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Basic Information

Though it is sometimes spelled without the "e", a Bilboe refers to a form of Punishment, and not the fictional character from Middle Earth. They are also sometimes known as "bilboo-bolts". The Bilboe was a form of shackle used from the 16th Century onward till at least the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Despite being a shackle, it has more in common with The Stocks than Handcuffs, and arguably borders on torture.

In form the bilboe was a long iron bar, with two sliding cuffs attached. Rather than being placed on the hands, it was most often attached to the feet. Padlocks then secured the cuffs in place. The result was painful immobilization. If you were bilboed standing up, you'd be incapable of walking or sitting on your own power. At best you could flop over onto the ground and crawl around using your arms, as the heavy metal bar and tight clamps made hopping impractical and excruciating.

Sometimes that level of immobilization just wasn't enough. In that case, the Bilboe could itself be chained or locked to the floor, forcing you to stand very still for a very long time. Alternately, it could be attached to a wall or pillar. "Laying by the heels in the bilboes" meant that the bilboe was hung well above ground level, so that you were immobilized on your back or belly with your feet in the air. If your captors were kind, this could be a less painful, but possibly more humiliating version, of the punishment. If your captors were cruel (and let's face it, anyone doing this to you is probably a real jerk), this would allow them to tower over you, kick dirt in your face, step on you, spit on you, etc.

Indeed, up to and through the Colonial Era, public humiliation was a common punishment. The Bilboes would often be anchored in Town Square, where you would serve as an example and reminder to others of what befalls those who break the law. The local Makebayt or Town Gossip would harass you on general principle, and depending on the politics of the community, the law might or might not turn a blind eye to whatever other punishment the public may have inflicted upon you.

In the Thirteen Colonies, the bilboes were very widespread, being a form of prison that only took a day or two to make, and which you could stick in a cupboard or corner when there weren't any prisoners. Bilboes were a disturbingly acceptable punishment for all sorts of offenses that would strike us as trivial today, such as public drunkeness, rude or harsh language, or being a public nuisance.

Bilboes were also employed frequently as a form of punishment aboard ship. Whereas a man in light or loose chains might jumping overboard in shallow seas, the bilboe guaranteed you'd sink to the bottom and be unable even to tread water. It is said that the ships of the Spanish Armada carried thousands of bilboes with them, for the great many Englishmen they intended to capture and immobilize. If so, they were lost to the sea floor.


1. non-fiction book: Curious Punishments of Bygone Days by Alice Morse Earle
2. non-fiction book: The Pirate Primer by George Choundas

Game and Story Use

  • PCs might carry a Bilboe in their saddlebags, so as to be able to ensure a prisoner can't escape.
    • Owing to thick and sturdy iron construction, the bilboe will hold characters who are strong enough to break free of ropes or chains.
    • As it keeps the feet and ankles immobilized, it's a natural choice for detaining prisoners with high movement rates.
    • Players being what they are, they'll probably also insist on some sort of restraint for the hands - if there's more bilboes than prisoners, a second one could be applied to the wrists.
      • That metal bar might make a two-handed improvised weapon, so a bit of rope is probably better for the hands. Yeah, they might free their hands, but the bilboe insures they aren't going anywhere.
  • Likewise, PCs are prone to stirring up trouble in town. Sometimes the GM may feel the need for consequences short of the gallows or exile. Bilboes, with some public taunting or shunning, could be in order. Yeah, it'll make the PCs want to burn down the town, but fatigue effects, endurance tests, or subdual damage from standing rigid under the hot sun should at least mean they have to recuperate for a while, and should impress upon them that the local constabulary means business.
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