Yesterday, Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey opened in cinemas everywhere, just in time to spike Valentine sales of leather and leashes. I haven’t read the books or seen the films, but it is safe to assume that they are, to paraphrase the French, movies to be watched with one hand. Fair enough, but recent talk about sex robots being the slave of the future led me to ponder erotic automation, which, in turn, sent me to the literature of recreational chastisement for stories of historic spanking machines. They will, of course, all end in tears…
“Spanking machines” seem to have gotten their start as “flogging machines,” meant to alleviate the tedium of administering beatings in military or maritime settings.
This piece of cutting satire, from Punch, was in response to a gruesome flogging at Woolwich in early September 1859, at which 21 officers and men fainted away at the bloody horror, and which led to calls for the abolition of the lash. It brings up a desirable quality built into most punishment machines, the graduated scale of force:
THE STEAM CAT
The fast-improving spirit of the age has occasioned an active revival of the wholesome punishment of Flogging in the Army. At Coldbath Fields, and probably at other prisons, there is proceeding a restoration of the same good old discipline. Much mawkish sentiment has been excited by the circumstance, that at Woolwich, the other day, the diseased back of a soldier was lashed with a degree of violence a little too sanguinary. Therefore, lest the Cat should afford a handle to hollow philanthropists, by which they may succeed in wresting it from the control of colonels, and the grasp of drummers and executioners, it is expedient that some means should be provided for regulating the force with which the stripes are applied to the human skin, and the extent to which they lacerate it. For this purpose, an ingenious invention has been submitted to the Horse Guards, in the shape of a Flogging Machine. This clever contrivance is worked by steam, by the power of which the momentum of the lash can be precisely adjusted. At high-pressure, it exerts a quantity of Jack-Ketch power sufficient to lay bare the ribs and dorsal vertebrae of a muscular grenadier at one stroke; but perhaps it will seldom be required to perform this amount of action, at least in the present stage of our civilisation. When less steam is put on, it will, according to the reduction, tear and scratch the back to a depth varying from half an inch to less than a line, — will produce mere wheals, or only a slight redness; and may, indeed, be made to “do its spiriting” so “gently,” as simply to cause a pleasing titillation, and to ply the cat with such leniency that its stripes would be just sufficient to whip the dust off an officer’s boots. This machine will render the military and civil authorities independent of a soft-hearted executioner, and will save them from the excessive zeal of one whose heart is too much in his work.
To the civil prescribers of flagellation this instrument of torture will prove an especial boon, as it will enable them to inflict the exact amount of torment they please on the criminals in their power, instead of the uncertain agony of a whipping obscurely signified by the loose and indefinite terms, “good,” “sound,” and “severe.” One further advantage presented by this interesting application of machinery must not be omitted: it is so constructed that, whilst at work, it may be made to utter a scream like that of the railway-whistle, in which the shrieks of the sufferer under its operation may be drowned if required.
This engine of correction has received the warmest approval in a distinguished quarter, in which it has been pronounced a pretty piece of mechanism. Its introduction will mark, if not a new era, at least a return to an old one; and the rack, improved by modern science, will no doubt be re-established soon after the establishment of the Flogging Machine. Punch 17 September 1859: p. 121
Several decades later, the magic of electricity was ingeniously turned to the problem of punishment.
A French Electrical Flogging Machine.
A savant named Henri Roget, hailing from Lyons, has, it is stated, a new use for electricity. He has a patent to apply it as a substitute for the cat-o’-nine tails in corporeal punishment. The culprit, having been undressed, is securely strapped to a steel triangle, which is connected with one pole of a powerful battery. The other pole is connected with the whip, which consists of a number of steel wires covered with a sponge. This whip is dipped in water before the stroke is administered, and whenever the wet wires touch, an electrical discharge takes place.
