When Neighbors Were the Morality Police
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this ritual shaming was a precursor to mob violence.
William Drinkwater had been abusive to his wife, Elizabeth. The couple’s neighbors in Ridgefield, Connecticut, knew about it — and knew it wasn’t right. While some British colonies in North America had laws against spousal abuse, they weren’t always enforced, which seemed to be the case in the otherwise peaceful community tucked into the Berkshire foothills. The neighbors confronted Drinkwater about his behavior, but when he didn’t listen, the townswomen had a backup plan — a ritual to shame him into treating his spouse with respect. They planned to have him ride skimmington.
The procession known as skimmington had its roots in Europe, where aroused citizenry would bang pots, shake bells and beat drums as they approached a perpetrator’s house. Hauling the offender out of the family domicile, they would tie him or her to a rail or ladder (one variation was a forced ride around town on a donkey or cart). Sometimes the boisterous parade would end with a mock trial that included a reenactment of the crime. Skimmington became more popular in the 1730s in British North America as “an increasingly cosmopolitan elite became less interested in enforcing laws against adultery or domestic violence,” writes Steven J. Stewart in Riot and Revelry in Early America.
Rough music was a community’s way of saying, ‘Enough.’ Enough arguing, enough sleeping around, enough beating.
Dr. Brendan McConville, professor of history, Boston University
The practice was similar to charivari in France, katzenmusik in Germany and “rough music” in England. A 1905 dictionary titled British Faiths and Folklore describes skimmington as “a ludicrous cavalcade in ridicule of a man beaten by his wife.” In the colonies, the ride was used for both men and women who were seen as causing problems in a community. “Rough music was a community’s way of saying, ‘Enough.’ Enough arguing, enough sleeping around, enough beating,” says Dr. Brendan McConville, professor of history at Boston University.
That day in 1733, the women of Ridgefield tied Drinkwater to a cart and beat him with rods as they pushed him around town. In Drinkwater’s vigorous attempts to get away, he pulled his arm out of its socket. He tried to complain to local magistrates, but according to an account in The New York Journal, they just laughed off the injured man’s protestations. In many cases of skimmington, the men in the community gave their tacit approval; otherwise, their womenfolk would have been punished for operating outside the law. The skimmington ride for Drinkwater might have been approved more vocally, since his wife’s father was a prominent member in town affairs.
After his ride, Drinkwater got the message. He moved his family to New Milford, about 25 miles north. Eventually, a conduct report made its way back to Ridgefield: “He proves a good Neighbor and a loving Husband. A remarkable Reformation arising from the Justice of the good Women!” He went on to become a constable and lawyer, with no further incidents of domestic disputes reported.
Riding skimmington was not really meant to harm, only to warn. Men caught cheating or abusing their wives might get dunked in a pond, have half of their hair shaved off or be spanked publicly. But sometimes things could get out of hand. In 1764, a farmer in Attleborough, Massachusetts, was accused of adultery with a young woman whom he “had for some time entertained in his house,” noted the October 27 edition of the Providence Gazette. The first time the neighbors showed up, he threatened them with a gun. When they returned 10 days later to surprise him, he stabbed one of the men trying to tie him up.
Even though skimmington might offer justice, what community members considered moral failings were entirely arbitrary. In some cases, this meant that interracial couples or a woman partying with her servants were considered unacceptable and were shamed through skimmington. A newspaper used the stabbing in the Attleborough case to prove how dangerous mob justice could be.
Toward the 1760s, skimmington also took on a political and economic agenda. “The line between legitimate popular action and illegal riot was often unclear practically and legally,” writes Dr. Robert W.T. Martin in Government by Dissent. In Albany, New York, a man who agreed to distribute stamped paper on behalf of the British government after the Stamp Act of 1765 was threatened by the community. Shaming evolved into tarring and feathering or even dressing up as Native Americans and dumping tea during the Boston Tea Party. But when the political crisis was over, “the social-moral use remained; skimmington is closely related to the practice of ‘running someone out of town on a rail’ common into the 20th century,” adds McConville.
Even if that forced exit doesn’t still occur literally, the phrase remains in use metaphorically when popular opinion turns against a public figure, for example. And when citizens across the globe get upset, the tradition of rough music lives on when protesters beat drums, cover their faces and start upsetting the established order — from Paris in 1968 to Revolution Summer to May Day.