Social commentary

Various social commentators have recorded their observations on stocks and pillories, particularly the latter.

Francis Place

From the diary of social reformer Francis Place, 1829:

"This barbarous punishment, this disgrace to the laws to the nation, may be said to exist no longer.

So atrocious was the conduct of the mob when a man was “pilloried”, so debased and cruel were they, that those who are now children, will scarcely be able, when grown up, to conceive the existence of such enormities, much less to believe they were permitted and encouraged by lawyers, juries and what are usually termed respectable people. Even the very populace better taught and more humane than their parents will hear with incredulity the tales which may perchance be told of the pillory.

The time for standing, or rather walking round, on and in the Pillory, was one hour usually, from 12 to 1 O Clock at noon, the common dining hour of all sorts of persons who earn their livings by the labour of their hands, and consequently the time when the streets were crowded by such people.

Formerly every one who was put in the pillory was pelted, the populace would not forgo the “fun”. A human being was stuck up to be “shied at”, and the blackguard John Bull would “have his shy”. There were always on these occasions a sufficiently large number to help one another in countenance and encourage the more debased, to “help up the game”, there was never any want of low lived men and women, boys and girls, thieves and miscreants of every description, and to increased the misery of the wretch put up for their amusement, and to enjoy themselves in the exercise of their villainous propensities.

The language in which the mob exposed its exultation was such as admits of no description; nor could any description do it justice, the enormity must have been heard and seen to enable any one to form even approximation towards an adequate conception.

Latterly the pelting was confined to what were considered the most obnoxious offences only, the inclination to do serious mischief to men whose crimes were almost venial, or those whose imputed offences were political, were restrained by the better portion of the spectators, and the constables, and pelting at length was almost wholly limited to men convicted of attempts to commit unnatural crimes.

When any one is “Pilloried” the Sheriffs duty requires his presence to see the sentence duly executed. The constables who on these occasions are a numerous body, form a ring around the Pillory, to keep the mob at a distance, and a considerable space is therefore left vacant between the cordon they form and the pillory.

Charing Cross was the most usual place for “Pillorying” those who were sentenced to this punishment for offences committed in the metropolis on the north of the Thames, and without the City of London. Previously to 1814, there had been many such exhibitions there, and some recent instances of men being pilloried for offences of the nature before alluded to.

As it was always well know that such an exhibition was to take place at a certain time, a large mob always assembled, a considerable portion of which consisted of the lowest vagabonds, men and women, girls and boys, that St Giles and Tothill Fields could furnish, and such miscreant assemblages when now collected, were at “Hanging Matches”. Some of these people brought with them on donkeys, and in baskets, rotten eggs, which they procured from the egg warehouses, decayed cabbages, etc, etc. the refuse of Covent Garden Market.

The “fun” commenced by throwing mud and eggs from behind the constables at Jack Ketch, immediately before he was prepared to quit the stage when he had fixed the offenders in the Pillory, the joke consisted in the embarrassment and hurry of the executioner to escape from the platform. As soon as the hangman had descended and the offenders began to move round, the constables permitted a number of women to pass between them, into the open space round the pillory.

These women were supplied with the materials for offence from the baskets of those who brought them, the bystanders giving them money, for their “wares”. Near the pillory were two stands for Hackney coaches, under these there was a quantity of hay, dung and urine trampled into a the mud in the kennels and this handed to the women to pelt the men in the pillory, each of whom with their hands full of this stuff waited till one of the miserable wretches came close to her as she stood at the edge of the platform, to discharge the offensive matter at his face, and as the number of these vile women was considerable there was no intermission, the poor creatures hands were so confined as to be useless to him, and the adhesive mass stuck to the pillory, and his face, and stuck on his head until the quantity thus accumulated entirely obscured his visage, and either fell off in a mass by its own weight or suffocated the victim. More than once has Jack Ketch been obliged to mount the platform and push the foul stuff from the heads of the men with a stick to save their lives, during this process the constables compelled the women within the ring to refrain from pelting, but they could not restrain those without who continued to “pelt away” as well at the men in the pillory as at the executioner.

