The dreaded cat ‘o nine tails, also known as the “captain’s daughter”, was finally outlawed by the U.S. Navy 161 years ago today. Weighing approximately 13 ounces and consisting of a baton handle and 9 cords, this small whip was designed to inflict severe pain and break even the toughest sailors.
The US Naval Academy museum explains however, that although the flogging of enlisted sailors ended in 1850, the “cat” was used at the Academy until much later. Naval cadets (Midshipmen) had the option of taking a few lashes instead of receiving a demerit, thus keeping their official records spotless.
All formal punishments—ordered by captain or court martial—were administered ceremonially on deck, the crew being summoned to “witness punishment” (although usually adults and boys separated, which was apparently not strictly observed in practice) and drama enhanced by drum roll and a whole routine, including pauses, untangling of the tails, a drink of water and so on, which it is believed were intended more for the benefit of the watching crew than for the actual participants. Informal “daily” punishments, usually without assembly, including canings, were often left unrecorded.
The thieves’ cat, to inflict punishment for theft, which was considered a particularly offensive crime aboard ship, had each of its thongs knotted three times to cause additional pain.
This was carried out “according to the customs of the service”, namely at the gangway. The indicted was given twenty-four hours in which to make his own cat. He was kept in leg-irons on the upper deck while awaiting his punishment. When the cat was made the boatswain cut out all but the best nine tails. If the task was not completed in time the punishment was increased.
With heads uncovered to show respect for the law, the ship’s company heard read the Article of War the offender had contravened. The prisoner was then brought forward, asked if he had anything to say in mitigation of punishment, then removed his shirt and had his hands secured to the rigging or a grating above his head. At the order “Boatswain’s mate, do your duty” a sturdy seaman stepped forward with the cat — a short rope or wooden handle, often red in colour, to which was attached nine waxed cords of equal length, each with a small knot in the end. With this the man was lashed on the bare back with a full sweep of the arm. After each dozen lashes a fresh boatswain’s mate stepped forward to continue the punishment. Each blow of the cat tore back the skin and subsequent cuts bit right into the flesh so that after several dozen lashes had been inflicted the man’s back resembled raw meat. After each stroke the cords were drawn through the boatswain’s mates fingers to remove the clotting blood. Left-handed boatswain’s mates were especially popular with sadistic captains because they would cross the cuts and so mangle the flesh even more.
After the man was cut down he was taken to the sick berth, there to have salt rubbed into his wounds. This was done not so much to increase the pain as for its antiseptic qualities.
From 1750 into the 19th century twelve lashes were the maximum authorized for any one offense.
Commodore Uriah P. Levy was one of the principal officers responsible for ending the practice of flogging enlisted sailors. As commander of the U.S. Mediterranean Fleet, and the Navy’s first Jewish commodore, Levy promoted justice and human rights throughout his career.
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