Fear ye the ducking stool, ye common scolds

We here at Forgotten Stories don’t spend too much time delving about in the 17th and 18th centuries, but while reading a particularly fascinating 1874 book about the New York Tombs, we stumbled across a description of a ducking stool, one of which stood at Wall and Broad Streets in Manhattan, about where the Federal Treasury building is today (for a previous post on the Treasury building, see here:  http://tinyurl.com/machinegunsfindist ). It seems ducking stools were in common usage on both sides of the Atlantic, and served as our forefathers’ version of waterboarding; fasten a recalcitrant person to a stool, lower them into a convienent stream, river, pond, or barrel of water for a bit, and hope the unpleasant bath and public embarrassment would lead to improvements in behavior. In Vienna, bakers convicted of fraud were sentenced to a ducking in the Danube.

In England and the Colonies, the law reserved the ducking stool mainly for women, men were pilloried, treadmilled, whipped, or forced to ride the wooden horse. Thomas Hartley, who was on a visit to Virginia from Massachusetts, wrote home in 1634 about the ducking stool:[1]

They endeavor to live amiably, keep the peace in families and communities, and by divers means try to have harmony and good will amongst themselves and with Strangers who may sojourn among them. For this they use a device…to keep foul tongues that make noise and mischief silent…They have a law which reads somewhat in this wise: ‘Whereas it be a sinn and a shame for scolding and lying tongues to be left to run loose, as is too often the way amongst women, be it therefore enacted that any woman who shall, after being warned three severall time by the Church, persist in excessive scolding, or in backbiting her neighbors, shall be brought before the Magistrate for examination, and if the offence be fairly proved upon her, shee shall be taken by an Officer appointed for the purpose, to the nearest pond or deepe stream of water, and there…be publicly ducked…in the waters of said pond or streame, until shee shall make solemn promise that shee’l never sinn in like manner again.

Indeed, Hartley recommend Massachusetts institute a similar program, and described the ducking of one such scolding woman:

I saw this punishment given to one Besty, wife of John Tucker who, by the violence of her tongue, had made his house and the neighborhood uncomfortable. She was taken to the pond near where I am sojourning by the officer, who was joyned by the Magistrate and the Minister, Mr. Colton, who had frequently admonished her, and a large number of people. They had a machine for the purpose, that belongs to the Plaris, and which I was told had been so used three times this Summer. It is a platform with 4 small rollers or wheels, and two upright posts, between which works a Lever by a Rope fastened to its shorter or heavier end. At the end of the longer arm is fixed a stool, upon which Betsy was fastened by cords, her gown tied fast about her feets.

 The Machine was then moved up to the edge of the pond, the Rope was slackened by an officer and the woman was allowed to go down under the water for the space of half a minute. Betsy had a stout stomach, and would not yield untill shee had allowed herself to be ducked 5 severall times. At length she cried piteously, ‘Let me go! Let me go! By God’s help I’ll sinn no more.’ Then they drew back the Machine, untied the Ropes, and let her walk home in her wetted clothes, a hopefully penitent woman.

Methinks such a reformer of great scolds might be of use in some parts of Massachusetts bay, for I’ve been troubled many times by the clatter of scolding tongues of women, that like the clack of the mill, seldom cease from morning ‘til night.

There is still a ducking stool around, in Leominster in Wales. Wikipedia provides us with a good picture:


[1] We have taken the liberty of updating the letter to include the words “the”  and “that” but have kept all antiquated spelling intact.

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6 Comments

  1. Just tonight I read about the punishment of “ducking,” but it didn’t give any details. Thank you for the info and the picture. I would never have made it as a Puritan, that’s for sure! :-)

    Reply
  2. Thanks for your post! The British National Archives have created on their website an exercise in paleography, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/game/default.htm, with the ducking stool at Leominster as the background for this Ducking Stool Game.

    Reply
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