The History of Punishment

The Ducking Stool,
page 6 of 9

From the Decisions of Virginia General Court now being printed by the Virginia Historical Society, we learn of one Margaret Jones that at a court held at “James-Citty” on the 12th of October, 1626: “for ye severall offences aforenamed, of ye said Margaret Jones, yt Shee bee toughed or dragged at a boats Starne in ye River from ye shoare unto the Margaret & John and thence unto the shoare againe.”

Toughed would seem a truly appropriate word for this ordeal. The provost marshal’s fees decreed by this court at this time were ten shillings “for punishing any man by ducking.”

In 1634 two women were sentenced to be either drawn from King’s Creek “from one Cowpen to another at the starn of a boat or kanew,” or to present themselves before the congregation and ask public forgiveness of each other and God.

In 1633 it was ordered that a ducking-stool be built in every county in Maryland, but I have no proof that they were ever built or used, though it is probable they were. At a court-baron at St. Clements, the county was prosecuted for not having one of these “public conveniences.”

Half a century elapsed after the settlement of Massachusetts ere that commonwealth ordered a ducking-stool. On the 15th of May, 1672, while Richard Bellingham was Governor, the court at Massachusetts Bay passed this law:

“Whereas there is no expresse punishment by any law hitherto established affixed to the evill practise of sundry persons by exorbitancy of the tonge in rayling and scolding, it is therefore ordered, that all such persons convicted, before any Court or magistrate that hath propper cognizance of the cause for rayling or scolding, shalbe gagged or sett in a ducking stoole & dipt ouer head & eares three times in some convenient place of fresh or salt water as the Court or magistrate shall judge meete.”

Governor Bellingham’s sister was a notorious scold, who suffered death as a witch.

John Dunton, writing from Boston in 1686, does not note the presence of a ducking-stool, but says:

“Scolds they gag and set them at their own Doors for certain hours together, for all corners and goers to gaze at; were this a Law in England and well executed it wou’d in a little Time prove an Effectual Remedy to cure the Noise that is in many Women’s heads.”


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