The shoutings of the mob exhilarated the pelters and induced many who came as spectators to join in the mischief, and when the blackguardism had reached its height, it was no longer in the power of the constables to stay it, every sort of missile was thrown, a dead cat was a treat, a live one a still greater treat, and woe to the poor animal who fell into the hands of the miscreants. It was however soon killed and its carcass thrown about as long as anyone could get hold of it, stones and other hard substances frequently rebounded from the boards of the pillory and mingled the blood of the criminal with the mud which disfigured him, when struck by a stone or a penny piece many of which were thrown.

The unfortunate men were generally exhausted before the expiration of the hour they were doomed to walk on the pillory, and in one case it became necessary to abridge the time to save the lives of the criminals. There is a clock outside the house of Mr Rigby the watchmaker between the windows of the first floor, the room was usually let to the Sheriff who sat at these windows, and on the occasion adverted to the hands were twice moved forward, for the purpose of deceiving the mob as to the actual time. One man who had been hanging some minutes by hands and neck, when taken out was unable to stand and was laid on the heap of filth till his partner in iniquity was released."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne spoke of the pillory in his book, "The Scarlet Letter":

“This scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical or traditionary among us, but was held in the old time to be as effectual in the promotion of good citizenship as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks -- against our common nature -- whatever be the delinquencies of the individual -- no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”

G K Chesterton

“I have never been able to see myself that a pillory was necessarily worse than a prison. It need not in most cases be a more drastic punishment. It was certainly in all cases a more democratic punishment.

A man was not only tried by his peers, but punished by his peers. It was no idle distinction; for he was sometimes acquitted and applauded by his peers. If a man were pilloried for a crime which the populace regarded as a virtue, there was nothing to prevent the populace from pelting him with roses instead of rotten eggs. In fact, I think it would be far from a bad thing if you or I or any ordinary individual were occasionally put in the pillory, to discover the emotional atmosphere of our social circle. Let us trust the experiment would be reassuring; it would at least be interesting and novel.

The objection to the pillory suggested in the article consists in its ruthless publicity. But in the matter of punishment I am not reassured by privacy. I know that the most abominable cruelties have always been committed in complete privacy. I am not sure even about the punishments that are now hidden in prisons instead of being displayed in pillories. I do not say that we should do in public all that we now do in private. But it might well be questioned whether we ought to do in private the things we are so much ashamed to do in public. If there has been one respectable thing about the executioner, I think it is the fact that he was called the public executioner. I do not like his becoming the bearer of the bow string; the secret messenger of a Sultan. But this is something of a separate question.

It is enough to note here that there was at least good as well as evil in the publicity of the pillory. Indeed, there is only one real and unanswerable objection to the punishment of the pillory; and unfortunately it so happens that this is also the chief objection to the gallows, the prison, the reformatory, the scientific preventive settlement for potential criminals, and everything else of the kind. The only real objection to the pillory is that we should probably put the wrong man in it.

Now a man could be put in the pillory in mediaeval times for what was then called forestalling, and is now called making a corner. In some countries he could be hanged. There are at this moment walking about Europe and America a number of placid, well-fed, well-dressed gentlemen who boast of having made corners. Suppose I were to suggest that they should stand in the pillory. Suppose I were to suggest that some of them should hang on the gallows. Suppose I were to propose to punish them in modern times as they would have been punished in mediaeval times; suppose that, and you will measure the whole distance and difference of which I spoke when I said that the really powerful man has never been punished since 1745. There may be individual exceptions due to peculiar circumstances, but I cannot think of them at the moment.

It is no answer to say that the powerful have not broken the law. Those who are powerful enough to make the law do not need to break it. The acts are not punishable in modern times which were actually punished in mediaeval times. Nobody is so silly as to offer either period as a golden age; and there are real superiorities in the modern epoch. But I doubt whether the matter is settled by pointing at a lamp-post; and I fear it may merely serve to remind us that the only tyrants who have suffered in our times have been hanged on lamp-posts in revolutions.”

[The above is an abridged version of G K Chesterton's essay entitled "Generally Speaking, XIII" (1928).]

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