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March 29, 2012

The old man and the pillory

As Daniel Isaac Eaton was dragged to the pillory, he knew it would be useless to resist. Eaton saw a crowd gather, some estimates say as many 50,000 onlookers gathered round. There were too many people to determine what kinds of things they’d brought to throw at him.

Eaton knew London well, and he knew what happened to those who were stuck in the pillory. One hour would be a long spell, seemingly much longer than six months in prison. Sweat began to drip from his bald head. Strangers continued to pass by and gather round.

As nervous as he was, the sixty-year old (*) Eaton was able to walk steadily to the post, neither screaming or protesting. Was he too afraid to say anything, or had he just resigned to his fate?

His head and hands restrained, the sweat fell from his brow. Eaton was ready for the worst, and turned to face the crowd. The crowd were on the lunch break, thousands were there, eager for some form of entertainment. This is just what Eaton’s enemies expected.

However, instead of garbage and boos, Eaton’s face was met with a cheer! Each time he turned his head to a new part of the crowd, a near cheer greeted him.

The whole thing became like a bazaar. Transcripts of Eaton’s trial were put on sale, increasing the reach of the offensive material he had published. (There was a loophole in the blasphemy laws, trials could be published in full. Eaton’s trial included the evidence against him, which were the most offensive extracts from Thomas Paine’s book. It also included Eaton’s defense, which had more strange things.)

It now made sense why Eaton’s defence appeared so weak and counter-productive, he didn’t write what he wrote to win the case, he wrote it to be able to legally distribute more offensive material. Eaton had it published while in prison. (Ironically, despite the fact that people think they have more free speech now, Eaton probably wouldn’t be able to get away with selling that publication today.)

Others were also capitalizing on the event by selling their own controvertial pieces of literature.

It is said that the crowd tried to reach Eaton with refreshments, offering him a glass of wine. According to William Cobbett, however, it seems that the only supporter to get through to Eaton came with a towel to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

When Eaton was taken from the pillory, the carnaval atmosphere continued. A gamecock, or a rooster, was placed on top of the pillory by a supporter (or comedian) to remind the people of a previous trial that Eaton had won. It’s unlikely that anyone has ever had a more triumphant or pleasant stay in the pillory than Eaton had.

The authorities were at a loss of what to do. By putting the condemned man up for show, instead of suppressing his words, they merely publicized them.

People who weren’t interested in Deism were buying his tracts, just to thumb their nose at the authority. At least, that’s how William Cobbett saw it.

The supporters, according to Cobbett, didn’t support Thomas Paine’s “deism”, but rather the “freedom of press.”

However, Eaton’s ordeal was far from over. There were further consequences of the pamphlet being published. There was an unfinished prison term to look forward to. And Eaton wasn’t through publishing controversial literature either.

(to be continued…)

(*) Eaton’s exact age at the time is unclear. According to records, Eaton was “baptized”, apparently in the Church of England, in January of 1763. So, he may have been fifty nine and a half, but some journalists said he was sixty.

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