A long chain of events binds the history of restraint and confinement, inextricably linking our sense of what’s humane, our language and even, occasionally, our sex lives. Unfettering our fears and liberating our fascination at the prospect of being bound, this map unlocks the coincidences and evolutions of handcuffs, shackles and prisons.
Hear the word dungeon and you may imagine being locked away in a small, hidden chamber beneath a castle, eating crumbs of bread and enduring unholy tortures. French novelist Alexandre Dumas had a hand in highlighting this subterranean cell as a place of supreme injustice. In his Count of Monte Cristo (1844), protagonist Edmond Dantès is arrested for crimes he didn’t commit and thrown into an oubliette—another word for dungeon that comes from the French for “to forget.” Until his daring escape, all Dantès can do, ironically, is remember the many wrongs done him.
If dungeons are solitary cellars of personal torment, prisons specialize in mass suffering. They operate on the elementary-school model: relentless routine. On a regular schedule, prisoners have recess, mealtimes, even optional classes. Which is not to say prison life is pleasant. It is punishment that can often be inhumane. Until recently California had such severe prison overcrowding that gymnasiums crammed with 20,000 beds to house the overflow became breeding grounds for diseases, riots and other violence. The spirit of the dungeon lives on in solitary confinement, in which unruly inmates are removed from human contact and locked into often-windowless rooms—a place to forget.
Shackles can refer to an assortment of fetters, irons and chains. They restrain the hands and feet with heavy, bulky metal (sometimes attached to an iron ring sunk into the wall or floor) and are primarily associated with dungeons. Like dungeons, shackles are outdated relics of less humane times, yet they survive as among the best remembered of yesteryear’s barbaric instruments of restraint.
Dungeons are not always situated under fortresses. James Field Stanfield, a sailor turned abolitionist, called the slave ship he worked on in the 1770s a “floating dungeon.” It was equipped with all the accommodations of the typical dungeon: disease, darkness, despair and chains. According to American historian Marcus Rediker in his book The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), before entering the vessel African captives were often bound with leather or vines; once aboard, the men who appeared to be a threat were refitted with iron shackles, an ultimate symbol of Western dominance. “Women who proved rebellious,” Rediker notes, “were also fettered, and quickly.” Shackles have become a symbol for our unbreakable link with the lasting trauma slavery visited on developed societies. Western civilization is indeed shackled to its history.
In the 15th and 16th centuries handcuffs went by the more descriptive moniker swivel manacles, which alluded to a device that could bind a person’s hands but still allow for some mobility, thus seemingly functioning as a more humane restraint. Likewise, dungeons, with captives chained to a stone wall, are nowadays frowned upon; multi-cellblock prisons are much preferred. In prisons, inmates move around unfettered in their own barred rooms and usually wear handcuffs only during transport. But handcuffs don’t always offer enough swivel. In many states, female inmates giving birth may be handcuffed, sometimes even belly-chained, to the bed, transforming an already painful experience into a special brand of torture. Only 10 U.S. states have laws regulating the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners.
One might assume most right-thinking citizens would avoid prison like the plague. Not so in Liepaja, Latvia, where a “prison hotel” attracts tourists hungry for the inmate experience. Guests eat stale bread, sleep on musty mattresses and get harassed by fresh guards. The amenities include, naturally, handcuffs. Apparently some corporations use the hotel for team-building exercises. There’s nothing quite like the bond of incarceration.
The term swivel manacles, dating to the Elizabethan era, maneuvered its way through the centuries to reemerge in the 1800s as the Anglo-Saxon handcop. Cop, as a verb, can mean either “to catch” or “to steal”—depending on whether one is the cuffer or cuffee. Handcop then evolved into the more polite handcuff, as if these restraining devices were merely part of one’s sleeve. Or perhaps the other definition of cuff was implied: “to strike.” Shackle, meanwhile, gives etymologists headaches, as it appears to share the same root as shake. Surely shackles aren’t meant to be shaken loose.
The long linguistic perp walk doesn’t stop there. Cop worked its way into slang for “policeman” but oddly still retains the definition “to steal,” as in “to cop a feel”—which could get you cuffed. Finally, Tower, the leading manufacturer of handcuffs in the late 19th century, produced the ball and chain, which shackled a prisoner’s leg to a heavy iron ball by means of a chain, making it difficult for the miscreant to “cop out.” Though this device has fallen out of favor, its name lives on as a sobriquet for any spouse who’s a drag.
