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    • Ron Spitz (Login ronspitz)
      Posted Aug 22, 2017 5:57 PM


      For the greater part of the year 2013, Paul Davies, Matt Forte, Lyle Wilkerson and Ron Spitz, formed a research group for the purpose of doing the first serious research on what we collectors call the Lilly Irons. Corresponding with each other only by email (over 300), the search was conducted mostly with on-line information. Information was obtained from The New York Times, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Navy Muster Rolls, genealogy records, The National Archives, The Smithsonian, The American Medical Association, to name most sources.

      The search was limited to 1855 to 1865 time period and concentrated on the Washington D. C. Navel Yard and then moved to the Brooklyn Navel Yard. Although this time period was of primary interest for the development of the irons, the records took us back to the early 1800’s. The other assumptions were the name Lilly and he was in the Marines.

      One thing worth mentioning and became very apparent to me was that only handcuff collectors, escape artists and magicians and maybe a few other collectors know of the irons by the name Lilly. I approached the subject by talking about the shackles that the Lincoln Conspirators were wearing and then started talking about Lilly. Also, the terms irons and shackles seem to be used interchangeably.

      It was a wonderful history lesson not only of the Navy and Marine Corps, but the cities of Washington, D. C. and New York City.

      These results and conclusions will be for the original research in 2013. The final post will be an update of my search during my visit to DC in mid July 2017.


      In a 1907 Bannerman catalog advertising Lilly Irons it states: "U.S. Navy leg irons, Invented by Sergeant of Marines named Lillie, who died while in irons of his own invention during an attack of delirium tremens."

      In 1910 Harry Houdini wrote: "This cuff was invented by Captain Lilly, U.S. Army. He was the first man that ever put them on, and, through a strange irony of fate, he died with a pair on him. It is a regulation cuff - now obsolete in the Army - but is in use at present in the U.S. Navy." ... "Invented by Sergeant Lilly, of the United States Army, who never patented them, and strange to say, he died with a pair of them on his wrists, suffering from delirium tremens."
      In 1957 Dick Norman wrote: "The inventor, a sergeant in the American Army later became violently insane and died with these cuffs on.”

      In 1981 Don Stewart wrote about Lilly Irons, stating: "Invented by Horace Lillie of the U.S. Marines, who as the story goes, died while in irons of his own invention during an attack of delirium tremens." Others have him under the name of John Horace Lilly.

      In 2013 a new book on the Lincoln conspirators says he was a Doctor who worked with the mentally ill at St. Elizabeth’s, a government asylum across from the New York Navy Yards.

      All the above stories agree that Lilly was connected with the government and that he was connected with the army, the navy or the medical corps. If the irons were made by the government or someone in the service, they would not have been patented being government property.

      Checking with The American Medical Association (AMA), in Washington D. C. a search of their Deceased Physicians Master Card File had no record of anyone by the name of Lilly or other spellings of the name for the period of interest.

      The various service ranks, except Captain, were held by Lilly but no reference to him being in the Army has been found. There was one Captain Lilly but the time frame and duty assignments do not lend themselves to make a good prospect. A specific search for a John Horace Lilly in the National Archives was negative for anyone with that name.

      Several others with the name Lilly were found, one of them being Benjamin, but none of them fit our time line when the irons were used.

      The statements that he died wearing a pair of his irons is good theater and helps sell the irons.


      Flogging was very harsh, painful and being in irons or double irons (hands and legs) was more of an embarrassment for the prisoner according to published accounts.  The riveted style of irons were used for many years.  They had to be put on and removed by a blacksmith or someone with the tools to perform the procedure.  The rivet being either hot or cold, and being smashed with a hammer had to be painful in itself, even if the hammer hit its mark every time.  There are many records detailing the damage the irons inflected by rubbing against the skin causing serious wounds to the bone.  They were used by both civil and military authorities.

      There was one newspaper account that described the use of the riveted irons in a Civil War POW camp. All prisoners had to be in irons at all times except for the evening meal. The irons had to be removed and then replaced every night. This was quite laborious so they stopped using steel rivets and reshaped lead bullets to be used instead. This saved a lot of time and labor and the lead was reusable.
      The Navy, was looking for a type of restraint that was easier to apply, remove and eliminated the need of a rivet style securing device.  Hence, the screw type iron was developed.  It had limited use within the military, most likely just the Navy. 

      We feel very positive that the irons were developed by the Navy and the Marines being responsible for security and prisoner control, were trained in their use.

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