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August 22 2017 at 5:57 PM
Ron Spitz  (Login ronspitz)


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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Mark Lyons
(no login)


August 22 2017, 8:07 PM 

Thanks Ron for your work on this.

Fiction may finally be separated from fact on this topic

I always believed the inventor was John Horace Lilly and this picture of his initials in a Lilly Iron lends some credence to this theory.
It may be possible that this iron may belong to our friend Lars but I am not positive about that.

[linked image].

I wonder what an original key looks like and realize that this answer may be lost to history.
I also wonder how many sizes were made. Of the 4 that I have, 3 are different sizes.
Since these items were made in a blacksmith/foundry type setting, manufacturing was not as exact or as precise as a more modern factory could provide.
This is why I feel the need to stamp each piece in Roman numerals or other markings were necessary during the manufacturing process as no two pairs of these cuffs are the same.

Looking forward to reading your conclusion of this.


Ron Spitz
(Login ronspitz)


August 22 2017, 8:35 PM 

I will have some info on the key in later posts



Paul Reardon
(Login PaulReardon)


September 3 2017, 9:45 AM 

Very interesting Ron. Looking forward to hearing more about this!

Ron Spitz
(Login ronspitz)


September 6 2017, 3:23 PM 


The search for Lilly started in several directions. Genealogy and census records were searched. The Washington Navy Yard, being a logical location for the production of the irons, was searched for any history, both military and civilian. The Washington search yielded no information. Any information about shackles or irons did not have any description to believe they were Lilly’s. There was a lot of interesting reading about the Yard, however none applied to our subject.

Then the genealogy and census records started to have several hits on the name Lilly and spelling variations of the name. Several were checked by the National Archives. Most we were able to eliminate because of time period, occupation, and location. There was one Lilly that stood out and as we gathered more information on him we all agreed that with a high percent of confidence this was our man and the search shifted to New York and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Meet ELIAKIM LILLY born July 17, 1808 (?) in Massachusetts. He was married in 1833 and while stationed in Brooklyn, lived with his wife Mary Ann at 23 Stanton Street, Ward 5, Brooklyn. He joined the Marines when he was 29 years old, which is quite late for a new enlistment. We could not find any information on his occupation prior to his enlistment. Note that dates may vary a few years but to the quality of handwriting of some documents.

We wanted to find out information on where he lived. Stanton Street ran parallel to Barbarin Street, from the waterfront south to near Fulton between Bridge and Gold Streets, in the early 1800s. By the middle of the 19th Century, the northern part of Stanton Street above Sands Street had been renamed Charles Street. The southern part south of Nassau Street survives today as Duffield Street. There may have been additional changes with the redevelopment of the area.

Several advertisements in the local papers were found. One ad was for a young boy to do chores at a residence and there was an advertisement for a livery stable located at the end of the block of Stanton Street.

The Marine Muster Rolls shows his enlistments and reenlistment, which occurred on the same day. He swiftly progressed through the ranks. The spelling is as it was written in the Rolls. You can see there were a lot of misspellings which unfortunately, was common.

U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls

Name Muster Date Enlistment Date Rank Station

Eliakine Lilley Aug. 1837 Aug. 24, 1837 Private Navy Yard Bklyn.
Eliakim Lilly Jan 1839 Aug. 24, 1837 Corporal Navy Yard Bklyn.
Eliakin Lilly June 1841 Aug. 24, 1837 Sergeant USS St. Louis
Eliakin Lilly Mar. 1842 Aug. 24, 1837 Sergeant USS St. Louis
Eliakin Lilly Oct. 1842 - - - - - - Sergeant Brooklyn, NY
Eliakim Lilly Sep. 1847 Sep. 30, 1846 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakin Lilley Aug. 1851 Sep. 30, 1850 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakin Lilly Feb. 1852 Sep. 30, 1850 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakim Lilly Mar. 1852 Sep. 30, 1850 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakim Lilly Feb. 1854 Sep. 30, 1850 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakim Lilly Mar. 1857 Sep. 29, 1854 Orderly Sgt. North Carolina
Eliakim Lilly Jan. 1860 Sep. 29, 1858 Orderly Sgt. USN N. Carolina
Eliakin Lilly June 1860 Sep. 29, 1858 Orderly Sgt. North Carolina
Eliakim Lilly Apr. 1862 Sep. 29, 1858 Orderly Sgt. North Carolina

(Sorry but the Forum formatting will not allow proper spacing of the above data)

From his service records it is interesting to note that the 1850 (he was 39), the 1854 (43) and 1858 (47) reenlistment were by permission of General Archibald Henderson who was the Marine Corps Commandant. Henderson died in1859 and Lilly’s records are damaged so we do not know if any permission was granted or required however, he was reenlisted.

Information on General Henderson can be found at:

The only information in Lilly’s reenlistment records was his height of five feet, nine and one half inches tall and he had hazel colored eye and was in good health. In those days personal awards, achievements and honors were not recorded.

