Of all the ancient means of punishment, perhaps the most humiliating were the ducking stool and its predecessor, the cucking stool. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably today, there were distinct differences between the devices. The ducking stool was physically the harsher of the two, an oddity when one realises that it was a punishment reserved almost exclusively for women, which the cucking stool was not.

Ducking vs. Cucking

The older device, the cucking stool, or Stool of Repentance, was used by the Saxons, who referred to it as a Scolding Stool. It was used, not only for women, but also cheats of all types, such as merchants who gave short measure or sold shoddy goods. The offender, who would go with head bared and barefooted, presumably as a further symbol of exposure, was publicly displayed at her own door. She might also be wheeled through the streets, where she would be followed by a jeering crowd. With the advent of the brank, or Scold's Bridle, the cucking stool fell out of favour as a punishment for women. The introduction of the ducking stool, somewhere near the beginning of the 17th century, saw the cucking stool disappear completely.

The ducking stool, as a punishment, was almost everything that the cucking stool had been, with the additional twist of dunking the offender into the water. Typically, the ducking stool was primarily formed of a sturdy chair affixed to a beam or beams in a way that allowed the chair to be raised or lowered with the victim still sitting upright. Some were permanent constructions near the water, while others were wheeled, which allowed for the mocking procession through the streets as well as the final dunking. Occasionally, if the water level was too low to allow for dunking, these contraptions were used as cucking stools, and the dunking foregone. One of these wheeled types of ducking stools was the tumbrel, which had long poles affixed to the axles so that it could be drawn to a pond or other source of water. The offender was then wheeled into the water and the poles released, thus tipping the chair backward into the water.

Crime and Punishment

A woman could be sentenced to the ducking stool for any number of perceived crimes, often at her husband's appeal. Such crimes included scolding, nagging, gossiping, drunkenness, prostitution, and unfaithfulness. Occasionally, a quarrelsome couple would be dunked together, tied back to back. The judge, at the time of sentencing, usually proscribed the number of duckings to be given. The length of time the offender remained submerged, however, was entirely in the hands of the persons carrying out the dunkings. Sometimes the duckings proved fatal; more than one elderly woman succumbed from the shock of the cold water.

Crossing the Waters

Ducking as a punishment came to America with the colonists. Although it is often described here as a Puritan punishment, that does not hold up under scrutiny, for no record exists that the Puritan colonies ever so sentenced someone. By contrast, in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Quaker Pennsylvania, many such sentences were handed down, and ducking remained in practice there every bit as long as it did in England.

The new colonies also added a new and more sinister twist to the old punishment: it became a common measure of trial for witchcraft. Since everyone knew that a witch could not be drowned, when a woman was accused of witchcraft, she was taken to the ducking stool. She was then immersed for a "suitable" length of time, as determined by those carrying out the trial, and then brought up. If she was lucky, she died of drowning before she was brought up. For if she survived the ducking, then she was regarded as guilty of witchcraft, and the standard means of execution for that crime was far more horrifying and painful than a mere drowning. This is not to say that such a proceeding was entirely unheard-of in England; it was not. But the new colonies took the practice to new heights.

Drawing to a Close

Perhaps it was the counter-reaction to the witch trials, ironically, which helped hasten the ducking stool into obscurity. It's impossible to say for sure. It is known, however, that in 1824, a Philadelphia sentence was not carried out, as the punishment was believed to be obsolete and unfitting for the times. The last known ducking in England was in 1809 at Leominster. The last sentence of such, however, occurred in 1817, but was not carried out, as the water level was too low. Instead, the woman was subjected only to the cucking stool punishment. The punishment lingered longer in the colonies, as was the case with a great many fads, but eventually did disappear entirely. Today, the surviving examples of ducking stools are curiosities and no more; testament only to the strange things people have considered "just punishment" throughout the years.


"DUCKING and CUCKING STOOLS." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia.
© 2003, 2004 LoveToKnow.

Alice Morse Earle: "The Ducking Stool"
Curious Punishments of Bygone Days