Posts Tagged ‘Ducking Stool’

Common Scolds and Ducking Stools

March 2, 2009



We learn that the Judge of the Court of Quarter Sessions for this county, on Friday sentenced a woman to be ducked by immersion as a common scold on Wednesday next.

Annexed is the sentence of the Court —

Commonwealth vs. Nancy James.

Indictment for a nuisance — charged with being a common scold.

Oct. 11th, 1824 — Verdict, Guilty.

Oct. 29th, 1824 — The prisoner sentenced to be place in a certain engine of correction called a Cucking or Ducking Stool, on Wednesday next, the third day of November ensuing, between the hours of 10 and 12 o’clock in the morning — and being so placed therein, to be plunged into water — that she pay the costs  of prosecution, and stand committed until this sentence is complied with. Nat. Gaz.

Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) Nov 10, 1824


Ducking stool, a stool or chair in which common scolds were  formerly tied, and plunged into water, as a punishment. The practice of ducking began in the latter part of the 15th century, and prevailed until the early part of the 18th, and occasionally as late as the 19th century. –Blackstone. Chambers.

The picture is also from this website.



The court of quarter sessions for Philadelphia county, lately sentenced Nancy James, convicted of being a common scold to be placed in a certain engine of correction called a Cucking or Ducking stool, on Wednesday the 3d of November ensuing, between the hours of 10 and 12 o’clock in the morning, and being so placed therein, to be plunged into the water” &c — The case has been carried up to the Supreme Court to try the legal validity of the sentence, we presume.

Ohio Repository, The (Canton, Ohio) Nov 26, 1824



On Monday last, the judgement of the court of quarter sessions in this city, in the case of Nancy James, who was indicted and sentenced to be ducked as a common scold, was reversed by the Supreme Court, on the ground that no law of Pennsylvania, either statute or common, warranted the sentence of the court below.

Judge DUNCAN considered that this inhuman and barbarous part of the English common law had become obsolete; that, at all events, it had never been brought to this country by our ancestors; that it was incompatible with their humane habits, as well as with the enlightened maxims of civil policy introduced into Pennsylvania by WILLIAM PENN; and that even if the punishment formerly inflicted upon common scolds had ever obtained here, it had, by implication, been repealed by the general spirit of our mild penal code. The decision of the Supreme Court must give universal satisfaction.

Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) Jan 12, 1825


A famous scold:

The United States vs. Ann Royal.

Another case came up yesterday before the Circuit Court, which, by the unusual crowd that thronged the Hall, appeared to excite much interest. Mrs. Ann Royal, against whom a bench warrant was issued last week appeared to answer an indictment found against her during the term, by the Grand Jury, for certain alleged improprieties of conduct, denominated in legal phrase ‘common scold’ ‘common slanderer,’ ‘brawler’ ‘common nuisance,’ &c. The defendant’s counsel entered a demurrer to two out of the three counts of indictment, which the counsel for the prosecution agreed to submit to the court without argument. The defendant also asked a continuance of the trial to Friday next, on the ground of the absence of two witnesses material to her defense. The indulgence was granted, on the understanding that if she was convicted, the expense, (growing out of the repeated attendance of many witnesses) would be paid by her. The trial was accordingly postponed to Friday, — Gaz.

On the 18th Mrs. Royal was heard first by her counsel, 2dly by her witnesses, and lastly by her eloquent self. Nevertheless the jury ungallantly found her guilty, and the Bench still more ungallantly ordered her to jail, until she found bail for her appearance to receive judgment, which was arrested by her counsel. “This is a pretty country we live in,” said she, as she heard the mandate for her incarceration.

Ohio Repository, The (Canton, Ohio) Jul 31, 1829


For more on scolds and ducking, see my “To Punish Scolds” post. There will also be two more posts on this topic, later this week.

To Punish Scolds

March 1, 2009



In Law Latin There Was No Word For Male Common Scold — Woman Indicted In Jersey City In 1889 as a Common Scold.

Not only is the common scold still within the purview of laws against routs and riots and favoring tranquility of the vicinage, but it is held that the ducking stool is yet a means of punishment should some appreciative Pennsylvania judge have the nerve to decree a renewal of its use. Fine and imprisonment are the modern refuge agains the shrewish. No judge would care to return to the old ways, for the gossips might wonder over his woman hatred and the public might think he was getting personal.

It is likely that few people know that the ducking stool was once employed in Pittsburg. It is held that women had more grounds for scolding in pioneer days than now, and hence the stool should again be brought into requisition.

