“That horrid place! My very blood chills at the mention of its name,” Moll Flanders, heroine of a novel of the same name, declares of Newgate prison. In fact, its author Daniel Defoe was writing from experience.
Defoe (whose real name was originally ‘Daniel Foe’) “holds the record of using 198 pseudonyms,” writes scholar Jared C. Calaway. In fact, he only started publishing fiction under his own slightly altered name late in life: he was almost 60 when The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published, writes History.com. Defoe honed the writing skills that make Robinson Crusoe endure by writing political pamphlets. He sometimes paid for the privilege of voicing his views–as on this day in 1703, more than 15 years before writing his best-remembered novel, when he was put in the pillory for seditious libel.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the path that led to this point had included a career as a merchant (which ended when he went bankrupt). But as a businessman, he was naturally interested in politics, according to the encyclopedia.
Defoe’s family was part of the Dissenters movement who disagreed with the Anglican church and were politically separate from the mainstream. He wrote political pamphlets espousing his views, using pseudonyms for some of them as a way of avoiding the authorities. One of these pamphlets, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, landed him in prison and then the pillory.
“This satiric pamphlet had suggested that instead of passing laws against all religious Dissenters–Protestant ‘Noncomformists’ such as Defoe–the quicker, cleaner solution would be to just kill them,” writes Steve King for Today in Literature. “Defoe’s proposal was taken seriously, if not embraced, by many of the Anglican Tories in office; when everyone realized that it was a put-on, and that the anonymous author was Defoe, they flushed him from his hiding spot and took revenge for their embarrassment.”
Pillorying was a very public punishment dating back hundreds of years. It involved restraining somebody’s head and hands in a designated punishment area and leaving them there at the mercy of the crowds who gathered. Sometimes, people could be beaten to death or severely hurt by the rocks and other objects thrown at them while they were pilloried.
While Defoe awaited this unpleasant punishment, he composed “Hymn to the Pillory,” another satire which, the story goes, so pleased the crowds gathered at his punishment site that “instead of throwing stones the crowd drank to Defoe’s health and decorated his pillory in flowers,” as King puts it.
“There were decades of economic and political roller-coaster ahead for Defoe, and a mountain of writing in all genres before the famous novels,” King writes. After leaving prison, he worked as a political writer and spy for Robert Harley, an important literary figure and politician of the era–further honing the pen he would eventually turn to fiction.