The inventor claims that the chastisement can be made so mild as not to injure a school girl, while on the other hand, by increasing the power of the battery, a punishment can be administered beside which the knout would be mere child’s play and at the same time no injury is inflicted; the disgusting spectacle of a lacerated back is avoided, and the culprit, instead of having to be sent to the hospital to have his wounds healed, can be put to work in five minutes after the flogging is over. M. Roget intends petitioning Gen. Boulanger, the French minister of war, to allow his patent to be used experimentally on the next soldier sentenced to the cat. Flogging is not in existence in the French army, nor is it likely to be introduced to test the machine. Electrical World. Repository [Canton OH] 28 July 1886: p. 3
Electrical engineers entered enthusiastically into the development of time-saving domestic discipline devices to help the harried housewife.
NOW A SPANKING MACHINE
Time Will Be Saved to Busy Housewives by an Electrical Device.
There should be no bad boys, soiled clothing, rheumatic sufferers or impure air in New York for at least one week. A body of generous scientific men have found a way to dispose of these numerous evils and are going to take the public into their confidence at the new Grand Central palace, Lexington Avenue and Forty-seventh street, where the 1911 Electrical Exposition opens.
The one contrivance that has aroused unusual interest, particularly among mothers of unruly youngsters, is a spanking machine. This device, which is operated by electricity, is guaranteed so far to surpass the old fashioned paternal walloping that the management of the exposition is confident that it will be welcomed in every home after it has had a fair trial. It is so cleverly devised that the mother of a large family, who is frequently interrupted in her day’s work to apply the antiquated spanking to several of her brood, will find it a great time saver.
The only work required of the tired housewife is strapping the unruly boy in the machine and pressing the button. While she is filling the baby’s milk bottle or wrangling with the iceman, the spanking machine will be merrily whirring, while the rubber disks beat a steady tattoo on the area under treatment. New York Evening Telegram. Arizona Republican [Phoenix AZ] 24 November 1911: p. 5
A SPANKING MACHINE RUN BY ELECTRICITY TO BE TERROR TO BOYS
Chicago, Ill., Feb. 5. “Now, Willie, this is going to pain me far more than you.”
“You bet it will, ma. I fixed the wires so that you’ll get an awful shock when you start the dynamo.”
–Spanking joke, insulated.
The elusive “juice” which Benjamin Franklin tamed with a kite and his night key and which since has illuminated the world, conquered all nature and deprived the cable of its job in the streets of Chicago, is now debased to the humble purpose of preserving the sole of mother’s slipper. At the electrical show at the Coliseum in January an electrical spanking machine, newly perpetrated, was exhibited along with the electrical pile drivers and chafing dishes.
This news has dreadful significance for Chicago’s sumptuous collection of bad boys. A recent gathering of school principals, probation officers, and other grim creatures whereased and be-it-resolved to the effect that physical chastisement was the only answer to the problem of juvenile wickedness. The public schools have been equipped with electrical cook stoves, electrical tardy bells, and like devices and there would be no trouble that a capable mechanic could not overcome in rigging up an “autospanker” in each school building…
The “autospanker” was invented by a local electrical firm and the plans and specifications are now in the hands of a draftsman. The model will soon be complete. The contrivance is in the form of a large wheel, which bristles with six large wooden paddles. The power is furnished by a quarter horse power motor and an average of 60 swats and as many howls a minute can be maintained. The motor is connected with the grewsome device by a belt. This affords an opportunity for Willie; he can hide the belt.
One unique feature of the whole works is the collapsible propensity of the six slats, which fall loose after striking the blows and come up right on the other side, ready for another rap. Heavy-soled slippers may be used in the place of paddles if old-time associations of childhood are desired. Muncie [IL] Evening Press 5 February 1907: p. 3
The inventor’s imagination sometimes ran up against harsh domestic reality. This professor got a tongue-lashing.
HAS MECHANICAL SPANKER
Fined After Quarrel Over How Son Shall Be Punished
Because his wife objected to his using a mechanical device, invented by him at the University of Illinois, for punishing their child, Professor Duff Andrew Abrams, of Campaign, Ill., beat her, and she had him arrested. He pleaded guilty, waiving a jury and paid a fine of $12.50.
Abrams is associate professor in the engineering experiment station in applied and theoretical mechanics. He applied his theoretical mechanics to the erection of a spanking machine for the chastisement of children without the usual manual labor. When he tried to demonstrate the practicability of the device on his little son the mother objected.