The English settlers brought to the United States the ducking stool as an implement of punishment, as they imported the common law. At Plymouth, whence the pilgrims sailed, can be seen today the old ducking stools. Even in 1808 a woman was ducked there. The Puritans brought over the common scold law, and it was adopted in New Jersey and Delaware. In 1889 the grand jury of Jersey City indicted Mrs. Mary Brady as a common scold. It was found to be there, as here, still an indictable offense, and that the ducking stool was yet available as a means of punishment, not having been specifically abolished by the revised statutes.

The stool was used in Virginia, for Bishop Meade, in his “Old Churches, Ministers and Families In Virginia,” writes of ducking scolds from a vessel in the James river. From the Old Dominion the practice of thus treating scolds reached Pittsburg. It would be digressing to repeat the history of the establishment of courts in this city by Virginia, which began Feb. 21, 1775. On the second day of that court, the birthday of George Washington, then but 43, the sheriff was ordered to employ workmen to build a ducking stool at the confluence of the Ohio with the Monongahela.

By patient delying one can dig up much curious information about the ducking stool. Allusions to it recur in English chronicles all through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scolding women in these olden times were deemed offenders against the public peace. Blackstone in his “Commentaries” treats of the common scold in his chapter on “Public Wrongs.” After discussing offenses of graver degree his prelude is, “To descend next to offenses whose punishment is short of death.” These offenses are such, he says, “as annoy the whole community in general, and not merely some particular portion, and therefore are indictable, not actionable, as it would be unreasonable to multiply suits by giving every man a separate right of action for what damnifies him in common only with the rest of his fellow subjects.”

Then the great jurist treats of six classes of public nuisances and concludes: “Lastly, a common scold, communis rixatrix (for our law Latin confines it to the feminine gender), is a public nuisance to her neighborhood. She may be indicted, and if convicted placed in a certain engine of correction, called the trebucket, castigatory or cucking stool, which in the Saxon language is said to signify the scold stool, though now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool because the residue of the judgement is that when she is so placed therein she shall be plunged in water for her punishment.”

Blackstone was a better jurist than etymologist. There was in even as early as the fifteenth century the punishment of sitting in the cucking stool for using short weights, selling bad ale and scolding, but it was a chair of disgrace placed in front of the offender’s own home. In the lapse of time the cucking and the ducking stool became synonymous.

In his “Travels In England” in 1700 Mission writes: “The way of punishing scolding women is pleasant enough. They fasten an armchair to the end of two beams, 12 or 15 foot long and parallel to each other, so that these two pieces of wood with their two ends embrace the chair, which hangs between them upon a sort of axle, by which means it plays freely and always remains in the natural horizontal position in which the chair should be, that a person may sit conveniently in it, whether you raise it or let it down. They set up a post on the bank of a pond or river, and over this post they lay, almost in equilibrium, the two pieces of wood, at one end of which the chair hangs over the water.”

The English poets have had their thrusts at the ducking stool, when their eyes in fine frenzy rolling seem to have caught inspiration from the temper of the shrew. In 1665, in “Homer a la Mode,” the poet sings:

She belonged to Billingsgate
And oftentimes had rid in state
And sat in the bottom of a pool
Enthroned in a ducking stool.

West wrote a complete poem on the stool in 1780, the philosophy of which likes in the extracted couplet:

No brawling wives, no furious wenches,
No fire so hot but water quenches.

All through England there were the stools used for ducking scolds. There was one at Rugby, and in 1820 a man was ducked for beating his wife. Court records reveal many instances where the penalty was inflicted on women.

The chair used at Scarborough, England, is yet preserved. It was last used in 1795, when Mrs. Gamble was “ducked three times over the head and cars.” In the museum at Ipswich is another. It has rods converging over the seat, with a ring through which to run a pole. In 1728 the constable of Morley charged 2 shillings for a pole. The stools in some cities were on wheels, and were called scolding carts. At Kingston-upon-Thames ducking was not infrequent, and the London Post in 1715 reports the ducking of  “a woman who keeps the Queen’s Head alehouse for scolding, in the presence of 3,000 people.” It was at Leominster in 1809 that the last recorded ducking of a woman occurred in England. The stool used is preserved in the jail there. Jenny Pipes was paraded through town on the stool and ducked near Konwater bridge.

Common Scold Wearing a Brank or Bridle

Common Scold Wearing a Brank or Bridle

There was another instrument of punishment for scolds, but not as ancient as the stool. It was the brank, or scold’s bridle. Its modern autotype is the mask of the baseball catcher, except there was a sharpened plate of iron in front that hurt the tongue when an effort to talk was made. The brank figures in literature as frequently as the stool. — Pittsburg Dispatch.

Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) Feb 16, 1901