Eliakim was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a Orderly Sgt. on the USN North Carolina which was a receiving ship used for training, supply storage and housing. The North Carolina has an interesting history and was the Flag Ship of the Navy. The Wikipedia link is well worth reading. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_North_Carolina_(1820) 

Part of his duties was to close order drill the Marines on the parade ground. Another would have been the training and handling of prisoners which would have included the proper use of applying irons.

We were able to find a few newspaper articles that mentioned Lilly by name and gave some clues as to his stature.

The New York Times had a column “Naval and Military Intelligence.; THE BROOKLYN NAVY YARD, published August 22, 1860, which reads in part:

“Nearly a thousand men are employed now in the Navy-yard. The stone foundation of the Western Ship-house is progressing rapidly, and the new marine barracks on Flushing-avenue will also be completed in a little while. The old garrison at the gate is manned by over fifty soldiers, who have recently donned the new uniform of the marine corps. The guard of the North Carolina is almost daily drilled, a la Zouave, on the Parade-ground. Capt. REID (of Chinstrap fame) and the Falstaffian LILLY directing their movements.”

This was a regular column and also listed all ships and their condition that were in the yard and other reports on military activities.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated October 31, 1860 wrote, “Another experimental test was made at Coney Island yesterday by Orderly Sergeant Lilly, Mr. McCabe and other gentlemen with the United States ship North Carolina, under the direction of Capt. Ward, on the new pattern muskets lately adopted to the marine corps.”

Another NY Times article dated May 25, 1861 stated, “The marine guard of the receiving-ship consists of 40 men, in command of Sergeant Lilly, one of the most efficient “non. coms” in Uncle Sam’s employ”.

These articles along with the Commanding General’s permission to reenlist suggests that Lilly was well known and respected. He had held the position from 1846 to his death.

From the Brooklyn Daly Eagle, August 20, 1863,
“Lilly-On the 18th inst, Eliakim Lilly, 1st Sergeant Marines U.S. ship North Carolinas, aged 55 years 3 month. The friends of the family are respectfully invited to attend his funeral without further notice from his late residence, No. 23 Stanton street, Brooklyn, at 10 A.M. Friday, 21st inst. The remains will be taken to Greenwood.”

(The term in the obituary, “inst.” is short for instant, meaning day of the current month.)

Certificate of Death 4403
Brooklyn, August 18 1863
This Certifies, that Eliakim Lilly who was born in U.S. died in this City,
at No 23 Stanton Street, in the ——-Ward,
Aged 56 Years, 2 Months, 9 Days.
Cause of said death was Direct Congestion of the Brain
Sex Male Color White
Nativity of Parents Father__________
The body is to be buried at Greenwood
D.E. Smith M.D.

Research into congestion of the brain reveals that it was also called cerebral congestion and is the same as brain fever.  Brain fever is then diagnosed as meningitis or viral encephalitis. Some physicians writing in the 1880's believed that congestion of the brain was a catch all phrase and could not actually be verified to really exist.

The Brooklyn Eagle with reference to Congestion of the Brain, half of the 467 references, most were alcohol related, the rest were disease, heat or accident related. Three mention Delirium Tremens.

Some of the descriptions used were as follows: Aborration of the mind, superinduced by intemperance, superinduced by sun stroke recieved a week ago, caused by fatigue and exposure to the sun, characteristically alcoholic, incipient meningitis. There were also references to cholera as a cause.

The week prior to his death it had been extremely hot. Drilling the guards in full uniform and full sun might could have been a cause of heat stroke in mid August.

The Brooklyn Eagle (1863) published this article the day after Lilly died “The Board of Health declares all the tanneries, soap manu. and hide and fat establishments in the 5th Ward nuisances to the public health and ordered them to be removed beyond the limits of the Ward.”

This was the area where Lilly lived. Remember what was located and the end on his block on Stanton Street—a livery stable.
There was no mention that he died with irons or any other restraint on him. If he had, the newspapers certainly would have mentioned it and it would have made good press.

There was another Orderly Sergeant working with Lilly. Even though they were the same rank, Lilly had seniority and they seemed to get along very well. He was Robert Alexander and he replaced Lilly after his death.

From the Muster Roll of the North Carolina it clearly shows that Alexander covered for Lilly in May and June by not listing as sick. We really do not know how long Lilly was sick in quarters.

January 1863: Alexander "on command"; roll endorsed by Lilly
February 1863: roll endorsed by Lilly
March 1863: roll endorsed by Lilly
April 1863: roll endorsed by Lilly
May 1863: roll endorsed by Alexander for Lilly
June 1863: roll endorsed by Alexander for Lilly
July 1863: Eli "sick in quarters"; roll endorsed by Alexander for Lilly
August 1863: Lilly "died" on the 18th

After Lilly died, Alexander stayed on the North Carolina as orderly sergeant until August 1864.  He then transferred to Brooklyn and stayed there until he was discharged from service on 4 June 1865 after serving some 33 years in the Marines, the last 28 of which as a sergeant.


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