(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On or about this day in 1629, one John Dean, described in court documents as “an infant between eight and nine years,” was hanged in Abingdon, England for setting fire to two barns in the nearby town of Windsor.
According to Historia placitorum corone: The history of the pleas of the crown, Volume 1 by William Axton Stokes and Edward Ingersoll, this juvenile felon was indicted, arraigned and found guilty all on the same day, February 23, “and was hanged accordingly.” The actual date of his execution is not known, but it can’t have been long afterward. The wheels of British justice ground very quickly in those days, though not so fine.
The age of criminal responsibility in England at the time was seven years old. (It was later raised to eight, and in 1963 to ten, where it remains; there have been calls to raise it again.) Accordingly, anyone seven years or older could be charged with a crime and face the same penalties as someone seventeen or forty-seven — including the death sentence.
This does not mean that vast numbers of children were executed, however; quite the contrary. As Capital Punishment U.K. notes, “Death sentences were certainly routinely passed on 7 -13 year olds but equally routinely commuted. Girls were only typically hanged for the most serious crimes whereas teenage boys were executed for a wide range of felonies.”
The same source notes that little John Dean was probably the youngest child ever executed in England.
For reasons lost to history, he was not given the usual commutation: although there is no mention that anyone was hurt or killed in the fires, the judge found that John had “malice, revenge, craft and cunning,” and refused to recommend a reprieve. Perhaps the boy had a prior criminal record.
Thus did John Dean secure a footnote in history; were it not for his death no one would remember him today. Somehow, I doubt he would have thought it was worth it.