1882: James Gilmore, the first hanged in Deadwood 1678: Stephen Arrowsmith

Themed Set: Tyburn on the cusp of the Bloody Code

December 16th, 2012 Headsman

If to the city sped – What waits him there?
To see the profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know,
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.

Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies his sickly trade;
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.

-Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village” (1770) (via Linebaugh)

The “Bloody Code” — England’s profusion of sanguinary capital punishment laws and the terrifying quantities of hangings that resulted — can be variously dated.

The 1688 Glorious Revolution makes for convenient periodization, aligning as it does with the the stirrings that would make a burgeoning London the heart of the industrial revolution. As capital crimes multiplied from about 50 when the House of Stuart fled, to well over 200 by 1815, property crimes featured heavily: commercial burglary past five shillings’ value, or shoplifting at the same threshold, became “non-clergyable” hanging crimes as soon as the 1690s.

Perhaps the more emblematic legal innovations are better sought after 1714, when Hanover princes arrived bringing Whig governance and noteworthy arrogations of state violence in the Riot Act (1714) and the Waltham Black Acts (1723).

Less exalted infractions than these fell, in general, to their victims themselves for investigation and prosecution, a bizarre system of law enforcement as a private good to thrill the libertarian heart. Naturally this encouraged new forms of horrible entrepreneurship, like professional thief-takers who were simultaneously the major crime lords.

To give force to unpoliced laws, London depended upon the outsized threat of the rope (mitigated in the breach by “pious perjury”: the readiness of jurors to mercifully deflate the value of offended property just below the hanging threshold in many cases). The statutes multiplied organically upon themselves across the years, little bulwarks thrown up higgledy-piggledy to defend multiplying forms of commerce, property, and merchants in a city whose disorder grew side by side with her wealth.

“Are there not capital punishments sufficient in your statutes?” Lord Byron demanded in the House of Lords in 1812. “Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scarecrows?” The occasion was a bill to make it a hanging crime to break stocking frames, a protection of the capital stock the law had long ago extended to silk looms.

However one charts the Bloody Code’s subsequent growth, its root in the last decades of the 17th century and the start of the 18th lay in the classic crimes of violence dating back to before William and Mary — murder, rape, highway robbery, crimes of state including coining — as well as significant thefts, to which the new varieties of larceny were gradually to be adjoined. Across the century, London’s Tyburn gallows bent for all these men and women.

Our next few posts visit offenders in this time, not really so different from those who followed: people sucked into the city from every quarter, bound by their offenses large and small to blaze a trail for posterity to the deadly tree.

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