A quarrel ensued. Neighbors interfered, saving the child from a spanking and allowing the mother to escape.
The device that caused the trouble weighs about twenty pounds, is constructed of aluminium and bamboo, and the “spankers” are padded so as to punish but not injure the patient.
“The patient” is bent over a rod, a wheel, operated against cogs, connects a crank run by a belt device. The “spanker” makes about thirty-five spanks a minute. Washington [DC] Bee 24 August 1912; p. 2
Visionary educational authorities, also, saw the benefit of automated spanking. This early notice of a school spanking machine describes the touching inspiration for the invention.
The heart of the inventor was touched at seeing a frail school ma’am with her right hand swelled up to the size of a canvas-ham form agitating a boy who had wickedly placed a piece of clapboard inside of his pants when he knew that the teacher was on the warpath after him. The teacher was weeping, and mentally saying she would run that boy through a thrashing-machine before she got through with him. The idea at once struck the inventor that a machine could be constructed that would tan the jacket, as it were, of the young reprobate and as the result of careful thought and study the spanking machine was invented. What a change! Instead of dreading the task of punishing scholars and shivering at the prospect of blistering hands, the teacher can enjoy the performance, and look forward to the hour for doing up a day’s spanking with a feeling of pleasure and gladness, and the frown formerly stereotyped on the face of the average school ma’am gives place to an angelic smile.
She seats herself at the instrument, after placing the condemned urchins in a row within reach of the hoisting apparatus or ice-tongs, she smiles, touches the snatchbrake with her foot, and the doomed urchin is launched into—if not into eternity, he will think so before that hand lefts up on him. With a smile playing over her features, she works her tiny feet the avenging hand descends and the old machine works as though endowed with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It will only take a moment of treading to make any ordinary boy sorry he enlisted, when he can be dropped and the next can be snatched. A whole school can be spanked up in fifteen minutes, if the teacher is anything of a treader. Vermont Gazette 31 October 1874: p. 1
SPARE THE ROD, &c.
An electrical spanking machine, invented by Professor Dennis, is now being tested in the public school at East Penna, Illinois. The mode of operation is to place a recalcitrant pupil over a chair near the spanking machine, press the button, and the flow of electricity starts a series of paddles in operation, which play upon the anatomy of the victim. The residents of the village have protested, and declare that they will take their children from the school if the use of the machine is not stopped. The inventor claims that the strength and frequency of the “spank” can be regulated to a nicety by the new machine, which he hopes will supplant the old-fashioned cane in all modern schools. Marlborough Express 11 January 1906: p. 2
Mayor Arthur C. Whitaker of Bridgeton, N.J. was exceptionally proud of his “spanking machine,” (pictured above), which, after much mystery, was revealed to be a barrel stave with a handle carved on it. The Mayor said that it was not an implement of torture but for beneficial chastisement of bad boys.
“I’m a friend of the boys,” said the Mayor, “and when we spank them we try to make them see that it is for their own good. When I went into office seven years ago I decided that no Bridgeton boy should be railroaded through to the county jail or reformatory for some petty offense if I could help it. So when the boys were brought before me for petty crimes and thefts, I conceived the idea of the “spanking machine” as offering the best solution for their cases. No youthful offender is ever spanked without the full consent of his or her parents. The “machine” is “cranked up” to fit the flagrancy of the crime.
Police Do Spanking.
“When a boy commits some offense that gets him into the hands of the police, he is brought before me and if the offense warrants it I sentence him to the ‘spanking machine.’ I have nothing to do with the administering of the spanking. The police do that. After going through the machine, the boy is brought back to my office. He usually has tears in his eyes and is in a humble spirit. I talk to him and show him where he has done wrong and the effect of it. I invite the boys to come back and tell me how they are getting along, and to seek my advice in any of their troubles. At times I find as high as a dozen boys waiting here at my office in the evening to talk to me about their problems—every one of them a boy that I had previously sentenced to be spanked.”
