Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hanging offenses

My debut romance, Ruined by Rumor, comes out this Monday, May 21. It’s the story of a shy, dutiful politician in love with the acknowledged beauty of his neighborhood, though she’s engaged to a dashing soldier. I wanted to give my hero a political cause he could feel passionate about. Then I read this description of public executions, from Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain by Brian P. Block and John Hostetter:
According to The Times the crowds at the hangings made the atmosphere like that of a fairground and included ‘the dregs and offcoursings of the population of London...Irish labourers smoking clay pipes and muzzy with beer, pickpockets plying their light-fingered art, little ragged boys climbing up posts...’ As to the hangings, the newspaper continued; ‘In an instant [the executioner] withdrew the bolt, the drop fell...They died almost without a struggle...The mob during the terrible scene exhibited no feeling except one of heartless indifference and levity.’
I figured that was something my hero would feel strongly about.

Before Britain established its first modern police force in 1829, the nation’s chief weapon in the fight against crime was the threat of execution. Property crimes--robbery, burglary, even vandalism--were punished as severely as murder. Children as young as seven could be held criminally liable. And because forgery, coining, and “uttering” (passing forged or counterfeit currency) constituted high treason, those crimes were likewise punishable by death—in fact, until 1790 women convicted of such crimes were burned at the stake. A woman could also be burned to death for murdering her husband, since he was considered her lord and master and the crime therefore constituted petty treason.

Burned at the stake
Ann Beddingfield was burned at the stake in 1763 for killing her husband.
(The reason women were burned at the stake for treason but men were hanged had to do with the original punishment for the crime, drawing and quartering. Since carrying out such a sentence required the condemned to be stripped naked and even emasculated, women were instead accorded the modesty-sparing courtesy of being burned at the stake. The sentence remained in force even after the penalty for men was changed to hanging. In later years, the executioner began by strangling the condemned woman to spare her the worst agonies of the fire. The last such burning in England so horrified the Sheriff of London that he pushed for the abolishment of the penalty in the House of Commons the following year.)

The Black Act of 1723 alone made more than fifty property crimes relating to theft and poaching capital offenses. By the regency, more than 200 different offenses carried the death penalty. They included sending an anonymous extortion letter, “wandering as or in the manner of gypsies for one month and more,” and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner (a retired army veteran). In 1801, the peak year for capital punishment, 219 felons were executed in England and Wales for crimes ranging from scuttling a ship to sheep theft.

A number of politicians attempted to address the penal code, most of them Whigs. William Wilberforce, best known today as the leader of the British abolitionist movement, introduced a bill in 1786 titled “For Regulating the Disposal after Execution of the Bodies of Criminals Executed for Certain Offences, and for Changing the Sentence pronounced upon Female Convicts in certain cases of High and Petty Treason.” The bill failed, mostly because its twin objectives--making more bodies available for medical dissection and changing the method of execution for female traitors from burning to hanging--lacked a unified message.

Sir Samuel Romilly met with more success in 1808, when he managed to have the sentence for “privately stealing from the person” (picking pockets) reduced from hanging to transportation.
Sir Samuel Romilly
Sir Samuel Romilly, a barrister by training, sought to reform the penal code.
Romilly hoped to work his way systematically through the long list of capital crimes, but his first success provoked a backlash, most notably from the harshly law-and-order Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough, and the equally severe Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon. (Lord Ellenborough, who also favored the use of the pillory and the jailing of debtors, had in 1803 added ten new capital crimes to the penal code by sponsoring the Ellenborough Act, which, among other provisions, included the first statutory prohibition of abortion, making it a hanging offense to procure a miscarriage or abortion for a woman “quick with child.”) Romilly’s next three bills, designed to eliminate the death penalty for shoplifting, met with failure in the House of Lords. Romilly did manage in 1812 to repeal the Elizabethan statute that made it a capital crime
Lord Ellenborough
Unlike Romilly, Lord Ellenborough believed whole-heartedly in capital punishment.
for soldiers and sailors to beg or wander the streets without a pass, but when Luddite riots broke out, the resulting government crackdown led to the creation of yet another capital crime, frame-breaking. Though Romilly re-introduced his shoplifting bill in 1812, it was quickly shot down, and Ellenborough and Eldon saw that it was likewise defeated in 1816 and 1818.

Sadly, it wasn’t until after Romilly’s 1818 suicide (he slit his throat in a fit of despair following the death of his wife) that reform met with real success. The 1823 Judgement of Death Act gave judges the ability to commute the death penalty for any offense except murder or treason, and the Punishment of Death Act of 1832 swept aside a third of the old capital penalties. In 1861, a series of Parliamentary acts reduced the list of civilian capital crimes to five: treason, espionage, murder, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence. (Certain military offenses, for example mutiny, continued to carry the death penalty.) Public executions were outlawed in 1868, and beginning in 1908 those under 16 years of age could no longer be sentenced to death. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the death penalty for murder was eliminated in Great Britain, and not until 1998 that the death penalty was eliminated for treason, piracy, and the remaining military offenses, altogether abolishing capital punishment in the UK.

The account that the hero of Ruined by Rumor, Alex, gives of a hanging he witnessed in London is not based on a specific execution but is a composite of actual cases.

Enjoy friends-into-lovers romance? Ruined by Rumor, Alyssa Everett's marriage-of-convenience regency, debuts Monday, May 21. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Valerie Bowman said...

This is fascinating, Alyssa. Thank you. I'm writing a story now where the heroine is accused of murdering her husband and is facing the penalty of being burned at the stake. <>

Alyssa Everett said...

Wow, Valerie, what a terrifying prospect! I'll definitely be watching for that story.