Traditional handcuffs are less than ideal when it comes to mass arrests, like those at contemporary protests. Imagine a policeman loaded down by 30 pairs of metal manacles in the middle of a riot. Zip ties, or PlastiCuffs, which consist of two plastic rings tightened around the wrists, offer a lighter, more feasible way to restrain multitudes of peaceful demonstrators. One drawback: Handcuff neuropathy, nerve damage caused by tight-fitting handcuffs, is more likely to occur with zip ties, for, unlike handcuffs, zip ties have no rivets that can be loosened. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began to sweep the U.S., tensions between protesters and police have ratcheted up considerably. On November 30, 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department evicted the Occupy L.A. demonstration, arresting close to 300 people. Patrick Meighan, a writer for Fox TV’s Family Guy, was among those zip tied. He claims to have suffered nerve damage as a result. Expect handcuff neuropathy gags in future episodes.
From a police perspective, zip ties may be the ideal restraint for large groups, but they are not the best choice for a dangerous convict. They cannot be picked, but a determined prisoner can melt or cut them.
In 1862 inventor W.V. Adams changed the manacle world by designing adjustable bracelets. Until then, the most popular personal restraint in England was the misnamed Flexible, an awkward, unwieldy handcuff. Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser noted that the design caused many unsure moments for the police (they weighed over a pound and had to be laboriously wound around a struggling prisoner’s wrists). Also popular was the Twister, a savage device with an ever-tightening chain. Moser states it was often implemented in South America, where “the upholder of the laws literally travels with his life in his hands.” The Snap and the Nipper, other common cuffs, both had one ring for the prisoner’s wrists and another for a policeman to hold.
Flexibles, Twisters, Snaps and Nippers would not do for Sherlock Holmes. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, the detective uses cuffs of his own design to subdue murderous cabbie Jefferson Hope. Featuring a spring lock, they appear “as if by magic on his wrists.” When Holmes attempts to introduce his new handcuffs to Scotland Yard, bumbling Detective Lestrade swears allegiance to the Flexible. Doubtless, Inspector Moser would have thrilled at the sleuth’s invention.
When applying handcuffs, it’s important to be gentle and remember the “safe” word. Well, maybe not the gentle part. Handcuffs are not exclusively the territory of lawmen; they are popular props in the sexual fantasies of those who wish to feel vulnerable or incapacitated in bed. In 1990 the Kinsey Institute reported that five to 10 percent of Americans dabble in sadomasochistic sex, giving swivel manacle a whole new meaning. Furry handcuffs may not look good on the hardened criminal, but they are an essential accessory for the curious sadomasochist. These cuffs are designed to avoid injury to the hands, unlike real handcuffs that tighten when a prisoner struggles, a feature not conducive to strenuous activity. The metal that can cut or bruise skin is padded, often with faux fur that comes in a wide range of dazzling colors.
And where better to lock someone up than a dungeon? Bondage role-playing and S&M are often performed in specialized rooms called, yes, “dungeons.” You can build your own makeshift dungeon or go to a professional one equipped with spanking benches and cages. Sometimes the only way to find release is to be bound.
While American locksmith Nathaniel Hart was planning how best to keep people in handcuffs, “Handcuff King” Harry Houdini plotted how best to get out of them. Houdini had toured Europe, challenging police to confine him and then deftly freeing himself from their irons and locks. In 1904 the London Daily Illustrated Mirror dared him to try and escape from Hart’s ostensibly inescapable handcuffs. He accepted. In front of a large audience, Houdini put on the handcuffs, walked inside a cabinet (to keep his methods secret) and set to work. It took him more than an hour. After several panicked appearances before the audience, Houdini emerged triumphant from the cupboard and proceeded to collapse in hysteric relief. “I thought this was my Waterloo,” he told the room. The spectacle released a plethora of conspiracies: Houdini had obtained the six-inch key from his wife’s mouth during a kiss, or the key was hidden in a glass of water, or he actually helped design the cuffs. Perhaps we will never know the truth. The Mirror challenge certainly caused a public sensation. One of the most intriguing aspects of handcuffs, it turns out, is the prospect of wiggling out of them.