Confirmed criminals were thus clamped in a position of acute and pitiful vulnerability in full view of the jeering mob to whom they proved irresistible targets and who were at liberty — encouraged, even — to chuck whatever they could get their hands on; clumps of earth, rotten eggs, cucumbers, turnips, offal and in their less charitable moments dead cats, paving stones, shards of glass and bricks at the victim’s head. The stakes were high; an unlucky few died in the pillory (around 10 in the course of the 18th century, according to the historian Robert Shoemaker). Aside from sodomites who fared particularly badly, no creature was more despised than false-accusers who, for reward money, swore robberies against innocent parties. John Valler stood the pillory for just that in June 1732 and a pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks …[then] they pulled down the pillory, by which the skull of this unhappy wretch was fractured’. Still not satisfied, ‘as he lay on the ground, they stamped so hard upon his body that they broke his ribs’. He was dead within the hour. This had not been the authorities’ intention; two members of the crowd were convicted of his murder three months later.
Yet the crowd could be forgiving; sympathetic even, especially when they felt the defendant had been treated unfairly.
A pamphlet gleefully described how ‘the mob began to pelt him with cabbage, cauliflowers and artichoke stalks…
Famously, when Daniel Defoe was pilloried in 1703 after publishing a faux-bigoted rant against religious dissenters (of which he was one) on the orders of the pro-dissenter, irony-deaf whig government, the only thing anyone threw at him was flowers, while the very pamphlet itself was casually sold by his supporters. And in June 1763, the Post Boy reported how the crowd reacted to two elderly men in the New Palace Yard pillory for attempted buggery — ‘their tears, which flowed in great abundance, drew such compassion, that they treated them with the greatest lenity, and some money was collected for them’.
The most interactive and democratic of all of old London’s shaming rituals, audience responses could damage, destroy or save someone’s reputation or, in rare cases, kill them; in 1509, three pilloried offenders are recorded as ‘dying of shame’ — could they have been driven to suicide, like victims of online trolling in extreme cases?