It’s reassuring to know how close in sensibility we are to our forebears. Sadism and a delusional sense of righteousness, of hurling the projectile of justice oneself, remains deeply satisfying. In the passage above, Liza Picard in Dr Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1777 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000) recounts a common recreation dating from two and a half centuries ago, though it sounds like last week. Along with bear-baiting, cockfighting and public drunkenness, Richard B. Schwartz in Daily Life in Johnson’s London (University of Wisconsin Press, 1983) also describes the pleasures of the pillory:
“Crowds in the streets amused themselves by, among other things, pelting those unfortunates locked in the pillory. They threw dirt, rotten eggs and vegetables, dead dogs and cats, trash, and ordure. In some cases they threw bricks and jagged metal. Time in the pillory, depending on the person and the offense, could be tantamount to a sentence of death. Mother Needham, the infamous bawd, died as a result of time spent in the pillory.”
Pillory dates from the late twelfth century. It shows up in Langland and Marvell. Joyce uses the word in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses: “Bloom with asses' ears seats himself in the pillory with crossed arms, his feet protruding.” The OED also cites this use by Johnson via Boswell:
“Talking of a recent seditious delinquent, he said, `They should set him in the pillory, that he may be punished in a way that would disgrace him.’ I observed that the pillory does not always disgrace; and I mentioned an instance of a gentleman who, I thought, was not dishonoured by it. JOHNSON: `Ay, but he was, sir. He would not mouth and strut as he used to do, after having been there. People are not willing to ask a man to their tables who has stood in the pillory.’”
Among the better-known occupants of the pillory was Daniel Defoe, who in 1702 published a pamphlet titled “The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church.” Defoe was arrested, convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to the pillory and a term in prison, with release contingent on payment of a punitively heavy fine. According to a legend disputed by scholars, Defoe was pelted not with stones or dead cats but flowers in critical recognition of his poem “The Hymn to the Pillory.”
Here is the OED definition, including a significant italicized addendum: “a device for punishment, usually consisting of a wooden framework mounted on a post, with holes or rings for trapping the head and hands, in which an offender was confined so as to be subjected to public ridicule, abuse, assault, etc.; punishment of this kind. Now hist.”
An Act of Parliament dated June 30, 1837, outlawed use of the pillory in the United Kingdom. It remained a legal mode of punishment and amusement in the state of Delaware until 1905.