In 1815, They Had 222 Reasons to Hang You.

That’s how many offences carried the death penalty in the British penal code.  That the number had risen from the mere 50 death penalty charges in the brutal “Bloody Code” of 1660 showed how much fear of crime had also increased in the intervening years.

And there did appear to be an ever increasing crime wave.  With the vast movement of people from countryside to town for uncertain work in factories, desperate poverty shot up – and so did crime, from 5000 offenses a year in 1800 to 20,000 a year by 1840.  Victorians obsessed about this rising criminal threat and tried to stamp it out with a sledge hammer.  So, besides arson, treason, piracy  and murder, you could be done in for sheep stealing, consorting with gypsies, writing a threatening letter, stealing a letter, cutting down a tree, damaging Westminster Bridge, nicking a rabbit for dinner, begging without a license, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or being a particularly malicious child aged 7-14..  Oh, and if you were caught skulking about with a blackened face, that meant you were up to no good and best hang you for that too.

Slowly, a more enlightened attitude crept in and, by the end of the 19th century,  this vast number of hanging offences was enormously reduced.   Hanging dead criminals in chains for months as a ghrisly warning was abolished in 1834, public executions in 1868, beheading and quartering executed traitors was stopped in 1870. Beheading as an execution method was finally abandoned in 1971.

Today, in Britain, there is no death penalty.  The last working gallows, tested faithfully ever six months until 1992, has been consigned to a museum of crime and punishment.  To the applause, no doubt, of thousands of ghosts with stretched necks or heads tucked underneath their arms.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

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