Branks and Gags


The brank of scold's bridle was unknown in America in its English shape: though from colonial records we learn that scolding women were far too plentiful, and were gagged for that annoying and irritating habit. The brank, sometimes call the gossip's bridle, or dame's bridle, or scold's helm, was truly a "brydle for a curste queane." It was a shocking instrument, a sort of iron cage, often of great weight; when worn, covering the entire head; with a spiked or flat tongue of iron to be placed in the mouth over the tongue. Hence if the offender spoke she was cruelly hurt.

Ralph Gardner, in his book entitled England's Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade, etc., printed in 1665, says of Newcastle-on-Tyne:

"There he saw one Anne Bridlestone drove through the streets by an officer of the same corporation, holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastened to an engine called the branks, which is like a crown, being of iron, which was musled over the head and face, with a great gag or tongue of iron forced into her mouth, which forced blood out; and that is the punishment which magistrates do inflict upon chiding and scolding women; and he hath often seen the like done to others."

Over fifty branks of various shapes are now in existence in English museums, churches, town halls, etc., and prove by their number and wide extent of location, the prevalence of their employment as a means of punishment. Being made of durable iron and kept within doors, and often thrust, as their use grew infrequent, into out-of-the-way hiding-places, they have not vanished from existence as have the wooden stocks and pillories, which stood exposed to wear, weather and attack.

One of these old-time branks is in the vestry of the church at Walton-on-Thames. It is dated 1632, and has this couplet graven on it:

"Chester presents Walton with a bridle
To cure women's tongues that talk too idle."

By tradition this brank was angrily and insultingly given by a gentleman named Chester, who through the lie of a gossiping woman of Walton lost an expected fortune. One is on Congleton Town Hall which was used as recently as 1824, upon a confirmed scold who had especially abused some constables and church-wardens; and as late as 1858 a brank was produced in terrorem to silence an English scold, and it is said with a marked and salutary effect. Several branks are still in existence in Staffordshire. The old historian of the country, Dr. Plot, pleads quaintly the cause of the brank:

"We come to the arts that respect mankind, amongst which as elsewhere, the civility of precedence must be allowed to the women, and that as well as in punishments as in favours. For the former, whereof they have such a peculiar artifice at Newcastle and Walsall for correcting of scolds, which it does too, so effectually and so very safely that I look upon it as much preferred to the ducking-stool, which not only endangers the health of the party, but also gives her tongue liberty to wag, twixt every dip, to neither of which is this at all liable, it being such a bridle for the tongue as not only brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon, before its take off ... Which being put upon the offender by the order of the magistrate, and fastened with a padlock behind, which is led through town by an officer, to her shame, nor is it taken off until after the party begins to show all external signs imaginable of humiliation and amendment."

Mr. Llewellyn Jewitt, editor of the Reliquary, gives an explicit account of the way a brank was worn:

"The Chesterfield brank is a good example, and has the additional interest of bearing a date. It is nine inches in height, and six and three-quarters across the hoop. It consists of a hoop of iron, hinged on either side, and fastening from behind, and a band, also of iron, passing over the head from back to front and opening dividing in front to admit the nose of the woman whose misfortune it was to wear it. The mode of putting it on would be thus: The brank would be opened by throwing back the sides of the hoop, and the hinder part of the top band by means of the hinges. The constable would then stand in front of his victim and force the knife or plate into her mouth, the divided band passing on either side of her nose, which would protrude through the opening. The hoop would then be closed behind, the band brought down from the top to the back of the head, and fastened down upon it, and thus the cage would at once be firmly and immovably fixed so long as her tormentors might think fit. On the left side is a chain, one end of which is attached to the hoop, and the other end is a ring by which the victim was led, or by which she was at pleasure attached to a post or wall. On the front of the brank is the date 1688."

This brank is depicted in the Reliquary for October, 1860. Mr. William Andrews, in his interesting book, entitled Old-Time Punishments gives drawings of no less than sixteen branks now preserved in England. Some of them are massive, and horrible instruments of torture.

It will be noted that the brank is universally spoken of as a punishment for women; but men also were sentenced to wear it -- paupers, blasphemers, railers.

