When England was on the cusp of the Victorian era in the 1820s, there were more than 200 offenses that were punishable by death. They ranged in severity from mass murder to consorting with “Gypsies,” but thanks to the so-called “Bloody Code,” all took the same toll: a public hanging. By the time Victoria took the throne in 1837, that number had dwindled to 15; by 1860, there were only four ways to get officially killed by the English state.
How could there be so many capital crimes in the Georgian/early-Victorian era? What were the crimes? Many of them were crimes straight out of CSI, such as rape, murder, and brutal assaults. But others seem insane to modern sensibilities, such as looting shipwrecks, cutting down trees, and writing threatening letters. Read on for a peek into the minds of Georgian and early-Victorian legislators.
Being in the Company of Gypsies for More Than a Month
It’s unclear why one month is the maximum exposure one can have to gypsies. What happens after that? As one writer notes, getting to the heart of the insanity of such a law, “Murder of the king carried the same penalty as being in the company of gypsies.”
Damaging Westminster Bridge
A Compendious Digest of the Statute Law (1787) lists punishments for damaging London bridges, and Westminster is the only one where “willfully destroying or damaging” it means you are “guilty of felony without benefit of clergy.”
Strong Evidence of Malice in a Child
There’s no evidence of children on the youngest end of this range actually being executed during the “Bloody Code” era, but there is a case from 1629. John Dean, “between eight and nine years,” was hanged for setting two houses on fire in Windsor.
Throughout the “Bloody Code” era, there were indeed cases of kids aged 12 to 18 executed for malicious crimes ranging from “housebreaking” to rape and murder. In 1908, the minimum age for execution was raised to eighteen.
Blacking Yourself Up at Night
(Presumably actors playing Othello, such as American John McCullough shown above in a post-“Bloody Code” illustration from 1878, would have been exempt.)
Cutting Down Young Trees
…cutting down young trees, from malice to the owner, is as great a proof of malignity in the criminal, and may be a much greater injury to the owner; for wealth may replace the corn and cattle, but the loss of the trees is irreparable, both to the owner and to the public.
Unmarried Mother Concealing a Stillborn Child
Thomas Jefferson was a critic of this particularly cruel and insane law in the “Bloody Code,” pointing out that it makes what is “only presumptive evidence of a murder, conclusive of that fact.”
Writing a Threatening Letter
Stealing from a Shipwreck
The History and Results of the Present Capital Punishments in England (1832) says that fewer than half a dozen people had been convicted of shipwreck-looting between 1753 and 1832 and “its diminution must be attributed to the advance of moral feelings, and not to the influence of capital executions.” But threatening to hang offenders and flexing military muscle likely helped a little, right?
Returning from Transportation
Historical documents show that this was a relatively rare cause for execution, especially closer to the Victorian era, when exile was typically for life.
Impersonating/Assaulting a Chelsea Pensioner
First of all, “impersonating” in this context doesn’t mean “dressing up as” (and they do have formal, scarlet-colored uniforms – see Sergeant William Hiseland above). It means drawing a pension you don’t deserve (i.e. stealing from the government). That’s still a pretty mild offense to be hanged over, but that’s in line with the rest of the “Bloody Code.”
Destroying Turnpike Roads
In 1735, it officially became a capital offense to destroy turnpikes, in part to curb the rioting and rampant “destruction of turnpike gates and toll-houses.” It only took one year after the law was official before two men were killed for “cutting turnpikes” in Herefordshire.