One of the earliest institutions in every New England community was a pair of stocks. The first public building was a meeting-house, but often before any house of God was builded, the devil got his restraining engine. It was a true English punishment, and to a degree, a Scotch; and was of most ancient date. In the Cambridge Trinity College Psalter, an illuminated manuscript illustrating the manners of the twelfth century, may be seen the quaint pictures of two men sitting in stocks, while two others flout them. So essential to due order and government were the stocks that every village had them. Sometimes they were movable and often were kept in the church porch, a sober Sunday monitor. Shakespeare says in King Lear:
“Fetch forth the stocks
You stubborn ancient knave!”
In England, petty thieves, unruly servants, wife-beaters, hedge-tearers, vagrants, Sabbath-breakers, revilers, gamblers, drunkards, ballad-singers, fortune-tellers, traveling musicians and a variety of other offenders, were all punished by the stocks. Doubtless the most notable person ever set in the stocks for drinking too freely was that great man, Cardinal Wolsey. About the year 1500 he was the incumbent at Lymington, and getting drunk at a village feast, he was seen by Sir Amyas Poulett, a strict moralist, and local justice of the peace, who humiliated the embryo cardinal by thrusting him in the stocks.
The Boston magistrates had a “pair of bilbowes” doubtless brought from England; but these were only temporary, and soon stocks were ordered. It is a fair example of the humorous side of Puritan law so frequently and unwittingly displayed that the first malefactor set in these strong new stocks was the carpenter who made them:
“Edward Palmer for his extortion in taking £1 13s., 7d. for the plank and woodwork of Boston stocks is fyned £5 & censured to bee sett an houre in the stocks.”