“The oldest fellow we ever put through the machine was 23 years old. He had committed an offense that would have sent him to jail and he chose the whipping himself rather than be put behind bars. He had it laid on pretty hard. He was so ashamed of what he had done and of the spanking he got that he left town the next day and we have never heard about him since.”
Mayor Whitaker used the “spanking machine” exclusively for juvenile offenders, with this single exception, but he believes that if properly geared up it would be quite effective for wife beaters.
The Mayor admitted that some Bridgeton parents sent their obstreperous sons to City Hall to be punished.
“Parents who have seen how effective the “spanking machine” is, occasionally ask me to spank their boys for them,” said Mayor Whitaker. “If the boy has been really bad and has gotten beyond the control of his parents, we usually try to accommodate them.” The fact that it is know that there is a “spanking machine” at the City Hall has quite a moral effect upon the younger generation of the city.
“I’ve had fathers come and ask me what kind of a machine it is,” said the Mayor. They thought it was some contraption operated by a crank or something like that. If the moral effect should be lost now that the public knows just what the ‘machine’ is, why we will rig up a really, truly mechanical spanker to take the place of the barrel stave, and it will have some jolt to it, too, on the spot where it fetches up.” The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 29 February 1920: p. 9
And finally, we have this dire story of a plucky American inventor, nearly done in by a band of merry spanksters.
Almost Kills Its Inventor While He is Making a Test.
Anoka (Minn) Cor Chicago American.
Harvey Miller, a farm hand, working for J.E. Reynolds, a prosperous farmer at Cedar Point, a few miles west of here, was spanked almost to death by a machine of his own contrivance.
Miller, who is an inventor, discovered a “mother help” machine. It consists of a series of phonographs to be set in each room of the house. On pressing a button any one of the phonographs desired will call out: “Stop that, Robert, and be a good boy.” Or will yell out: “If you aren’t a good boy mamma will whip you.” The device is worked by electricity and is supposed to relieve the mother of much running to and fro after her offspring, and to make the latter behave.
Miller has also a graduated spanking attachment. The person to be spanked is strapped flat down on a board, while a strong hardwood paddle operated by an electric motor does the work. Two dials control the mechanism. On the dial are printed ages from 2 to 16, so that the force of the blows can be regulated according to the age. On the other are the words, “light, fair, good, hard, serious,” to correspond with the offence for which punishment is to be inflicted.
Miller had finished the mechanism last night, and after vainly attempting to secure a friend to try it had himself strapped down on a board while a number of friends operated the works. The paddling was started at 2, slight, and gradually turned on until age 16, serious was reached.
Miller was by this time roaring for mercy and promising to be good while the onlookers were rolling on the floor, doubled up in laughter, not knowing that Miller, the inventor, had been terribly punished.
Miller’s strength was rapidly failing when his friends noted his condition, but not being familiar with the machine were unable to make it stop.
Miller had lost consciousness when someone released the buckles of the straps which held him down and rescued him.
Miller’s first act on regaining his senses was to destroy the “mothers help.” The Herald and News [Newberry SC] 6 November 1903: p. 7
There are many patents for a “Harvey Miller” in the patent archives, but the “mother’s help” does not seem to be among them.
I suppose the question is: were spanking machines actually used in schools or homes? (Something by that name was certainly reported as being used in prisons, but this may just have referred to a frame and a barrel stave.) The glee with which their many advantages are recounted smacks of an erotic subtext. Were these accounts just veiled fantasies for (or by) enthusiasts? Or perhaps a form of urban legend? In the examples I’ve seen of Victorian English flagellation literature (it is not a large sample) much attention is given to detailed specifications of the chastising instrument and the personal touch is stressed. Perhaps the emphasis on the spanking machinery—as opposed to the old-school, hand-plied birch—is a reflection of modern American mechanical ingenuity and know-how?
Undine from Strange Company sent in this 1900 patent for an “initiating device.” I’d originally left it out because the history of fraternal order chastisement would be a book in itself, but here it is, so you can make your own fun. It was the progenitor of a number of “entertaining” self-kicking devices.
And, despite my light-hearted tone in this post, corporal punishment of school-children is shockingly, still legal and even encouraged in many states and school districts.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.