Who Invented Paddling People’s Butts as a Punishment?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 5 2012 8:30 AM

Paddling: A History

After facing complaints for the paddling of a female student by a male staffer, a Texas high school has changed its policy to allow opposite-sex paddlings. Who invented paddling?

Sailors. Corporal punishment is as old as the Hebrew Bible, and bare-handed spanking was used to discipline children by the 18th century. Other devices older than the paddle, such as the birch rod, have also been used to flog the buttocks. But people didn’t commonly paddle each other on land until the 19th century. In the 18th century paddling was used at sea to discipline naughty seafarers, such as if they slacked off and went to sleep during night watch. Instead of paddling, though, it was called cobbing. William Falconer’s 1769 Universal Dictionary of the Marine explained that cobbing “is performed by striking the offender a certain number of times on the breech [meaning buttocks] with a flat piece of wood called the cobbing-board.” Traditionally the cobbing board was made from a plank taken from the front of a barrel, and the punisher would use the bunghole end to strike the sailor’s butt. In one seaman’s account in Peter Parley’s Magazine, a sailor is told to “Get out, you lubber” and “Bear a hand, Mr. Dogfish” by a superior officer, but when he complains about the abuse, he is “ordered to have a ‘cobbing’ ” for giving “insulting looks.”

Slave punished by paddling
A slave is punished by paddling.

Image from Wikipedia.

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Paddling came to American shores as a way to punish slaves without scarring them. Slave owners and slave traders began paddling because they didn’t want to damage the people they saw as their valuable property. As James Glass Bertram wrote in his 1869 History of the Rod, “In order not to mark the backs of the slaves, and thus deteriorate their value, in Virginia they substituted the pliant strap and the scientific paddle.” A more recent historian further explains that “a scarred slave was a troublesome one, and no one wanted to purchase trouble.” This didn’t make the paddle any less cruel. A Mrs. Mann of Missouri was known for her fearsome “six pound paddle,” which she wielded with both hands. Some slaves were given hundreds of strokes from the paddle, and were left near dead. And it wasn’t just slaves who were paddled. At least one report suggests that some portion of American soldiers used paddling as early as the Revolutionary War, to punish “crimes characterized by meanness and low cunning,” but it wasn’t as well-known a practice then as it became in the following century.

Soon paddling spread to Europe and Brazil—where they used a wooden paddle called the palmatoria—and it wasn’t used only to discipline slaves and unruly sailors. Some of the first schoolchildren to be paddled were Irish students, who were paddled for failing to take off their hats. The French were wielding the paddle by the 1920s, except they called it the bâton de justice. In the 20th century, paddles were used for military initiations, discipline in the home, and erotic play. Paddling seems to have been used to haze freshmen since as early as the 1890s. Vanderbilt’s sophomore honorary society was dissolved by Chancellor James H. Kirkland in 1937, according to Life magazine, after he saw pictures of them paddling younger students. Over 20 states banned corporal punishment in schools over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, but it is still allowed in 19 states.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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