Past Treasure of the Month – July & August 2009
As part of the reopening celebration on Saturday, July 11th, 2009, the Museum featured an original set of foot stocks from the old Galveston County Jail as the first “Treasure of the Month” display since the wake of Hurricane Ike.
Stocks were hinged timbers which held offenders of petty crimes for relative amounts of time or until an official sentence could be carried out. Although the stocks are one of the most publicized and well known medieval forms of punishment, most people get them confused with the “pillory.” Stocks were meant to restrain an offender’s feet, while the pillory restrained the arms and head. This form of punishment was commonly used across Europe from the 14th century until the mid 19th century. Its use in America began with the colonists and was still practiced when Galveston was founded in 1839. Stocks were most commonly built either at the entrance to a town or on a public green, and no village was considered complete without them as they were essential to law and order.
There were several reasons one could be confined to the stocks which might include: not attending church, gambling, being intoxicated, singing ballads, fortune-telling, wife-beating, hedge-tearing, swearing, jesting, and even oversleeping. Punishments could last anywhere from one hour to several days. As well as being verbally abused by the general public, offenders in the stocks often had an array of items thrown at them such as rotten eggs, “filth” from the streets, dead cats, rats, stones, and other unpleasant remains. The worst humiliation one could suffer though was having the bottom of one’s feet exposed to the public.
Stocks eventually were replaced with make-shift jails and other confinement buildings as they were considered a more reasonable and humane punishment. Today the stocks have taken on a lighter image, and are mostly found at Renaissance Fairs where the public can experience a form of “stock entertainment.”
The set of stocks displayed at the Library (pictured above) would have accommodated three persons seated on a bench with their feet secured through holes, and then latched with a lock. The top section was removed before it was donated, but the hinge is still present. There are a number of possibilities as to which Galveston County Jail location the stocks originated from because between the 1840s through the 1920s, the jail was rebuilt and relocated several times, but the first known jail on the island was the hull of the German brig “Elbe” that had been stranded after a storm in 1837.