Laddering: Making Jerry Pay August 3, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Today if you dog defecates on the sidewalk or your daughter throws an icecream in the next-door neighbour’s garden it is a matter for the police or some of the tentacle-like social work groups from you local authority. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, of course, but in earlier centuries there was no question of the law intervening in minor matters. Local communities, be they urban or rural, dealt themselves with problems without reference to the authorities. It might be a question of a neighbour shouting at another neighbour and everyone coming out to glare in support of one or another of the combatants. It might be ‘sending Mr Smith to Coventry’, the whole street would stop talking to her and her family. Or it might be a rather more unusual act. Take the following case of laddering.
Jerry ‘Aw Will Weighve’ lived in a Pennine village in the mid nineteenth century. His nickname did not reflect well on him. When he would return home at night he would see how much his wife had woven in the day – this was a textile community – and if he was unsatisfied he would remove his belt and ‘leather’ her. The poor woman would scream out in Lanky as she was hit ‘A will weighve’ (‘I’ll weave’). This was the nineteenth century and there was no question that a husband had dominion over his wife. But the community was uneasy: the very fact that Jerry was given the nickname suggests an attempt to shame him. But Jerry would not be shamed and one day he went too far. His wife began to scream ‘murder, murder’ and then the street decided to intervene.
The process was a simple one:
1) The women on the street went to his door to see what was happening.
2) A deputation was sent to the local pub (The White Lion) to get some young men.
3) The young men got a ladder and a rope.
4) Jerry was dragged kicking and screaming from his house.
5) Jerry was tied to the ladder and paraded through the town.
6) As he was walked through the town the women came out of their houses and beat on tin cans shouting: ‘ran tan tan, ran tan tan, an owd tin can, gan her blows, brast her nose, ran tan tan, ran tan, tan, an owd tin can, two black een, shame to be seen, ran tan tan, an owd tin can, ran tan tan, an owd tin can.’
7) Individual women would run up and make comments to the recumbent Jerry as he passed. There is a strong sense that the women (not the men) had to punish him.
8) The parade stopped at each pub and the landlord was expected to give free ale to each ladder carrier and to pour a gill of ale over Jerry
9) At the end of several pubs a deputation of women came and gave witness to the ladder carriers to the terrible state of Jerry’s wife. The ladderers listened and then told Jerry that if he laid another finger on her, then they would drag him (on the ladder?) through the mill pond.
Of course, there is a deeply unpleasant side to all this. And it is striking how often this kind of punishment was meted out for crimes against morality: e.g. sleeping around, adultery etc, which gives the whole question a slightly Iranian feel. Then, too, lynching in the southern states and witch ducking were extreme versions of the same. ‘Popular justice’ becomes particularly frightening when there is a minority (e.g. a ten percent black population) or a scape-goat (strange old lady at the town’s edge). But, in its favour, it should be noted that Jerry never hit his wife again, or at least the neighbours never heard anything: and no one paid any taxes to make this oafish man stop, unless we count the landlords having to give free ale. Beach was also fascinated by the way that the local well-to-do took the process for granted. Of course, the ‘populus’ dealt with certain areas of justice, the magistrate would not intervene. What other village punishments are there like this? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.
31 Aug 2013: Neil B writes in: This sounds like a skimmington or stang. This “rough music” was a common method of expressing local community disapproval of private behaviour. It is found fairly widely in England – skimmington tends to be the form in Somerset & Wiltshire, while stang seems to be more common in the north but the format is generally the same. In early modern England it was more usually the reverse; men humiliated for failing to live up to their role of head of their household. However, the history of spousal relationships in early modern England is an area in which historical study is too often coloured by the politics of the author. There is a frieze depicting a Skimmington Ride at Montacute House, in Somerset, http://montacutehouse.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/skimmington-ride.html The main academic work is by David Underdwown, though now quite old, which is primarily based on Somerset. Underdown, D. (1985). The Taming of the scold: The enforcement of Patriarchal authorityin early modern England. In: ‘Order and Disorder’ in Early Modern England. Ed. Fletcher, A., Stevenson, J. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press Underdown, D. (1985). Revel, Riot and Rebellion. Oxford. Oxford University Press. Thanks Neil!
30 Sep 2015: Bruce T, ‘It sounds much like “Being run out of town on a rail” in the US in the 19th Century. Depending on the severity of the offense, the culprit, or culprits, would be tied to wooden fence rails, hefted up high by the stronger men in the community and ran through the streets, while the locals pelted the accused with anything they could lay their hands on. After being rode on the rail, they would be dumped on the edge of town with a few parting blows and warned not to come back unless they wanted worse.
As for the worse, it was being “tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.” Mark Twain has a graphic depiction of it in “Huckleberry Finn”, where a frontier Doctor selling poisonous patent medicines in the region and his crew were tarred, feathered, ran out of town on the rail, then thrown in the Ohio River.
The process of being tarred and feathered could be fatal. Hot tar doesn’t pour freely until it reaches about 160 degrees fahrenheit. Being thrown in the river was probably a relief for the survivors. However the scarring from the the scalding tar marked a man for life.
When I was young man there was another tradition of “being run out of town on the rail.” There are a lot of mining and factory towns in the region. Nearly every one of any size had at least one rail yard. If a fellow was a general nuisance, the locals would play buddy-buddy with him for a couple of weeks. On a weekend night they would take him out drinking, give him a good thumping, and throw him naked into an empty boxcar set to leave the yard. Waking up who knows where, the fellow was usually never seen again. This was going on until the early 1990’s. (It was often a trick pulled on guys at the end of their bachelor party, without the beating of course, and their clothes thrown in with them.)
There was another version set aside for people such as rapists and murderers who got away with their crimes via the court or circumstances. They would get tricked in the same manner until they were intoxicated out of their gourds. They would then be beaten senseless and laid on the tracks just before a train was scheduled to leave the yard. If the fellow managed to regain consciousness and roll off the tracks, he got the message and left town. If not, he was just another drunk who passed out on the tracks and the death ruled accidental. Either way the offender was said to be, “In the Hands of God” once he was placed on the tracks.