Women and the Death Penalty in the United States

The Bilboes,
page 5 of 5

Your head aches from the fumes of the cloying sack, your legs ache from the bonds of the clogging bilboes, your body aches from the clamps of your trumpery armor, but you will have to sit there in distress and in obloquy till acerb old John Norton, the pious Puritan preacher, will come “to chide” you, as is his wont, to point out to your fellow-citizens and to visitors your sinful fall, the disgracing bilboes, and the great letter that brands you as a drunkard.

The decade of life of the Boston bilboes was soon to end, it was to be “laid flat,” as Sir Matthew Hale would say; a rival entered the field. In 1639 Edward Palmer made for Boston with “planks and woodwork,” a pair of stocks.

Planks and woodwork were plentiful everywhere in the new world, and iron and ironworkers at first equally scarce; so stocks soon were seen in every town, and the bilboes were disused, sold perhaps for old iron, wherein they again did good service. In Virginia the bilboes had a short term of use in the earliest years of the settlement; the Provost-marshal had a fee of ten shillings for “laying by the heels;” and he was frequently employed; but there, also, stocks and pillory proved easier of construction and attainment.

I would not be over-severe upon the bilboes in their special use in those early colonial settlements. There had to be some means of restraint of vicious and lawless folk, of hindering public nuisances, and a prison could not be built in a day; the bilboes seemed an easy settlement of the difficulty, doing effectually with one iron bar what a prison cell does with many. It was not their use, but their glare of publicity that was offensive. They were ever placed on offenders in the marketplace, in front of the meeting house on lecture day, on market day; not to keep prisoners in lonely captivity but in public obloquy; and as has here been cited, for what appear to us to-day slight offenses.


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