This image depicts a pillory, in which individuals - who were punished for various petty crimes - could be at risk for more than public humiliation.
The pillory, as a punishment device, has a long history throughout the world. Scholars believe that its earliest written reference appears in the Utrecht Psalter - a Dutch book - which dates back to circa 820 AD.
What, exactly, is a pillory? Resembling a set of stocks - into which a seated person’s ankles (and sometimes wrists) would be inserted - a pillory usually requires its occupant to stand (not sit). And ... unlike stocks (which focus only on hands and feet), a pillory includes a hole for a person’s neck.
How was a person locked into a pillory?
Where were pillories located?
Because pillories were usually located in busy public places, like crossroads and market squares, petty-crime criminals became objects of public ridicule. It was not unusual for passers-by to throw things at the locked-up people.
Michelham Priory, located southeast of London in the UK town of Hailsham (East Sussex), still has an old pillory. Once a place where Augustinian monks lived, this priory has records which extend back to 1229.
People tell tales about Michelham ... especially tales that the place is haunted. Far from just having a pillory on the premises, the old priory - people say - has ghosts.
Michelham was the site for a British television program called “Most Haunted Unseen.”
Are these Michelham tales real or fake?
One thing that is not fake is what could happen to people who were put into a pillory. If they were short, they could be at risk of dying while their necks were firmly positioned inside the pillory’s neck hold.
In 1780, Edmund Burke - the famous Anglo-Irish philosopher/orator - addressed the dangers of the pillory in a speech at the House of Commons. Two men had been sentenced to the pillory, but one of them had died. How could it be that such a punishment had turned-into death by hanging?
We learn more from a contemporary news report from the London Chronicle :
Tuesday, April 11 . HOUSE OF COMMONS
Mr. Burke then in a very serious manner called the attention of the House to the fate of the two wretches, who were the day before brought to suffer a public punishment for a crime which was too infamous to be mentioned. But as the criminal laws were a grand and primary object of the Legislature, he should hold himself unworthy of his seat in that House, if he did not equally attend to enforce the use, and prevent the abuse of them.
The King was bound by his Coronation oath "to administer justice in mercy;" and when the contrary to this oath was suffered to happen, those who suffered it were accomplices in causing his Majesty to break that oath.
He then considered the nature of punishment by the pillory; the intention of which was no more than to hold up certain infamous characters to public shame. But the abuse of that punishment seemed to grow out of his own nature; for there is so little distance between the object of public shame and public detestation, that one produces the other, detestation then naturally begins outrage, and that law which meant a lesser punishment, produces in the end the greatest of all punishments.
He then observed, that if the newspaper reports upon that affair were true, one of the wretches whom he alluded to was a short man; that he complained of the pillory being too high for him; that he was nevertheless put into it, and after being there some time, and receiving some abuse from the populace, grew black in the face: the blood gushed from his eyes, nose, and ears, and tho’ taken out immediately, was laid dead on the spot; but whether his death was caused by the abuse of the populace, or the too great height of the pillory, or both, he could not say.
The other he understood then lay at the point of death: upon the whole, he recommended the amendment of this law, as well as an enquiry into this case and punishment, to the attention of the Attorney General. He condemned the pillory as an improper punishment for any offences, and said if it was not taken up by any Officers of the Crown, he declared he would undertake himself to remove a law that left the punishment of any offence open to the incensed passions of the people.
The Attorney General promised to make an immediate enquiry into the affair, and to advise with the Judges how such an evil should be remedied in future.
After an examination of the dead man’s body, the coroner found he had been strangled in the pillory.
On the 13th of April, 1780, the Whitehall Evening Post published this report:
Wednesday an inquisition was taken on the body of the coachman who died in the pillory on Monday at St. Margaret’s Hill. After a close examination of several of the officers and others, it appeared to the Coroner and his Jury, that Reid turning round rather faster than usual, and the deceased being just then seized with a giddiness and fainting, from the extreme severity he received from the populace, lost the strength of his legs, and hung by his head.
The jury brought in their verdict, "Strangled in the Pillory."
The pillory was abolished by an Act of Parliament on the 30th of June, 1837.
Image online, courtesy Pillory History.
Report of the "Whitehall Evening Post," from April 13, 1780, online via Macquarie University (in Sydney, Australia).