While parents today may occasionally joke about crate-training their children, some parents of the recent past took to actually chaining their children up instead of parenting them. Sometimes, this was done to prevent them from running away. It was common in the early half of the 1900s to chain a runaway child to a chair or to the bed, and newspapers across the US, Australia, and Europe were filled with such tales. Other times, chaining a child was done in lieu of a babysitter. Also, there were stories of children kept as household slaves and children chained up as a form of cruelty.
Chaining children up in backyards, pigsties, and in barns was nothing short of torture. Today, these parents would be imprisoned, but in the past, they were often simply fined or were made to serve a short jail sentence.
Aging Serbian gypsies Peter and Mary Stankovitch roamed throughout England in 1938 with their two-year-old grandchild and a trained monkey. During the days, the child, Betty, was kept on a 1.2-meter-long (4 ft) chain that was attached to the family’s horse-drawn cart. The monkey was also chained to the cart.
During their stops, the grandfather would sit at the barrel organ and play songs while the little girl and the monkey danced together. People would gather, and the grandmother would walk around, collecting coins for the show. At night, the child was unchained and allowed to sleep in the back of the cart on a pile of rags.
Someone eventually became upset over the child being chained up and contacted the police. The grandparents were arrested while entertaining in the southern part of London.
During the trial, Serbian gypsies from far and wide crowded the courtroom, and it was quickly discovered that the seemingly poor couple was actually very wealthy. They owned two cars (a Bentley and a Chrysler), acreage in Essex, a cottage in Windsor, and, of all things, a telephone. All of their money had come from entertaining on the streets.
None too pleased with the situation, the courts fined the grandparents for “using a child for the inducement of gathering alms.”
Young Bertha Childs of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was chained to a field fence while her father worked in said field. According to her father, the girl had become an “imbecile” due to too much studying, and he had chained her up to prevent her from injuring herself. Given that this was 1905, it was a popular belief that girls who read too much became excessively weak in the brain and were prone to severe mental disorders.
As the father worked in the field, the girl reached for his coat lying on the ground nearby. Inside, she found a lump of cheese coated with poison. Her father had meant to put the cheese out for the rats, but the girl ate it instead.
The article did not state whether the girl had known the cheese was coated in poison, but no charges were brought against the father, who was only trying to protect his daughter from the dangers presented by books.
A ten-year-old boy was discovered lugging a 4.6-meter (15 ft) chain in Findlay, Ohio, in 1936. According to the boy’s stepfather, little Bobby was prone to running away and not being home when he was told. As punishment, the stepfather chained and padlocked the boy to the kitchen stove. The next day, the boy was forced to walk to school with the heavy chain still padlocked to his neck.
According to the boy, the real reason his stepfather had chained him was because he went into the kitchen to get a slice of pumpkin pie, even though he was told he was not allowed any of it. The judge agreed that the boy was “incorrigible” but stated that the stepfather had gone too far in punishing the child. The stepfather was given 90 days of jail time to rethink his parenting skills.
Seven-year-old Amina of West Bengal was discovered chained up in a garden in 1930. The girl, weighing a mere 8 kilograms (17 lb), did not have a stitch of clothing on, and her head was bruised and scarred. Upon closer inspection, a metal ring was found around her ankle, and it had three iron links attached to it.
According to the child’s father, the girl’s mother had passed away three years earlier, and now the child was considered unlucky. The man had remarried, and no one desired to care for the girl. Instead, the miserable family kept her chained to a post in the garden, day and night. Occasionally, she was hosed down with cold water to clean her off, but the family secretly wished that the child would perish under the inhumane conditions.
Little Amina was taken from the home, given proper care, and even managed to put on some weight before the court handed her over to her father’s first wife (also his niece), who promised to raise the girl as her own.
As Constable Walker took a walk around Weethalle, New South Wales, in 1935, he came across a horrible sight. A small boy, six years old, was chained to a tree. Upon closer inspection, the constable discovered that the chain was locked tight around the boy’s ankle, causing it to swell and bruise. For over three hours, the hot sun had beat down on the child, who was covered in dust, flies, and ants. There was a water bag hanging from the tree so that the boy could stay hydrated, but nothing else.
