A pillory is a wooden device, with holes cut out for a person’s head and hands to be stuck through. Similar to a “stocks, the pillory was used historically to punish someone for an offense, through public humiliation. Pillories were also used to physically abuse people. To explore this concept, consider the following pillory definition.

Definition of Pillory


  1. A wooden device, built on a platform, or connected to a post, in which a person’s head and hands could be secured as a method of punishment.


1225-1275       Middle English pyllory

What is a Pillory

A pillory was similar to the stocks, in that a person’s head and hands would be inserted into the holes cut out of wooden boards, and then the boards would be locked so as to keep the person captive, and on display for the public. They would then be subjected to the humiliation and criticism offered up by those folks who passed them by. For example, a pillory would be placed in a marketplace, perhaps high up on a platform, so as to increase the visibility of the offender. A sign would often be posted close to the offender, so as to inform the public of the reason for his punishment, which would typically last only a few hours at most.

Anyone placed in the pillory would be incredibly uncomfortable due to the angle at which they had to bend in order to stick their head and hands into the device. Depending on how the pillory was built, the captive might or might not even be able to put his knees on the ground to support himself. Once the public realized that someone had been placed in the pillory, they would all gather around in order to make the captive as miserable as possible. In addition to teasing and taunting the offender, people would also throw horrible things at them, such as rotten food, dead animals, and animal feces.

Sometimes people were even killed or maimed while still in the pillory, because the crowds that had gathered would get too violent and throw worse things, like bricks, stones, or other dangerous items. Some individuals would be sentenced to additional punishments while still in the pillory. For example, pillory punishments that were more extreme included the shaving off of some or all of the captive’s hair, beatings (which earned the pillory its nickname of “the whipping post”), or even permanent mutilations, such as branding, or the amputation of a body part.

Use of the Pillory

In the United States, the use of the pillory was said to have been abolished in 1839. However, this has been proven to be incorrect, as the use of the pillory as a form of punishment was being practiced in Delaware as recently as 1901. Use of the pillory was finally abolished there too in March of 1905.

After 1816, England restricted the use of the pillory as a form of punishment to crimes of perjury or subornation. In 1837, England abolished the use of the pillory entirely, however the stocks remained in use, albeit rarely, until 1872. Peter James Bossy was the last person to be pilloried in England in 1830, when he was convicted of perjury, and was offered the choice of seven years of penal transportation or one hour in the pillory. Bossy opted for the latter.

France would limit their captives’ time in the pillory to about two hours, finally abolishing the practice in 1832 – five years earlier than England. Two different kinds of pillories were used in France:

The Poteau

A simplified post pillory that consisted of a board secured the captive’s neck. The captive would be attached to the board by an iron ring that was placed around his neck. The offender would spend between two and six hours in the pillory, depending on his sentence. His name, crime, and sentence would be written on a board that was displayed prominently above his head.

Small Tower

A small tower pillory consisted of an upper floor that contained a ring made of wood or iron, with holes cut out for the offender’s head and arms. This was often placed on a turntable that would expose the captive to the entire crowd by rotating him around in a complete circle so everyone could have a glimpse of him.

The pillory served as a symbol of the power that was held by the judicial authorities. The pillory’s physical presence was believed to be a deterrent to those who may have considered committing similar crimes but did not want to be sentenced to public humiliation and all that came with it.

Types of Stocks and Pillories

While the pillory may sound like a simple enough device, there were actually several types of stocks and pillories that existed historically.

Barrel Pillory

The Barrel Pillory, also referred to as the “Drunkard’s Cloak” or the “Spanish Mantle,” was a barrel that would cover a person’s entire body, with a hole in each end for the head and feet to poke through. The person would then be marched through the streets for the public to see. The Barrel Pillory was typically used as a punishment for drunkenness or polyandry. It was still being used as a punishment in American prisons in the 20th century, with evidence of such usage showing up as recently as 1932 at a prison camp in Florida.

Shrew’s Fiddle

A Shrew’s Fiddle pillory was used to punish women who fought with one another. The device took on the shape of a violin, and it would usually have a rope or chain attached to the front, so that the restrained woman could be marched through the streets. There was also a double version of the Shrew’s Fiddle, which would allow for two women to be locked up together. The women would be restrained while facing one another for the purpose of forcing them to “make up” and resolve their argument.

