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FORTRESS OF LOUISBOURG , Canada
KING'S BASTION BARRACKS
The Wooden Horse
This was the military version of riding the stang, and was aptly
described by Francis Grose in his Military Antiquities Respecting a
History of the English Army, published in 1786.
The wooden horse was formed of planks laid together so as
to form a long sharp ridge or angle, about eight or nine feet long.
The ridge represented the back of a horse, and it was supported
by four posts or legs, about six or seven feet long, placed on a
stand, made movable by small wheels; to complete the resemblance, a
head and a tail were added.
When a soldier or soldiers were sentenced by a court martial, or
ordered by the Commanding Officer to ride this horse, they were placed
on its back with their hands tied behind them, and frequently, to
increase the punishment, had muskets tied to their legs to prevent, as
was jocularly said, their horse from kicking them off. This
punishment was chiefly inflicted in the Infantry, who are supposed
unused to ride.
Military records quote that on 7 June 1731 'a soldier in General
Tatton's Regiment was whipped in the Abbey Court for marrying a girl. He
who advised them to marry was set upon a Wooden Horse, with six pairs
of spurs at his heels.'
The American Army also had wooden horses in its punishment stables. In
a book Curious Punishments of Bygone Days, published in 1896, the
author, Alice Morse Earle, cites the case of a soldier who, having
stolen some hens, was made to ride the wooden horse for three days,
with a fifty-pound weight tied to each foot. She also reports that,
hardly surprisingly, fatalities had been caused by such harsh
Such was the reputed cruelty of Spaniards and their Inquisition, that
many torture devices were attributed to them, the Spanish Chair and the
Spanish Bilboes, being but two of them. Another was the Donkey,
reportedly used by the Spanish Army and adopted by the Germans. This
was akin to the wooden horse but was instead a short stone wall which,
tapering to the top, provided a sharp ridge which the miscreant had to
straddle. Again weights were tied to the man's ankles for the duration
of his punishment.
In France the Cheval de Bois was ridden, the one at Besaneon being
garnished with short spikes along its ridge. And not only were the
populous of the French Army subjected to the military version, but also
any prostitutes caught out of bounds in the barracks!
in 18th century France
Another common punishment for soldiers (usually for rioting or drinking) was the riding the wooden horse. In New Amsterdam the wooden horse stood between Paerel street and the Fort, and was a straight, narrow, horizontal pole, standing twelve feet high. Sometimes the upper edge of the board or pole was acutely sharpened to intensify the cruelty. The soldier was set astride this board, with his hands tied behind his back. Often a heavy weight was tied to each foot, as was jocularly said, "to keep his horse from throwing him." Garret Segersen, a Dutch soldier, for stealing chickens, rode the wooden horse for three days, from two o'cjock to close of parade, with a fifty-pound weight tied to each foot, which was a severe punishment. In other cases in New Amsterdam a musket was tied to each foot of the disgraced man. One culprit rode with an empty scabbard in one hand and a pitcher in the other to show his inordinate love for John Barleycorn. Jan Alleman, a Dutch officer, valorously challenged Jan de Fries, who was bedridden; for this cruel and meaningless insult he, too, was sentenced to ride the wooden horse, and was cashiered.
Dutch regiments in New Netherland were frequently drilled and commanded by English officers, and riding the wooden horse was a favorite punishment in the English army; hence perhaps its prevalence in the Dutch regiments.
Grose, in his Military History of England, gives a picture of the wooden horse. It shows a narrow-edged board mounted on four legs on rollers and bearing a rudely-shaped head and tail. The ruins of one was still standing in Portsmouth, England, in 1765. He says that its use was abandoned in the English army on account of the permanent injury to the health of the culprit who endured it. At least one death is known in America, in colonial times, on Long Island, from riding the wooden horse. It was, of course, meted out as a punishment in the American provinces both in the royal troops and in the local train bands.
A Maine soldier, one Richard Gibson, in 1670, was "complayned of for his dangerous and churtonous caridge to his commander and mallplying of oaths." He was sentenced to be laid neck and heels together at the head of his company for two hours, or to ride the "Wooden-Hourse" at the head of the company the next training-day at Kittery.
In 1661, a Salem soldier, for some military misdemeanor, was sentenced to "ride the wooden horse," and in Revolutionary days it was a favorite punishment in the Continental army. In the order-book kept by Rev. John Pitman during his military service on the Hudson, are frequent entries of sen tences both for soldiers and suspected spies, to "ride the woodin horse," or, as it was sometimes called, "the timber mare." It was probably from the many hours of each sentence a modification of the cruel punishment of the seventeenth century.
It was most interesting to me to find, under the firm signature of our familiar Revolutionary hero, Paul Revere, as "Preseding Officer," the report of a Court-martial upon two Continental soldiers for playing cards on the Sabbath day in September, 1776; and to know that, as expressed by Paul Revere, "the Court are of the Oppinion that Thomas Cleverly ride the Wooden Horse for a Quarter of an hower with a muskett on each foot, and that Caleb Southward Cleans the Streets of the Camp," which shows that the patriot, could temper justice with both tender mercy and tidy prudence.
The wooden horse was employed some times as a civil punishment. Horse thieves were thus fitly punished. In New Haven, in January, 1787, a case happened:
"Last Tuesday one James Brown, a transient person, was brought to the bar of the County Court on a complaint for horse-stealing -- being put to plead -- plead guilty, and on Thursday received the sentence of the Court, that he shall be confined to the Goal in this County 8 weeks, to be whipped the first Day 15 stripes on the naked Body, and set an hour on the wooden horse, and on the first Monday each following Month be whipped ten stripes and set one hour each time on the wooden horse."
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