Oxford History of the Prison

The Bilboes,
page 2 of 5

In many — indeed, in nearly all — of the penalties and punishments of past centuries, derision, scoffing, contemptuous publicity and personal obloquy were applied to the offender or criminal by means of demeaning, degrading and helpless exposure in grotesque, insulting and painful “engines of punishment,” such as the stocks, bilboes, pillory, brank, ducking-stool or jougs. Thus confined and exposed to the free gibes and constant mocking of the whole community, the peculiar power of the punishment was accented. Kindred in their nature and in their force were the punishments of setting on the gallows and of branding; the latter, whether in permanent form by searing the flesh, or by mutilation; or temporarily, by labeling with written placards or affixed initials.

One of the earliest of these degrading engines of confinement for public exposure, to be used in punishment in this country, was the bilboes. Though this instrument to “punyssche transgressours ageynste ye Kinges Maiesties lawes” came from old England, it was by tradition derived from Bilboa. It is alleged that bilboes were manufactured there and shipped on board the Spanish Armada in large numbers to shackle the English prisoners so confidently expected to be captured. This occasion may have given them their wide popularity and employment; but this happened in 1588, and in the first volume of Hakluyt’s Voyages, page 295, dating some years earlier, reference is made to bilbous.

They were a simple but effective restraint; a long heavy bolt or bar of iron having two sliding shackles, something like handcuffs, and a lock. In these shackles were thrust the legs of offenders or criminals, who were then locked in with a padlock. Sometimes a chain at one end of the bilboes attached both bilboes and prisoner to the floor or wall; but this was superfluous, as the iron bar prevented locomotion. Whether the Spanish Armada story is true or not, bilboes were certainly much used on board ship. Shakespeare says in Hamlet: “Methought I lay worse than the mutines in the bilboes.” In Cook’s Voyages and other sea-tales we read of “bilboo-bolts” on sailors.

The Massachusetts magistrates brought bilboes from England as a means of punishing refractory or sinning colonists, and they were soon in constant use.


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