The Cane Mutiny

by Kieran Healy on September 7, 2004

Some contributors in the discussion thread “on crutches”: (if you see what I mean) bring up other ambulatory aids by-the-by, and Bad Jim says:

bq. Can anyone who remembers the 19th century think of canes as anything but a weapon?

The 19th century? What about the 1970s? I remember being caned at school. On the palm of the hand, though, rather than the backside. I think I was about six or seven. (This was in Ireland, by the way.) I also remember the news percolating down to us kids at some point[1] that such things would no longer be allowed in schools, and some of us telling the teachers “You can’t smack us anymore because capital punishment is abolished!”

fn1. Google informs me that corporal punishment was abolished Irish schools “in 1982”:, when I was nine.



Lindsay Beyerstein 09.07.04 at 5:20 am

Were there really canes that concealed swords? I realize those probably weren’t used in the public school system…but were there such things? Were they common?


vernaculo 09.07.04 at 5:59 am

“In France, during the civil unrest of the 19th century, canes were often prohibited in public places or during public gatherings as they often concealed deadly weapons such as swords, spikes and guns.
“System canes, or gadget canes as they are also known, are perhaps the most fascinating and highly collected type of walking sticks. This category of canes consists of those with a dual or hidden purpose, such as a sword, a whiskey flask and glass, or a walking stick carried by physicians containing scalpels and syringes. More than 1500 patents for gadget canes were applied for during the 18th and 19th centuries and were used in much the same way as we use a purse or wallet today.”
M.S. Rau Antiques (no affiliation)


bad Jim 09.07.04 at 7:07 am

Corporal punishment, in the form of swatting with a paddle, was in use in California schools at least until I graduated high school in 1968. I’m pretty sure it’s been abolished, but I don’t know when it happened.


Ted K 09.07.04 at 7:56 am

You don’t even need to put a sharp object into your cane – it makes a fine bludgeon as is.

Go re-read your Sherlock Holmes and notice all the times when Victorian gentlemen arm themselves with a cane and go beat someone. This was learned behavior: dancing masters taught “singlestick” as a form of self defence.

Canes made it into dueling culture as well – Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate because it seemed a better alternative than either challenging him to a duel (Sumner would refuse) or using a horsewhip (Sumner would likely take the whip, being bigger and stronger than Brooks.) Sumner took 3 years to recover from that particularly vicious beating.


Keith Ellis 09.07.04 at 8:48 am

I’m pretty sure that many states/school districts in the US still allow corporal punishment. My small NM town when I was in high school in the early eighties certainly did.

About gimmick canes: as someone who uses a cane to get about, I looked into sword canes or other nifty canes like that (because I’m a strange, strange man). In the case of sword canes, though, you’re not supposed to actually use them for support. They all have disclaimers. I also came across an “air dart” cane, too.


maria 09.07.04 at 8:53 am

I well remember coming into school after corporal punishment was banned in Ireland. We were baiting our teacher all day long and were pretty sure we had all the grown-ups on the run. Though, admittedly, our then teacher was a very infrequent user of the stick in the first place, and anyway in a girls’ school the much less pain-inflicting ruler was the weapon of choice (depending on whether the flat or the sharp side was used, of course).

Another favourite was a well aimed ‘puck’ to the upper arm. It only hurt if the deliverer was a bride of Christ wearing one of those dull metal rings with a raised cross on it – then the puck would give you a dead arm but leave only the tiniest of bruises.

But – at least in my girls’ school – by the time the 80s swung round, the corporal punishment in use was mostly symbolic. It didn’t hurt that much and was more about asserting power or provoking shame, as I remember.

Whatever the case, the day it finished was a great day to be a child!


jeet 09.07.04 at 9:34 am

I remember being caned at school.

Respect, man, respect!


bad Jim 09.07.04 at 9:42 am

Canes are also rumored to have been used as flasks, though their contents were unlikely to have been cane liquor.


Michael Mouse 09.07.04 at 10:29 am

I’m reminded of a fantastic cartoon in Private Eye from the late 80s, with a headmaster looking sternly at a teacher standing outside a classroom full of ashen-faced kids, with a pair of ankles dangling inside the door. The caption is something like, “Really, Travers, what sort of English teacher is it that doesn’t know the difference between corporal and capital punishment?”


Matt Weiner 09.07.04 at 3:09 pm

This site–which appears to aspire to be up to date–says that corporal punishment is legal in 22 U.S. states. (Though not in every school district–Pennsylvania is on the list, and I’m pretty sure that the Pittsburgh district didn’t have corporal punishment.)

Here’s a lovely picture of a Florida schools superintendent fondling a paddle.


Arthur D. Hlavaty 09.07.04 at 5:56 pm

In some of the circles I travel in, canes are considered an instrument of pleasure.


Another Damned Medievalist 09.07.04 at 7:39 pm

Where I live, they’ve moved on to handcuffs. Apparently, all the education classes demanded in Washington State don’t seem to include teaching kids about respect, etc. That said, I do know that my neightbor’s daughter was really afraid to go back to school (6th grade) this year, because a boy whod been expelled for pulling a knife on other students and bullying would be back.

Comments on this entry are closed.