The Stocks
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Basic Information

The Stocks were a device used for torture, public humiliation, and punishment in the Medieval and Colonial Era. The Stocks were considered a lower-class punishment, whereas, historically speaking, the Pillory was a more likely punishment for a gentleman.

The Stocks consist of a wooden frame with two holes cut in it, in which the criminals legs were locked. Yes, legs. Thanks to years of inaccuracy in movies and Renaissance Festivals, most of us think the stocks are a thing your arms and head are locked in while you stand up - but that's actually a Pillory. Stocks are more like large wooden Bilboes. Back in the days when they were used, "locking them in the stocks" meant securing the feet in a wooden frame while sitting on the ground or on a hard wooden bench. The thickness of the lower piece of wood meant that the feet or legs were held up in the air somewhat, a most uncomfortable position to be left in for hours or days.

Days was a common punishment term. The most common length of sentence in the stocks in the colonies was from morning prayer to evening prayer, for two consecutive days. There's many stories of people getting severe frostbite or heat exhaustion and sunburn, and evenperishing from exposure to the elements. It wasn't generally the intent of the punishment, but given the inadequate health care and legal system of the era, it was an accepted risk of implementing the punishment.

Further variations on being put in the stocks includes bastinado (the whipping of the feet), tickling, and just being forced to sit there barefoot. In many of the cultures and eras where the stocks were used, it was considered humiliating to be seen barefoot in public. Some stocks included head and arm holes as well, somewhat like a Pillory, but of course involving the entire body being bent over uncomfortably.

The stocks were used by the Puritans in the American Colonies, by the Conquistadores in Latin America, and also in the United Kingdom as recently as 1872. They also featured prominently in the barbarism of the slave trade. In places where it is a common punishment, the word may enter the language as a verb: "for your crimes, we sentence you to be stocked until sunset."

The stocks were assigned for a variety of crimes, many of which don't even seem like crimes from the modern perspective. Vagrancy, Public Drunkenness, Disrespecting the Sabbath, Fortune-Telling, being a traveling minstrel, and, in places like Plymouth during the 1600s, failure to show up for morning or evening prayer session at Church.

Historical Anecdotes:

  • Sometimes the Stocks were somewhat mobile, too heavy for one person to carry but possible for the community to move if a more appropriate place for punishment were decided. In other communities the stocks were built in a single place, and not practical to move.
    • One particularly disturbing piece of set dressing is stocks on the porch of a church. Many religious communities would punish you at, in, or in front of the house of the Lord.
      • Somewhat prosaically, this could often be because the church was either the only public building, or just the most prominent one. Quite a lot of pre-modern European societies (including the American colonies) made extensive use of their churches for secular and semi-secular purposes as well as for worship.
    • In Boston, the stocks were made by one Edward Palmer, who charged the city a little more than 1 pound sterling to build them. The city then decided that they'd been overcharged, so they fined Edward Palmer 5 pounds sterling, and made him the first victim of the stocks he'd built.
  • Thomas Wolsey was once sentenced to time in the stocks for drinking too much at a festival. It didn't stop him from becoming an English statesman and Catholic cardinal.
  • The severity of the crime may affect the severity of the punishment (such as whether or not they leave you out in the rain). A Massachusetts law from 1645 reads "he yt offens in excessive and longe drinkinge, he shalbe sett in the stocks for three howers when the weather is seasonable."


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

Game and Story Use

  • Adventure Seed: Zedekiah Brown
  • 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 or the stocks, 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 weather exposure should at least mean they have to recuperate for a while, and should impress upon them that the local constabulary means business.
  • Mentioning the stocks in front of a church or temple would be a colorful way to communicate to the players that the local religion is of "lawful" alignment and quite strict.
  • The tale of mister Edward Palmer of Boston illustrates the corrupt and cruel practices of the governments in the era. A similar tale could happen in your game, and the PCs have to decide whether or not to allow such punishments to be carried out.
  • The PCs are traveling on a road and arrive in a town at sunset. The town seems deserted, but there's lanterns lit at the church on the hill. As the PCs approach, the evening prayer session lets out. The townsfolk see that the PCs were in town, but not praying! This is clearly a crime worth being stocked for 2 or 3 days. Do the PCs take it on the chin, or flee down the road?
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