Other Types of Stocks and Pillories

Additional types of stocks and pillories that existed included:

  • Finger stocks (or finger pillories) – Finger stocks were used to imprison the index or middle fingers only, by inserting the first two joints of the fingers into the device. The finger pillory was built between two posts, and could often accommodate multiple offenders at the same time. Once the finger stocks were closed, the fingers – bent at the middle joint inside the wood – could not be removed. These were used to punish people for minor infractions, during social gatherings, or to discipline employees, and are still used during contemporary medieval banquets to punish disorderly customers.
  • Hanging stocks – Hanging stocks punished people by securing their hands above their head in a stock. These were employed to punish people who were guilty of minor offenses.
  • Iron stocks – Although wood was more common for various types of stocks and pillories, iron stocks were also occasionally used. Building this type of pillory was more costly, and required more skill.
  • Mobile stocks – Mobile stocks were mounted on wheels, and were often used to punish people guilty of religious offenses, such as failing to attend church. Those guilty of these offenses were punished near the church. However, because the communities in which these punishments were carried out were often small, and because the community could not usually afford two sets of stocks, mobile stocks would be used so that the devices could be wheeled to the church and back.
  • Water bath – Water baths were stocks that secured the offender in a seated position. The person’s head was contained in a small barrel, which was hinged on one side so as to allow it to close around the person’s head. Above that small barrel was another larger barrel that was filled with ice water. This barrel contained a valve that, when operated, would pour water down upon the captive’s head. The person administering the punishment would usually pour the water over the person’s head for a few seconds. The water bath was discontinued in the U.S. after it caused a prisoner in New York to die from a heart attack.
  • Yoke – A yoke was a single set of stocks that would restrain the neck and wrists. Unlike other types of stocks and pillories, the yoke was portable, meaning that the stocks were not attached to a post in the ground. The weight of the yoke was carried entirely on the captive’s shoulders. The yoke was used as less of a punishment, and more of a way to disable prisoners and slaves, particularly during transport.

Pillory Example in the 21st Century

An example of pillory use that occurred in recent history involved a public shaming in front of a post office for a mail-related crime. Shawn Gementera, who had a prior criminal record, was convicted in 2004 of stealing mail – a federal crime. Gementera had stolen letters from several mailboxes in San Francisco. When a police officer witnessed the theft, he immediately arrested Gementera and his accomplice, Andrew Choi, who had been lining his jacket with the stolen letters as Gementera kept watch.

After being indicted, Gementera entered into a plea agreement in which he pled guilty to mail theft. The judge released him on probation, while ordering him to spend 100 hours of community service. Eight hours of this service was required to consist of his standing in front of a post office wearing a sign that read “I stole mail. This is my punishment.”

Gementera appealed the public humiliation portion of his sentence, claiming that it was a violation of the Sentencing Reform Act. The Sentencing Reform Act was a federal statute that was established to ensure that sentencing for criminal acts were consistent. Gementera’s argument was that his sentence was inconsistent because the public humiliation section was not as sophisticated as the other forms of punishment he was assigned. The question then became whether or not public humiliation was a reasonable way of rehabilitating an offender as required under the law.

The Court held that yes, making a convict wear a sign in a public place that details his crime is perfectly reasonable insofar as attempting to rehabilitate him. The Court ruled that here, the district judge had come up with a logical plan insofar as Gementera’s sentencing that would be a better alternative to helping him change his ways, as opposed to a long prison sentence that may not have been as effective. Further, the Court ruled that the fact that a sentence consists of shame and embarrassment is not a legitimate reason to object to the punishment.

Even if the signboard requirement was not one of the more advanced forms of punishment in existence, the Court held that, because it was coupled with other effective conditions, such as writing an apology and lecturing at a high school, then the sentence as a whole was reasonable and useful in rehabilitating Gementera.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Penal Transportation – The transportation of prisoners to a prison.
  • Perjury – The willful telling of an untruth, or giving of false testimony, after having taken an oath.
  • Polyandry – A situation wherein a woman has more than one husband at the same time.
  • Subornation – The act of persuading someone to commit perjury.