This week marks the anniversary of Daniel Defoe’s week long stint in the pillory as punishment for his pamphlet ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters’. One of the most colourful figures of the eighteenth century and a writer who produced a diverse library of works, Defoe’s life was as eventful as his fiction.
The pillory was primarily used as a means to punish minor offenders by publicly shaming them. Unlike other forms of punishment, a crucial feature of the pillory was its reliance on ordinary people to administer justice. Offenders found guilty of crimes such as homosexuality, rioting or deception were locked into a wooden framework where members of the public could hurl missiles at them. Common projectiles thrown include rotten food, dead animals, even stones and old saucepans – highlighting that the pillory was a punishment capable of causing serious injury to its victims.
Defoe’s sentence saw him placed in three different pillories around London for an hour each over the the last few days of July 1703. He had been found guilty of seditious libel in his pamphlet ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters’, published at the end of 1702. Fortunately for Defoe, the public were sympathetic towards the writer and rather than being pelted with filth and debris, the only objects thrown at him by the small crowd were flowers.
Born in 1660, Defoe had opted against the career in the church taken up by his father to instead work as a merchant. After his Tilbury based brickworks entered difficulties towards the end of the seventeenth century, Defoe took up work as a pamphleteer to support himself. His writing saw him lead something of a double life. He was paid vast sums to write texts in support of government policies, a job comparable to a modern day spin doctor, while also producing texts – often anonymously – which criticised society’s lack of tolerance towards dissenters.
‘The Shortest Way’ was one such critique. A satirical piece written from the perspective of an Anglican, it suggested that instead of merely passing laws against Protest ‘non-conformists’ (a group Defoe himself fell into) the Church of England should banish them abroad and execute their preachers. Defoe was mocking the bigoted views of the Anglican church, but several high placed figures in the church didn’t see the satire, and publicly endorsed the pamphlet’s ideas. Equally, dissenters also took the arguments seriously, and were enraged by the suggestions made in the pamphlet.
Once Defoe’s hoax was unraveled, both sides were furious at the trick that had been played. Although the work had been published anonymously, Defoe was quickly identified as its creator. He went into hiding, but was eventually captured in Spitalfields after one of his confidants betrayed him for a reward.
Imprisoned in May 1703, Defoe was released on bail in June ahead of his trial in early July. He pleaded guilty, as he had no real defence, but appealed for mercy on the basis the pamphlet was not meant to have been taken seriously. Along with the three stints in the pillory, Defoe’s sentence included a hefty fine and a prison term which would last until he could provide guarantees for his good behaviour.
While imprisoned Defoe’s business went bankrupt, and he seemed to have no means of securing his freedom until Robert Harley, the future Earl of Oxford, paid for his release using secret service funds. The English government decided Defoe’s skills could be of use, and employed him to publish a newspaper which portrayed government policies in a positive light. In 1706 he was employed as a spy, and sent to Edinburgh to gather political intelligence in anticipation of the act of Union between England and Scotland.
Defoe continued to work as a propagandist and spy for more than a decade, using the talents which had been revealed in his satirisation of the Church of England to aid the English government. It was only in later life that he started writing fiction, creating works such as Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe which saw immortalised as a fiction writer instead of a satirist, propagandist and spy.
The Works of Daniel Defoe
Carefully Selected from the Most Authentic Sources, With Chalmers’ Life of the Author, Annotated
by Daniel Defoe