminal Laws were a primary Object of the Legislature, he should hold himself unworthy of a Seat in that House if he did not attend to the Use and Abuse of them. The King was found by his Coronation Oath "to administer Justice in Mercy," and when the contrary happened, those who suffered it compellíd his Majesty to break that Oath. He concluded a Speech that did great Honour to his Humanity, with giving Notice, that he would, at some future Time, undertake to remove a Law (the Pillory) which left the Punishment open to the incensed Passions of the People. (Adamsís Weekly Courant [Chester])

Tuesday 13 April 1780

Mr. Burkeís complaint to the house last Tuesday, in respect to the two wretches who were pilloried, however seemingly it might be received that night, had two material objections, which on consideration place the Patriot both in a ridiculous, and unmanly light. Mr. Bujrke said that his complaint was founded on the report of a newspaper, and if that report spoke truth, the house should notice what he had to say. The affair then stands, according to Mr. Burkeís own idea, in this manner. &I#151; He informs the house of a transation, even the supposition of which is only founded on anonymous authority, and he requests their concurrence in his sentiments on that vague monosyllable if. So far, as to the ridiculous part of this great manís conduct; ó the unmanly is still more reprehensible. Two men, for a crime shocking to human nature, are by the lenity ó the too great lenity of the legislature, to be slightly punished by only exposing them to shame. The populace, fired at the guilt ó and roused with indignation at the defect in the law, take an executive part in the punishment which natural justice requires. Every man applauds the spirit of the spectators, and every woman thinks their conduct right. It remained only for the patriotic Mr. Burke to insinuate that the crime these men committed should not be held in the highest detestation, and that it deserved a milder chastisement than ignominious death. We therefore see him come forward as the advocate of the guilty, and displaying his talents to obtain mercy for sodomite

The patriots are all in arms for the demolition of the pillory! ó this cannot require a comment. (Editorial in the Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser)

Friday, 14 April 1780

Owing to the pusilanimity of administration, the pillory is become the only restraint on republicanism and treason; no wonder therefore that the patriots of the present day, with Mr. Burke at their head, should embrace the earliest opportunity to attempt a reform in such ignominious punishments.

Mr. Burke and his republican friends have lately thought that the indignation of the populace was justifiable, even if they rebelled against the form of government, and he himself spoke for hours to incite them to insurrection. Yet do we now see this man condemning in the highest terms, the just indignation of the people, because it was levelled at a sodomite!

Notwithstanding all the malice, and detestable views of faction, the hydra-headed monster ought only to be treated with the most sovereign contempt; till our modern Catalines are able to overturn the three branches of the legislature, their bullying of one, will in the end but little avail them; the virtue and honour of the two superior ones will combat the mischief, ó spurt all such black and villainous attempts, ó and prove an effectual barrier against rapacity and rebellion. (Editorial in the Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser)

Friday, 14 April 1780



THE motion of Mr. Burke, in the House of Commons, respecting the men lately pilloried in St. Georgeís-fields, must please every humane, unprejudiced person. I beg leave to propose to the Gentleman of the law, through the channel of your paper, an amendment of the mode of inflicting that punishment, which may at the same time injure safety to the culprit from the vengeance of a justly enraged mob going greater lengths than are prescribed by the laws of this country, and yet hold up to public shame and ignominy the wretch who commits a crime so unnatural and unmanly; viz. to exhibit the depraved monster in a wooden or iron cage, suspended upon a gallows!

I am, Sir, Your obedient humble servant,


(Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser)

Tuesday 18 April 1780

A correspondent assures us, that Sir William Móó was to have been the senatorial advocate in the lower house the other day, against the mob who stoned a certain detestable culprit to death in the pillory, and had prepared a very moving harrangue for that purpose; but finding his feelings too sensible on the melancholy occasion, he requested Mr. Burke to state the inhuman outrage to the house, pledging himself to move or second any thing that his honourable friend should require of him in return. (Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser)

SOURCE: Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Burke Proposes Abolition of the Pillory, 1780", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 23 February 2007, updated 3 April 2007 .

Despite Burke's eloquence, his attempt to abolish the pillory failed. It was not until 1816 that the use of the pillory was restricted to the offence of perjury, and it was not finally abolished in Britain until 1837.

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