It was not reported as to why the child’s father had chained him to a tree, but the constable did find the man and arrest him. The father pleaded guilty to the charge of assault and was sentenced to three months of hard labor in the Cootamundra jail.
When boys misbehaved and got in trouble with the law in New Jersey, they would often get sent to special schools, like the Fairview Training School. This particular school had a bad reputation among the public, who believed that young boys were being physically abused by the men in charge of it.
In fact, in 1913, the schoolmaster, Henry O. Kight, was accused of being excessively brutal to the boys in his charge. Mr. Kight allegedly struck a ten-year-old boy on the head with the broad side of a hatchet for spitting in a well. Another boy, 11 years old, was chained to his bed for one full week after attempting to run away from the school. There were also reports of boys being whipped and paddled.
While some of the boys spoke up about the abuse during an investigation, other boys felt it necessary to say that the punishments they received were justifiable and that they deserved to be whipped and paddled. The final report on the abuse allegations stated that “public accounts of conditions at the school have been exaggerated,” and nothing further was done.
According to her parents, 14-year-old Gertrude of Barcaldine, Queensland, had not been quite right in the head since she turned four. She was disobedient and refused to listen to her parents, and she was always rather cheeky toward her mother.
By 1933, the girl was running away from home and becoming harder to manage. Her parents decided they had to take drastic measures to keep their daughter from getting into trouble outside the home. Their solution was to lock a dog chain around the girl’s neck and then lock the other end of the chain to the back of a wooden chair. The girl was free to roam about the house, but she had to pick up the chair and carry it with her wherever she went.
When the police discovered that the parents had their daughter chained to a chair, the parents were brought to court. Family witnesses testified that the parents never beat their daughter but kept her chained out of worry. No one in the family found the chaining to be cruel, even though the daughter remained chained at all times, including when she went to bed.
The parents were convicted of ill treatment toward their daughter and were given a light fine.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1912, a mother received a rather strange revelation. A voice told her that she must chain up her children. Perhaps it had been a rough day, or the children simply would not be still, but Mrs. Winegar shared this strange revelation with her oldest daughter, a 14-year-old, and told her it had to be carried out.
As the mother followed through with her plans, the two youngest children began to cry out and scream. The mother had managed to put a heavy dog collar around her nine-year-old son’s neck and chain him to the floor. As she was about to chain down her youngest child, neighbors came bursting into the home.
Fortunately, the children were rescued from the madness, and Mrs. Winegar was taken into custody by the juvenile court officers, who handled these matters during this time period. When the mother was asked why she had decided to chain her children, she told them God had given her instructions on how to raise them.
In 1947, John Ellard, a Fremantle tram driver, decided to go fishing in Rockingham one Sunday. The only problem was that he could not leave his eight-year-old daughter free to roam about the home. According to the father, the child had been caught stealing stuff in the past, and she could not be trusted.
Mr. Ellard then came up with the perfect solution to his problem and chained the little girl up while he went off to fish. However, a police constable saw the child chained up and came to her rescue. When he tried to pick the two padlocks that held the girl in place, it was no use. The girl had to be taken to the police station wearing the chains and was eventually sawed out of her confining predicament.
As for her father, he was arrested and tried in the Fremantle Children’s Court. He was found guilty of child neglect and sentenced to 21 days in jail.
In 1950, a 32-year-old mother from Downey, California, pleaded guilty to “unjustifiably punishing a minor child” after her seven-year-old son was discovered inside the family’s backyard, chained to a post.
According to the mother, the boy was always setting fire to things, including his own bed. When Mrs. De Leon had to leave the home, she would chain the boy up outside while the boy’s 80-year-old great-grandmother kept watch from inside the home.
After pleading guilty, Mrs. De Leon was allowed to return home without bond. She had four other children to care for, and the court could see no other reason to place the woman in jail.
Elizabeth is a full-time freelance writer and enjoys researching early American history. When she is not busy digging through newspaper archives, she is usually traveling to historical sites throughout the US.