Why Society Broke Down to Extreme State Punishment and How Society Knew
The term Capital Punishment has been given an illustrious title to cover the morally ambiguous decision for a state power to take the life of a criminal. In modern day society, we think of US states such as Texas and South Carolina harbouring the electric chair or the lethal injection. The last words of many convicts have often left an impression to those who hear it. One could think to the dark humour of James D. French who, after murdering his cell mate, gave the headline ‘French Fries!’.
During the mid-eighteenth century, however, the amount of state executions in the UK was actually decreased with most convicts being shipped to the US.
By 1750 it had embraced instead a range of penal policy options within which the death penalty was no longer “an unquestionable expression of sovereign power” ’. (King, Ward, Pages 15).
When the Civil War broke out in America, however, the number of convicts being transported decreased rapidly and so state executions rose once again as well as the rise of the middle class owning more property and buying more luxurious goods such as tea from India. along with the rise in capital indictments, was to create the large rise in execution rates for property crime
This in turn required an increase of stricter, Draconian laws to act as a deterrent, with possession becoming the majority of crimes being committed. In fact, in 1815, there was 225 Capital offences committed with crowds of up to 100,000 people in London gathering to see the executions in public. This increase in public executions for crimes underserving of death soon became known as the Bloody Code, ‘a monolithic mass of draconian statutes inherited from a former, less civilized age’ (Handler, P 684).
Before their executions, convicts were allowed to usher their last words.
‘the execution of criminals could be a far more richly nuanced affair. Nowhere else was it expected they should play an essential role in the social drama staged to exploit their dreadful ends’ (Faller, Crime and Defoe, p. 9).
Quite often prisoners would try and petition for their lives, confessing their sins in order to save their lives. However, their words would be carried by the Broadsides; single sheets of paper (often illustrated) talking about the convicts’ crimes and being a forerunner for the popular press. The danger of this though was being wary of which voices are truly belonging to those in prison. There were no Senior Editors to double check facts or solicitors to insure their clients were not defamed. Deciding whether the person was a voice of the court, the condemned, or a priest was down to the writers of the broadsides as a form of crime reporting to sell newspapers often being highly formulaic and partially a product of the writers’ imagination.
These barbaric laws, however, did not suppress the society it strangled forever.
‘Forgery became the focal point for opposition to the death penalty following a crisis in forged Bank of England notes in the period 1818–21 and a series of scandalous cases in the 1820s. Reformers exploited these events to mobilise opinion against the capital laws’ (Handler, P 684).
Soon reformers such as Samuel Pomilly and James Mackintosh lead the way in penal reform, highlighting the hypocrisy of the ‘Bloody Code’ and gaining the rational of the public.
‘The repeal of the capital statutes is generally viewed as a watershed in English penal history, marking the end of the era of the ‘bloody code’ and the beginning of a new identifiably ‘modern’ system of criminal justice’ (Handler, P 701).
Handler, Phil. “FORGERY AND THE END OF THE BLOODY CODE IN EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND.” The Historical Journal 48.3 (2005): 683-702. Web.
King, Ward, Past & Present, Volume 228, Issue 1, August 2015, Pages 15.
Mayhew, H., ‘London labour and the London poor‘. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1895
Murano, Grace, ’10 Notorious Last Word from Prisoners on Death Row’, October 11th 2013 (Site Accessed 17th October 2019), https://www.oddee.com/item_98739.aspx
Photos curtesy of:
Basdeo, Stephen, ‘Last Dying Speeches, Trials, and Executions: The Changing Format and Function of Crime Broadsides, c.1800 – c.1840’, 11th September 2016, (Site Accessed 24th October 2019), ‘A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016′ & Broadside of ‘The Epsom Murder’, 1818, Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007076646://gesteofrobinhood.com/2016/09/11/last-dying-speeches-trials-and-executions-the-changing-format-and-function-of-crime-broadsides-c-1800-c-1840/
Murano, Grace, ’10 Notorious Last Word from Prisoners on Death Row’, October 11th 2013 (Site Accessed 17th October 2019), (James French) https://www.oddee.com/item_98739.aspx