Ducking Stool
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Basic Information

The Ducking Stool is a chair into which a minor criminal could be strapped, and then dunked into the water as punishment. In some communities the ducking stool would be a permanent structure, attached to a long wooden seesaw or crane mounted on a pier or along the riverbank. In other communities, the stool was built into a Tumbrel or Cart with which the convicted could be transported to the water, and then the cart would be rolled or tilted into the water.

During the Colonial Era, this was a common form of punishment used in England and The Colonies. After the American Revolution, it continued to be used in the United States until the 1820s or so.

Given the nature of this punishment (similar to today's Waterboarding, and documented as having sometimes resulted in death due to traumatic shock or drowning), it's quite amazing that it was considered a "minor" form of punishment in those eras, and deemed appropriate for "minor" crimes.

The Ducking Stool was used almost exclusively on women, most commonly for scolding their husbands or disturbing the peace]. It was held that a ducking in the cold waters would cool their tempers. The penalty was also applied for convictions for slander, being a makebayt, brawling, prostitution, or giving birth to an illegitimate child. Couples who fought constantly would sometimes also be sentenced to simultaneous ducking, tied back-to-back in special two-person ducking stool. Aside from that, men were rarely ducked, instead being assigned to the stocks or possibly a cucking stool.

The ducking stool is also known as the gumstool, coqueen-stool, castigatory, or trebucket, depending on the local idiom. Ducking is sometimes referred to as "the punishment of lustration" because it was thought the water would "purify" the criminal.

The ducking stool should not be confused with the cucking stool, as the later involves merely humiliation, and not water. If the authorities are feeling lenient, however, most ducking stools could be used sans water. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps the term ducking was intended as a play on words - it sounds like cucking, but invokes an image of water foul, and considering that cucking means defecation in Middle English, foul it is indeed.

In the Colonies, the Sheriff was (by law) to be paid twenty pounds of tobacco for his services operating the ducking stool. The sources I read did not specify if that was paid by the Colony, or by the Husband. The sources did specify that for cases where a Wife's actions cost her husband financial damages, she was to be ducked once for every 500 pounds of damages.

Ducking Stools were, at one time, used to test if a woman was a Witch. Over the years, the method transitioned to something even more barbaric. The woman's right thumb would be tied to her left foot, and she'd be thrown in the water. If she drowned, she wasn't a witch. If she floated, she was in league with The Devil and would be executed. For related tropes, see Witch-hunt, Burn The Witch, and Morton's Fork.

Sources

Bibliography
1. Non-Fiction: Curious Punishments Of Bygone Days by Alice Morse Earle

Game and Story Use

  • The danger of the ducking stool can be played up or down as the GM needs. In a light game, it might be played for laughs or just characterization. In darker campaigns, it's nature as torture will get more of the focus, or a death might occur.
    • How unforgiving are the drowning mechanics in your system? It may be possible to inflict fatigue, penalties or minor injury, without much risk of lasting harm.
      • If so, this may be a way to show the PCs you mean business when they stir up trouble in town.
        • Of course, some PCs would strive to make the town regret having ever done so.
  • In a fantasy setting, it might be possible to secretly remove the danger. Either the PCs could cast magical water breathing on the victim without the sheriff knowing, or a sympathetic sheriff could do so without anyone knowing.
    • Since ducking is done just a couple times in quick succession, and fear of drowning would remain, the victim would be unlikely to notice. Which means the psychological torture would remain. As a result, the ducking stool might still serve as a deterrent to anti-social behavior.
    • However, a suicidal victim would figure it out, and may expose the ruse.
  • A vile NPC has his wife ducked whenever she displeases him. It's a form of domestic violence with a sickening veneer of legality. It's up to the PCs to prove the abusive husband is bribing witnesses or the sheriff, and then rescue the Distressed Damsel or overthrow the local magistrate.
    • If they fail to expose the corruption, she'll drown one of these days.
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