Sunday, 30 August 2015

Quiz Question

A little break from place names and a look at a controversial subject - hanging. At a quiz I'd heard the question "When was hanging abolished in the UK?" to which the answer was said to "It hasn't, it is still possible to be hanged for treason." Having sat in the quiz master's chair years ago I didn't argue the point, it's a tough enough job, but felt fairly certain it had been abolished before the end of the 20th century in the UK. Hence I did a little research.

One of the first 'facts' to come to light was how, at the beginning of the 19th century, there were no fewer than 222 capital crimes. While perfectly true this does not give a clear picture. Further back in history we find there were just 50 offences carrying the death penalty in 1688, the massive increase retrospectively seen as an attempt by the 'haves' to protect what they had from the 'have-nots'. A contemporary wrote of how "Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen." This also explains some of what we would see as ludicrously severe punishments for crimes which today would probably not even incur as much as a caution.

Before condemning these times, it should also be noted that while 35,000 death sentences were handed down between 1770 and 1830, only 7,000 actually reached the gallows, the remainder having their sentence commuted, most often to transportation. Many of these trials on record clearly show the courts have deliberately under-valued the value of stolen goods in order to avoid a mandatory death sentence. There were also a number of reasons where the guilty to be considered unsuitable for the gallows and listed as "benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy, performance of military or naval duty" and subject to what can best be described as 'creative interpretation'. Furthermore note that by the middle of the 18th century this had been reduced to just five.

During my research of my book Bloody British Histories: Stafford, I came across one of the most notorious murderers, William Palmer, the so-called Rugeley Poisoner, and also the sad story of Christina Collins. Both crimes ended in three men being sentenced to death by hanging, in both cases they were found guilty of killing another human being and many will still argue today this is a fitting punishment - while at least as many will argue against.

To answer the quiz question hanging officially ended in Britain on 27th of January 1999, although nobody will have been sentenced to such for the last three decades. Yet since the Saxons introduced hanging as a punishment in the 5th century a number of odd 'crimes' have incurred the death penalty, an (incomplete) list follows.

Murder (officially removed in 1969).
High treason (until 1999).
Capital murder (defined as murder committed in the course of theft; murder by shooting or explosion; murder while resisting arrest or during a prison escape; murder of a police or prison officer; two murders committed on different occasions - I have to say the latter seems pointless as one murder (see above) already carried the death penalty).
Attempted murder.
Petty treason.
Arson in a naval dockyard (until 1971).
Espionage (until 1981).
Piracy (until 1981).
Highway robbery.
Embezzling a master's goods.
Robbing churches.
Robbing a person in a dwelling house.
Rioting which caused serious damage to a church, house, barn or stable.
Shooting at someone.
Cutting someone.
Maiming someone.
Counterfeiting coin.
Arson of a dwelling house or of a barn with corn.
Picking pockets.
Stealing sheep, cattle, or horses.
Grand larceny (defined as the theft of anything valued at at least 12 pence, remember this was pre-decimalisation and equal to the modern 5p).
Destroying a turnpike.
Stealing from a rabbit warren.
Damaging forests and parks.
Cutting down an orchard.
To lie in wait with intent to put out an eye, disable a tongue or slit the nose (very specific and a result of Sir John Coventry having his nose slit by an assailant in Covcent Garden).
Being in the company of gypsies for one month.
Strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age (makes you wonder how any every survived long enough into adulthood to enact the law).
Blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime (a result of bands of poachers doing so following the South Sea Bubble collapse).
Letter stealing
Returning from transportation (presumably without permission) although records show only 5% ever returned (again presumably after they had completed their sentence).
Stealing from a shipwreck.
A sailor or soldier begging without a licence.
Damaging Westminster Bridge.
Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.
Strong evidence of malice in children between 7 and 14 years (amazes me that any survived long enough into adulthood to bring in the law).
Writing a threatening letter.

This list is not intended to be in any order of ascending or descending severity.

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