The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the Coronavirus crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored…..
Quite a lengthy definition this:
“Figuratively, an unanswerable objection: also a machine formerly used in Holland by robbers; it was of iron, shaped like a pear; this they forced into the mouths of persons from whom they intended to extort money; and on turning a key, certain interior springs thrust forth a number of points, in all directions, which so enlarged it, that it could not be taken out of the mouth: and the iron, being case hardened, could not be filed: the only methods of getting rid of it, were either by cutting the mouth, or advertising a reward for the key. These pears were also called pears of agony”.
And the instruments that the dictionary refers to have since been created to show what they would have been like. They are though almost certainly a figment of imagination from the early author, F. de Calvi, who first mentioned them. It’s true that devices like this were used as gags in punishment, but there has been no evidence present for criminals ever using them.
If a criminal of the time wanted to steal something from someone, they could easily do that. The chances of them having some complex mechanical device which they then used to extort a ransom seem low, there must have been easier ways for them to manage to get money out of their victim. I’m blaming the grub street press again, keen to sell newspapers and scare people, this would be the perfect story to spread. A few newspapers reported the device, but they all referenced Grose’s dictionary.
So, the stories behind devices also known as Pears of Agony or Pears of Anguish are likely false, with the museum pieces mostly dating to the nineteenth century. But if they were true, this must have been a hideous thing to endure.