I am glad John Winthorp and John Carver did not bring cumbrous and cruel iron branks to America. There are plenty of other ways to shut a woman's mouth and still her tongue, as all sensible men know; on every hand, if gossips were found, a simple machine could be shaped, one far simpler than a scold's bridle. A cleft stick pinched on the tongue was as temporarily efficacious as the iron machine, and could be speedily put in use. On June 4, 1651, the little town of Southampton, Long Island, saw a well-known resident, for her "exorbitant words of imprication," stand for an hour in public with her tongue in a cleft stick. A neighbor in Easthampton, Long Island, the same year received a like sentence:

"It is ordered that Goody Edwards shall pay �3 or have her tongue in a cleft stick for contempt of court warrant in saienge she would not come, but if they had been governor or magistrate then she would come, and desireing the warrant to burn it."

About the same time Goodwife Hunter was gagged in Springfield for a similar offense.

In Salem, under the sway of the rigid and narrow Puritan Endicott, the system of petty surveillance and demeaning punishment seemed to reach its height; and one citizen in mild sarcasm thereof said he did suppose if be did lie abed in the morning he would be hauled up by the magistrates, -- and was promptly fined for even saying such a thing in jest. Therefore of course "one Oliver, his wife" was adjudged to be whipped for reproaching the magistrates and for prophesying. Winthrop, in his History of New England, says of her scourging and her further punishment:

"She stood without tying, and bare her punishment with a masculine spirit, glorying in her suffering. But after (when she came to consider the reproach which would stick by her, etc.), she was much dejected about it. She had a cleft stick put on her tongue half an hour for reproaching the elders."

In Salem in 1639 four men got drunk -- young men, some of them servants. Two named George Dill and John Cook were thus punished:

"They be fined 40s for drunckenes, and to stand att the meeting-house doar next Lecture day with a Clefte Stick vpon his Tong and a paper vpon his hatt subscribed for gross premeditated lyinge."

The others, Thomas Tucke and Mica Ivor, were not so drunk nor such wanton liars and their punishment was somewhat mitigated. The sentence runs thus:

"They are also found guilty of Lyeing & Drunckenes though not to that degree as the twoe former yett are fined 40s their own promis taken for itt. Alsoe two stand on the Lecture day with the twoe former but noe clefte sticke on their Tong only a paper on his head subscribed for lying."

So it will be seen that men suffered this painful and mortifying punishment as well as women. And I may say, in passing, that slander and mischief-making seemed to be even more rife among men than among women in colonial times. This entry may be found in the Records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

"6 September, Boston, 1636. Robert Shorthouse for swearinge by the bloud of God was sentenced to have his tongue put into a cleft stick, and soe stand for halfe an houre & Elizabeth wife of Thomas Applegate was censured to stand with her tongue in a cleft stick for half an houre for swearinge, railinge and revilinge."

Robert Bartlett in the same court in 1638 was "psented" for cursing, and swearing and had his tongue thrust in a cleft stick. Samuel Hawkes for cursing, lying and stealing received the same sentence. In 1671 Sarah Morgan struck her husband. He evidently ran whining to the constables, and Wife Sarah received a just punishment. She was ordered to "stand with a gagg in her mouth" at Kittery, Maine, at a public town-meeting, and "the cause of her offense written and put on her forehead." Thus gagged and placarded she must have proved a striking figure; jeered at, doubtless as an odious example of wifely insubordination, by all the good citizens who came to shape the "Town's Mind " at the Town's Meeting.

As years passed on the independent spirit of the times became averse to gagging, though whipping and imprisonment still were for some years dealt out for reviling and railing. America was in some ways earlier in humane elements of consideration for criminals than England, and while women were still wearing the brank in English villages American women no Jonger feared either gag or cleft stick for unruly tongues.

Long after the punishment of which I write had been banished from American courts it lingered in various forms in American schools -- as did the stocks, the penance-stool, and the whip. I have an example of a "whispering-stick," a wooden gag, provided with holes by which it could be tied in place, and which was used in a Providence school during this century as a punishment for whispering. And many a child during the past century had a cleft stick placed on his tongue for ill words or untimely words in school. Sometimes, with an exaggeration of ridicule, a small branch of a tree in full leaf was split and pinched on the tongue -- a true pedagogical torture.