In 1723, England introduced a set of laws called “The Bloody Code” by today’s historians. Although the name is not contemporary to the time, it captures the severity of the harsh punishments given by these laws. The Waltham Black Act 1723, the actual name of the laws on its introduction, was created to tackle deer-stealing in royal forests, where the everyday man was forbidden to hunt, and a series of other crimes, from stealing cattle to destroying orchards.
Between 1750 and 1815, various other crimes were added to the Bloody Codes. This inflated the list of offenses punishable by death to around 220 with the majority of the crimes regarding property. Many historians have translated this to the suppression of the poor by the wealthy and aristocratic.
Several of the crimes in the Bloody Codes would be ridiculous compared to 21st century law. Many would be considered misdemeanor by the modern day reader. This ranges from vandalizing textile machinery to stealing from a shipwreck. Since this would be a very long post if I listed all the offenses, and no one has the complete list, here’s the 20 most absurd crimes punishable by death I could find during my research.
- An unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child would have been eligible for the death penalty.
- Pickpocketing goods worth a shilling, which is equivalent to £30 in today’s currency.
- Penning a threatening letter.
- Stealing from a shipwreck.
- If you were a soldier or sailor, you could be executed if you begged without a license.
- Strong “evidence of malice” in children between 7 and 14. Determining if a child criminal matched this vague definition, and thus making that child eligible for the death penalty, was often left to the discretion of judges and juries.
- Destroying turnpike roads.
- Residing in a gypsy camp for more than a month.
- Cutting down trees.
- Returning from transportation. Transportation was another form of punishment given to criminals, which was being transported to the Americas, Australia, or Africa. Terms for transportation could range from 7 years to a lifetime depending on the severity of the crime.
- Stealing rabbits from a rabbit warren.
- Vandalizing a fishpond.
- Stealing horses or sheep.
Overtime, these laws were relaxed as human rights issues in the 1800s came to the forefront in the treatment of prisoners, inmates in insane asylums, debtors’ prisons, poorhouses, factories, etc. This empathizing with one’s fellow man reached the harshness of the death penalty and its application to small offenses not worth someone’s life. By 1861, death as a punishment was whittled down to just five offenses: murder, high treason, espionage, piracy with violence, and arson in royal dockyards. Public executions were eliminated in 1868 with the Capital Punishment Act. Further reforms would be made as recently as 1969 when the capital punishment for murder was abolished and in 1999 when it was eliminated for treason and piracy with violence.
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11 Ridiculous Crimes That Carried The Death Penalty Before Queen Victoria by Kellen Perry
The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged by Beth Hale
The Bloody Code: The worst ways to be executed in Britain in the 18th Century by LJ Charleston
A brief history of capital punishment in Britain by Lizzie Seal
Rethinking the Bloody Code in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Capital Punishment at the Centre and on the Periphery by Peter King and Richard Ward
Retribution and deterrence in the 18th century
What Was the ‘Bloody Code’? article from the UK’s National Justice Museum blog
A few of these were for the circumstances of the times. Take “stealing from a shipwreck.” There were sections of coast in Cornwall and Ireland famous for “wreckers,” people who would set up lights along the coast to guide ships looking for legitimate lighthouses astray and cause them to wreck on the coast. The locals would then board and plunder the wrecked vessel, sometimes killing any survivors of the ship’s crew. Daphne du Maurier’s “Jamaica Inn” includes a subplot on this.
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