History of Crime

Image: William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you have a minute, take a look at “Computing Crime and Punishment” by Sandra Blakeslee in the New York Times. (You’ll find it well worth your while, if only for the 1871 mugshot that accompanies the piece.) The article is a discussion of research made possible by the online publication of The proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. Named for the street it’s located on (‘Old Bailey’) the Old Bailey is the central criminal court in London. The courthouse was built in 1673 and its staff has been keeping meticulous records ever since.

Computational analysis of those records, according to Ms. Blakeslee, indicates a change over time in the way the British criminal justice system has treated different sorts of crime. The article is especially concerned with changing attitudes in the 18th and 19th centuries toward violence. At the end of the 17th century, apparently, violence – whether perpetrated by members of the public or by the state – was considered normal, everyday, and just-to-be-expected. By the 19th century, there was a consensus that violence was most emphatically not ‘normal’. In the 1840s, the Proceedings tell us, “only those found guilty of the most serious offences (murder, wounding, violent theft, arson, sodomy) were sentenced to death (though only murderers were actually executed)…”

To illustrate this shift toward humanity and away from brutality – and particularly away from the brutal punishment of property crime with the same severity as violent crime, Ms. Blakeslee mentions the case of John Ward, put to death in 1765 for stealing a watch and a hat; she points out that, not long afterward, a woman who slowly tortured a servant to death got the same punishment. The case does, in one sense, support her contention. We can guess that had the prosecution taken place in 1840 instead of 1765, Mr. Ward would have survived his brush with the law.

With all due respect to Ms. Blakeslee and the Times, though, Mr. Ward’s crime wasn’t quite as trivial as a bare description of the swag would suggest: according to the contemporary account included on the Old Bailey site, Ward and an accomplice “did make an assault on Edward Williams, putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and violently taking from his person” the watch and the hat. In other words, this wasn’t just theft – it was robbery. In New York, in the 21st century, it would be at the very least Robbery in the 2nd Degree, a class C violent felony. The maximum penalty, at the moment, would be 15 years in state prison.

Given that out-and-out robbery would buy you a death sentence in the 18th century, it’s interesting to note that stealing something ‘privily and secretly’ could also get you killed, as Elizabeth Gillam and Elizabeth Anderson found out in 1776. Co-defendants, they were both convicted on September 11th of that year of stealing 56 yards of silk from a fabric store (one of them stuffed the material under her petticoat). Neither one of the women apparently mounted much of a defense. And they were both sentenced to death, although if you click on ‘associated records’ on the page recounting their trial it doesn’t appear that either one of them actually hanged.

How you could steal something without either committing a robbery or stealing it ‘privily and secretly’, may be a bit of a mystery, but at least one defendant seems to have pulled it off, as witnessed by the 1780 trial of Mary Wilmott. On facts not all that different from the case of the two Elizabeths, a jury found her guilty “of stealing the goods, but not guilty of stealing them privily and secretly in the shop.” Ms Wilmott does seem to have put up a spirited defense, and this might have been a compromise verdict of some kind. The lucky lady was sentenced merely to a whipping and six months in jail.