Crime in England, 1780-1925

Many acts we would describe as crimes today were largely unprosecuted before the mid-nineteenth century. Introduction As with all periods in history, there were many illegal acts which could, if detected (and the perpetrator was prosecuted) appear as “crimes”. However, the vast majority of crimes were never prosecuted. Modern historians can sometimes study unprosecuted acts[…]

Sanctuary Spaces for Criminals in Medieval English Law

In medieval England, churches had a moral duty – and even a legal obligation – to protect the vulnerable. In medieval England, from at least the 12th to the 16th centuries, sanctuary was defined as a legal procedure within both canon law (the law of the church) and secular common law. It was a last[…]

Algorithms Associating Criminality and Appearance Have a Dark Past

In some cases, the explicit goal of these technologies is to deny opportunities to those deemed unfit. ‘Phrenology’ has an old-fashioned ring to it. It sounds like it belongs in a history book, filed somewhere between bloodletting and velocipedes. We’d like to think that judging people’s worth based on the size and shape of their[…]

Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse in Early Modern England

A new theology that came to dominate British religion after the Reformation altering the relationship between the living and the dead. Introduction During the age of spectacular punishment, the bodies of those who threatened the State or social order were subject to highly visible symbolic justice. The executions and dead bodies of traitors in particular[…]

The Power of the Criminal Corpse in the Medieval World

The dying and dead body was an important locus in both religious and secular discourses of power. Introduction Taking a long-term view of the history of crime and punishment problematises any straightforwardly progressive narrative of the history of punishment as one of increasingly humane attitudes. Punishment in the Middle Ages was about retribution, but also[…]

Henry McCarty: The Rise and Fall of Outlaw Billy the Kid

He made no pretense to be engaged in a social or a moral crusade. Introduction Henry McCarty (November 23, 1859[1] – July 14, 1881) was better known as Billy the Kid, but also known by the aliases Henry Antrim and William Harrison Bonney. He was a nineteenth century American frontier outlaw and gunman who was[…]

Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England

Looking at crime in Elizabethan England and the brutal punishments offenders received. Thieves and Pickpockets The crowded nave of St Paul’s Cathedral was a favourite with pickpockets and thieves, where innocent sightseers mixed with prostitutes, and servants looking for work rubbed shoulders with prosperous merchants. A visitor up from the country might be accosted by[…]

The Prison Palimpsest: A Former Tour Guide Looks Back at Eastern State Penitentiary

More than 200 years ago, a group of Philadelphian reformers had a utopian vision of how prisons should be run. At work we notice a mummified cat. It rests in a pile of paint chips and splintered wood in the wreck of the prison warden’s quarters. The other tour guides and I venture across floorboards[…]

Were the Bald Knobbers Law-and-Order Folk Heroes or Murderous Thugs?

In the lawless post-Civil War Ozarks, the vigilante Bald Knobbers took government’s place. When I was seven years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like[…]

Visible Proofs: A History of Forensic Medicine

Forensic medicine, also called “medical jurisprudence” or “legal medicine,” emerged in the 1600s. The Rise of Forensics Overview As European nation-states and their judicial systems developed, physicians and surgeons participated more frequently in legal proceedings. By the late 1700s, medical jurisprudence had become a standard subject in the medical curriculum. In the early 1800s, Parisian[…]

Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain

From gruesome, public executions to Georgian Britain’s adoration of the ‘heroic’ highwayman, the author investigates attitudes to crime and punishment in Georgian Britain. Introduction Throughout this period many people viewed criminals and law breaking as heroic and courageous, and the activities of robbers and villains were often widely celebrated in popular culture. Stories of daring[…]

The Mamertine Prison: Ancient Rome’s Tullianum

The prison was constructed around 640–616 BCE, by Ancus Marcius. Introduction The Mamertine Prison (Italian: Carcere Mamertino), in antiquity the Tullianum, was a prison (carcer) located in the Comitium in ancient Rome. It was situated on the northeastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, facing the Curia and the imperial fora of Nerva, Vespasian, and Augustus. Located between it and the Tabularium (record house)[…]

Fook Shing: Colonial Victoria’s Chinese Detective

Fook Shing spent 20 years as a Melbourne gumshoe. He policed the thriving Chinese community – claiming opium as an expense – but was never promoted above his entry rank of detective third class. On July 25 1882, Inspector Frederick Secretan, the head of Victoria Police’s Detective Branch, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In the[…]

‘Murder Map’ Reveals Medieval London’s Meanest Streets

First digital map of the murders recorded by the city’s Coroner in early 1300s shows Cheapside and Cornhill were homicide ‘hot spots’, and Sundays held the highest risk of violent death for medieval Londoners. Stabbed by a lover with a fish-gutting knife. Beaten to death for littering with eel skins. Shot with an arrow during a[…]

William of Norwich and a Jewish Woman’s Appeal of Murder in Medieval England

Periodic outbursts of hostility incited numerous massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages. Setting the Scene The period leading up to the expulsion of the Jews from England in July of 1290 was a time of mounting uncertainty for the Anglo Jewry. That Saint Augustine’s long-endorsed “toleration theory”[1] was beginning to lose its force is[…]