Slave iron bit

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The iron bit, also referred to as a gag, was used by slave masters and overseers as a form of punishment on slaves in the Southern United States. The bit, sometimes depicted as the scold's bridle, uses similar mechanics to that of the common horse bit. The scolds bridle however, is almost always associated with its use on women in the early 17th century and there are very few accounts of the device as a method of torture against black slaves under that particular name. As opposed to the whip, the iron bit lacks the historic, social, and literary symbolic fame that would make information on the use of the iron bit as accessible. Its use throughout history has warranted some attention though, mostly from literary texts. Even earlier, slave narratives and publications of newspapers and magazines from the 18th century on give evidence of this device being used to torture and punish slaves.



A website dedicated to documenting the history of slavery in the US quotes from slave trader turned abolitionist Thomas Branagan, who describes the iron bit through a "front and profile view of an African's head, with the mouth-piece and necklace, the hooks round which are placed to prevent an escapee when pursued in the woods, and to hinder them from laying down the head to procure rest." His essay entitled, "The Method of Procuring Slaves on the Coast of Africa; with an account of their sufferings on the voyage, and cruel treatment in the West Indies", describes the iron bit as having "a flat iron which goes into the mouth, and so effectually keeps down the tongue, that nothing can be swallowed, not even the saliva, a passage for which is made through holes in the mouth-plate." [1]

Historical evidence

Escrava Anastacia ("Anastacia the female slave"), a Brazilian folk saint, depicted wearing a punitive iron facemask. Escrava Anastacia.jpg
Escrava Anastacia ("Anastacia the female slave"), a Brazilian folk saint, depicted wearing a punitive iron facemask.

Several articles and newspapers mention what appears to be the iron bit, but the name of the device varies from region to region where it is used. The mask, bit, and gag all refer to this torture device, but may differ in their specific manufacturing and disciplinary purposes. An 1848 article in The North Star states that "dealing in slaves has become a large business: establishments are made in several places in Maryland, at which they are sold like cattle. These places of deposit are strongly built and well supplied with iron thumb-screws and gags, and ornamented with cowskins and whips, often bloody".

A man wrote in an open letter to the editor of the Frederick Douglass Paper about an abolitionist who was demonstrating the actions of slave holders in the American South,

I recollect the horror that thrilled the hearts of the spectators, when Mr. Gurney one evening placed on his head an iron machine of torture, which inflicted great pain upon the slave, and an iron gag penetrated his mouth, confining his tongue and preventing articulation. He exhibited the whips also, and many other implements of cruelty adopted by the planters and their agents.

One newspaper advertisement from 1792 writes of a reward to be given for the capture of a runaway slave. The description of her is given that she is "5 feet three or 4 inches high, had on, when she went away, such clothing as negroes generally wear in the summer, and carried with her a white linen coat and jacket. She is a vile creature, and for her many crimes I punished her with an iron collar, but supposed she soon got that off." [2] Another article on the treatment of slaves by Delphine LaLaurie of Louisiana stated that "seven slaves were reportedly found in various parts of the residence and they were said to be in need of medical attention. Some of them were allegedly chained in uncomfortable positions and instruments of torture were said to have been found … [Specifically] iron collars with spikes or sharp edges." [3]

Literary accounts

Olaudah Equiano writes about the iron bit in his slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano , as "the iron muzzle". He writes that "the iron muzzle, thumb screws, etc. are so well known as not to need a description, and were sometimes applied for the slightest faults" (Equiano 112). [4]

Toni Morrison references the punishment in her novel Beloved .

See also

Related Research Articles

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Thumbscrew (torture)

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Gag Device designed to prevent speech

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Scolds bridle 16th-century instrument of punishment or [[torture]]

A scold's bridle, sometimes called a witch's bridle, a brank's bridle, or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment, as a form of torture and public humiliation. This was overwhelmingly used on women as one of many ways to control and subjugate them, literally taking away their ability to speak or share opinions. It caused extreme pain and also physiological trauma in order to scare and intimidate women into submission. It was often on request of husbands or family members. The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. A bridle-bit, about 2 in × 1 in in size, was slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, often with a spike on the tongue, as a compress. This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth.

Olaudah Equiano

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Ottobah Cugoano African abolitionist in England

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Double bridle

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Delphine LaLaurie American serial killer

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<i>The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano</i>

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Bit mouthpiece

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Bit (horse) Horse equipment that fits in the mouth and is used to direct the horse

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Pear of anguish

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Treatment of the enslaved in the United States

The treatment of enslaved people in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal, especially on plantations. Whipping and rape were routine, but usually not in front of white outsiders, or even the plantation owner's family. An enslaved person could not be a witness against a white; enslaved people were sometimes required to whip other enslaved people, even family members. There were also businesses to which a slave owner could turn over the whipping. Families were often split up by the sale of one or more members, usually never to see or hear of each other again. There were some relatively enlightened slave owners—Nat Turner said his master was kind—but not on large plantations. Only a small minority of enslaved people received anything resembling decent treatment; one contemporary estimate was 10%, not without noting that the ones well treated desired freedom just as much as those poorly treated. Good treatment could vanish upon the death of an owner. As put by William T. Allan, a slaveowner's abolitionist son who could not safely return to Alabama, "cruelty was the rule, and kindness the exception".

Torture Museum, Amsterdam

The Torture Museum, Amsterdam is a small museum located in the heart of Amsterdam, near the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) overlooking the Singel canal. Included in the list of the world's most unusual museums. It is a popular museum for tourists, The torture museum is one of the 50 museums in Amsterdam. A second museum related to the subject of torture in Amsterdam is the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. This second museum has a different layout and is located in Damrak 33, close to the central station. The 2 museums are not connected.


  1. "Slave Tortures: The Mask, Scold's Bridle, or Brank". 2011-09-23. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  2. "Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser (Davis), Richmond, January 18, 1792". The Geography of Slavery in Virginia. University of Virginia. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
  3. Darkis, Fred (1982). "Madame LaLaurie of New Orleans". Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. 23 (4): 383–399.
  4. Equiano, Olaudah (2002). "The Life of Olaudah Equiano". In Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed.). The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Signet Classic. pp. 15–248.