• Weird History

What It Was Actually Like To Be In The Stocks

Many a curious renaissance fair or historical park visitor has probably wondered: “What was it like to be in the stocks?” A lot of people picture having their head and neck restrained for a few minutes and being pelted by old tomatoes, but punishment on the stocks (and its cousin, the pillory) was rarely so pleasant.

Today, the stocks and pillory are often confused with one another, but they were two different devices that had different effects. Stocks restrained the feet, with the offender sitting; the pillory restrained the head and hands, with the offender standing.

Punishment in medieval times, like the rack, was usually the source of pure injustice and suffering, and people put in these devices received those in spades. This form of punishment, however, is more akin to being tarred and feathered; though people perished due to the practice, the ultimate goal was to humiliate the offender.

  • Crowds Were Meant To Play An Important Role In Taunting The Offender

    Although pain was an element of being sentenced to the stocks or pillory, the primary objective was humiliation. The public was encouraged to shame and insult the captive. And while police and soldiers were supposed to prevent them from being severely harmed, it did happen in some cases where the offender was not well-liked by the public.

    On the other hand, a sympathetic offender could be treated abnormally well. When author Daniel Defoe was sentenced to the pillory, only flowers were thrown at him, and he was brought food and drink. Defoe was punished for writing a book criticizing the king, which many citizens loved. His friends even sold copies of his book on the spot.

  • Onlookers Threw Rotten Food, Stones, And More At Offenders

    Crowds present for a punishment involving either contraption frequently threw objects at the prisoner. While rotten tomatoes are the most famous object, spoiling food was the least of the prisoner's worries. There have been accounts of crowds throwing offal from abattoirs, expired animals, and excrement at people charged with homosexuality.

    Particularly hated prisoners were attacked with dangerous objects, like stones and broken glass. More than one person perished from these bombardments.

    First-person records of being in the pillory are very rare, but at least one exists from a Mr. Savill from England. After being put in it in 1800, Savill said he was: “fixed up against the side of a building, facing the spectators… [they pelted] me with stones and all manner of filth...” The local mayor even came to laugh at Savill.

  • Photo: Starz

    People In The Pillory Sometimes Had Their Ears Nailed To The Boards

    The pillory was intended to be a more rough form of punishment than the stocks. Once an offender had their neck and wrists through the holes, they would sometimes have their ears nailed to the device to restrict movement further.

    In certain cases, specifically in Tennessee’s legal code dating to 1824, an individual was placed inside with the ears nailed down; after a few hours, their ears were removed altogether.

  • Photo: Ed. Carlos Brandt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Punishment Lasted Several Hours - Regardless Of The Weather

    Those placed in the pillory would be kept there for hours, sometimes even a full day, bent over and standing. While it would take longer to grow uncomfortable in the stocks, it was not unheard of for a prisoner to spend days or even weeks in the device.

    Bad weather generally did not postpone punishment, but it was sometimes better for the punished individual; even through steady rain, people were kept in the stocks, but it often kept the crowds away.