Breaking the Law Before the Enlightenment was a Risky Venture

You may remember The Enlightenment interrupting some well-deserved naptime during high school…

But when it comes to understanding the changes that occur during the “steam era” this social and cultural movement is vital. This is not to say that everything inspired by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on “dignity” turned out to be the best idea ever, but beforehand things had gotten pretty bleak.

Take the criminal element, for instance. During the decades leading up to birth of Queen Victoria, the city of London had at least 200 different crimes punishable by death. Crimes that would have earned you a day in the stocks or giving up some of your stuff fifty years earlier drew a death sentence. Clearly, lawmakers believed that offering the severest punishment for even small offenses would be a deterrent. And they took this philosophy to insane measures.

Here are a few examples of crimes that would earn you the hangman’s eye:

  • Spending time in the company of gypsies
  • Concealing the fact of a stillbirth
  • Having black makeup on your face at night (because obviously you were up to no good if you were hiding your face.)

And let’s not forget good, old-fashioned thievery. If you picked someone’s pocket and took a shilling or more? See ya! Shoplifted something valued at or above three shillings? Bye. And my personal favorite, “general theft” of up to five shillings? Also death. And this was all with total disregard to your age (though of course, social status was very important in sentencing). It was not uncommon to execute even small children during this time because there was no real concept of “rehabilitation.”

Executions were not only frequent, the modes varied. Criminals could be drowned, burned, strangled, disemboweled, and perhaps a combination. If you were very lucky (and usually very rich), the best you could hope for was a quick death by decapitation. Hangings were also very common. An execution was equal parts a punitive measure, a cautionary tale, and a grand old time out. So, they would actually try to make the hanging last as long as possible. (Say what you may about how terrible life is with everyone on their phones all the time. At least people aren’t going to hangings for fun!)

etching of man being dismembered

Changing Time, Changing Law

At the same time, the philosophies and sensibilities of The Enlightenment had taken hold all over Western Europe. The movement was far-reaching, but as it pertains to crime, the most important concept is human dignity. People began to believe that by virtue of being a sentient human being, each person deserved to be treated with a degree of respect. It is not hard to see where this kind of thinking would also lead to a dramatic shift in how people viewed criminals.

The combination of the very public manner of lawful executions, paired with this increasing notion of human dignity lead first to a call for more humane execution methods. There is evidence that judges would deflate the charges against people. Sometimes they valued something lower than a shilling, or treated the death penalty as an only one option among many.

During the Victorian era, the world of crime and punishment went through dramatic shifts on the shoulders of the century that came before. But that is a different story for a different time.

But keep your nose clean and try not to get caught hanging out in the wrong face paint just in case, okay?


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