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Colonial Crime And Punishment

Updated on September 15, 2015

Keeping the peace is a full time job. Just ask Barney Fife. But the methods people have used to do it have certainly changed with time. Here are five punishments Colonial Americans used to enforce law and order. Aren't we all glad we don't have to wear branks anymore?

This man is suffering in the Bilboes. This one has one end chained to a post.
This man is suffering in the Bilboes. This one has one end chained to a post. | Source


Bilboes where a common instrument of confinement in the 16th and 17th centuries. A Bilboe was more or less an iron shackle that was used to confine the legs of the lawbreaker. They where most often used on ships.

Legend has it that Bilboe takes their name from Bilboa, Spain. Where they where supposedly manufactured for use by the Spanish Armada. They where planning on using them to confine all the English prisoners they didn't end up bringing back with them!

Bilboes where widely used in the Colonies because they where easily brought over from England and could be used in the place of stocks if the province hadn't gotten around to building theirs yet.

Being set in Bilboes was a punishment for a wide variety of colonial crimes including; swearing, drunkenness, selling weapons to the Indians, theft, etc. It is said that the offender would be set into the bilboes for a certain amount of time. During which he was often observed and commented on,(and sometimes mocked) by the general public. In some cases the local pastor would give the criminal a sermon on his faults before being released. This was done for his benefit as well as the benefit of any passersby that may be listening.

A women about to be dunked by the ducking stool.
A women about to be dunked by the ducking stool. | Source

The Ducking Stool

One of my favorite colonial punishments is the ducking stool. It was most commonly used to punish female offenders. A ducking stool was a chair, usually made of wood, that was fastened to the end of a pole. The whole apparatus was set on the bank of a body of water, typically a pond. It was set so that the victim could be fastened into the chair then tipped and dunked into the water.

The ducking stool was commonly used as punishment for slanders (especially female), brawlers, loitering, 'women of light carriage',(women who engaged in extramarital affairs), those who sold bad beer or bread, unruly paupers, wife beaters, and a variety of other crimes. Married couples, whose quarreling had disturbed the peace, were tied back to back and dunked together.

Often times a fine or fee for the dunking accompanied the punishment. In one case the fee for dunking was twenty pounds of tobacco.

In some colonial towns the ducking stools had to be chained up and padlocked. The reason for this? Town children would sometimes make a game out of ducking each other!

Victims of the Stocks
Victims of the Stocks | Source

The Stocks

There is probably no old fashioned punishment as familiar to us as the stocks. Tourist may think it's pretty fun to get their picture taken in one today; but in those days the stocks where no laughing matter!

Stocks had been used in Europe to punish the evildoer for centuries; so it wasn't long before they where being employed in Colonial America as well. Probably one of the most famous Europeans to suffer the stocks was Cardinal Wolsey, who was sent to the stocks for drunkenness in 1500.

The stocks where used, as most colonial punishments where, as recompense for a variety of crimes. Some of these crimes included; breaking the Sabbath, swearing, theft, drunkenness, child abuse, and bigamy. Bigamy was a public crime because all the eligible singles in the town would see the perpetrator and know not to accept any proposals of marriage from them!

Most colonial towns had their own stocks. As a matter of fact townships in some colonies where fined for not having stocks. The very first stocks in Boston where first used by the very man who built them. Carpenter Edward Palmer was confined to the stocks and fined, his crime? Extortion. He had charged a ridiculous amount for the plank and woodwork he had just completed on the brand new stocks.

A women being lead around town on a rope her tongue in the 'scold's bridle'.
A women being lead around town on a rope her tongue in the 'scold's bridle'. | Source

The Brank or the Scold's Bridle

The Brank or the Scold's Bridle was typically an iron cage that was set to fit over a person's face with a metal tab in the person's mouth over their tongue. The cage was then padlocked in the back so that they couldn't remove it. The metal tab over the tongue prevented the person from speaking. Traditonally this instrument was used to punish the 'idle tongues' of scolders, blasphmers, gossipers, and other verbal crimes. This punishment is often described as a women's punishment though it was used on both men and women.

The brank was in use in Europe from as early as the mid 1500s. However it was rarely used in America. Instead offenders where typically gaged or had their tongues pinched between a cleft stick for a time.

While the use of this punishment quickly faded from most colonial towns it was still used in various forms in American schools. For example the 'whispering stick' was a wooden gag with holes by which it could be tied into place. As the name suggests it was used to punish those who whispered during times of instruction.

For the crime of burglar this man had a 'B' branded to his forehead. From the drama series "Courage New Hampshire" produced by Colony Bay.
For the crime of burglar this man had a 'B' branded to his forehead. From the drama series "Courage New Hampshire" produced by Colony Bay. | Source

Brandings and Public Shamings

Public humiliation was a big part of colonial justice. Not only was it deemed necessary to teach the wrongdoer a lesson it was also thought to serve as a warning to the public not to follow their example.

Because of this wrongdoers of the colonial era were often forced to hold signs or wear letters proclaiming their crime. This type of punishment was made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorn's novel The Scarlet Letter.

In the cases of more extreme crimes the criminal was sometimes branded with a letter in hot iron, sometimes on the face or hand. Other common mutilations for criminal activity included the clipping or removing of the ears, and the piercing of the tongue with a hot awl.

Supposedly one of the reasons men sometimes wore their hair long was branding and mutilation. The long locks could be used to hide clipped or missing ears, and brands to the face. So if a stranger came into town with long, loose, locks; one might have reason to suspect they had a dubious past.

How About You?

Which Colonial Punishment did you find most interesting?

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    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      4 years ago

      I hadn't thought about the sins of the tongue and the Hebrew law, that's really interesting. I don't think I'd mind being ducked either, especially if it was a really hot day! Thanks for your comment Jane Grey!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 

      4 years ago from Oregon

      Wow, this was so interesting, and hilarious too! I think I would actually enjoy being ducked. One thing I didn't know was that they punished for sins of the tongue-- slander, gossip, blasphemy, lying. Though these are wrong in God's law, even the Hebrew law code didn't have punishments for these types of sins!


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