1785: Elizabeth Taylor, hanged for burglary

1 comment August 17th, 2019 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

On August 17, 1785, Elizabeth Taylor was only the third woman to be hanged on the New Drop gallows outside Newgate.*

Elizabeth and her brother Martin were convicted of burgling the house and shop of Samuel Hooker at Highgate in London on the night of Sunday the 7th of May 1785. They got quite a haul, nearly £200 worth of goods comprising sixty yards of Irish linen cloth, ten linen handkerchiefs, two hundred and fifty yards of thread lace, two thousand yards of silk ribbon, thirty yards of muslin, two silk handkerchiefs and some silver spoons and tableware. Elizabeth had been a servant in the Hooker household and had left his employment about sixteen months earlier.

On the night of the 7th Mr. Hooker locked up as usual before going to bed and was satisfied that everything was secure. Sometime after midnight Elizabeth, Martin and possibly a second man arrived at the house where they carefully removed four course of brickwork from under the kitchen window without disturbing the sleeping occupants. Martin was able to get through this hole and then went into the shop, taking the items that he found and passing them out to Elizabeth.

The crime was discovered the following morning when Mr. Hooker came down and was surprised by the amount of light in his kitchen from the sun shining through the hole that had been made. He checked round and went into the shop where he noticed various items missing. In a state of agitation he went next door and fetched his neighbour to look at the situation. He then fetched the local constable, Mr. Thomas Seasons and reported the burglary and the considerable loss of stock to him.

On the 18th of May, Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons went to Martin Taylor’s home and searched it. They discovered a cap which had some lace on it and a few yards of ribbon which Mr. Hooker was able to identify but none of the other property. Martin was arrested at the house. Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons then went to the home of a friend of the Taylors, Mrs. Halloway, who was a part time dress maker with whom Martin had lodged. She claimed in court that Martin had asked her to make two shifts for his sister from the material that he had brought to her. Mrs. Halloway knew Elizabeth from her visits to the house. Here Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons discovered pieces of the Irish linen cut up into panels for shirts and shifts. They also discovered one of the handkerchiefs that had been stolen. Further searching of the house revealed some more of the items in the upstairs room of another lodger, Mrs. Powell. Mr. Hooker and the constable’s next visit was to Bow fair where they apprehended Elizabeth who tried to make a run for it with the help of some of the bystanders. When she was searched a small quantity of ribbon was found in her pocket book. She was taken back to Mr. Season’s house and then before a magistrate where she made a confession. She told Mr. Seasons that she and two men had committed the burglary.

Elizabeth and Martin were committed for trial by the magistrates and appeared at the June Sessions of the Old Bailey which opened on Wednesday the 29th of that month before Mr. Justice Buller. Mr. Silvester led the prosecution and the defence was handled by Mr. Garrow.**

Various witnesses were called including Mr. Hooker, Mr. Seasons, Mrs. Halloway and Mrs. Powell, each giving their account of the events and being cross examined for the defence. Mr. Garrow questioned the constable as to the circumstances in which Elizabeth had made her confession and whether or not he had placed under duress to extract it. He suggested to the constable that he had threatened her with being hanged if she did not confess, something which Mr. Seasons denied, telling the court that he tried to dissuade her from making a confession to him and that she continued because she thought, in his opinion, that it might save her from the gallows.

Martin Taylor was allowed to make a personal statement in his defence in which he told the court that he had bought fourteen yards of the linen for twenty two pence a yard from an acquaintance in the Borough with the intention of having it made up by Mrs. Halloway into clothes for his wife and sister. Elizabeth simply told the court that she knew nothing about the crime at all. Not a statement that was likely to impress the jury in view of the evidence against her.

Both Elizabeth and Martin were convicted and sent back to Newgate to await sentencing at the end of the Sessions. No less than twenty-two men and three women were condemned to hang on that Friday. However fifteen men and the other two women were reprieved and had their sentences commuted to transportation.

The execution of the eight remaining prisoners was to take place on the portable “New Drop” gallows outside the Debtor’s Door of Newgate on Wednesday the 17th of August 1785. They were among a group of eight prisoners to die that morning. With them on the platform was James Lockhart who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, John Rebouit, John Morris and James Guthrie convicted of highway robbery and Richard Jacobs and Thomas Bailey who had also been condemned for burglary.

The actress Elizabeth Taylor — no relation — taking her leave of the soon-to-be-executed Montgomery Clift in the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun

At around 7.30 a.m., the condemned were led from their cells into the Press Yard where the Under Sheriff and John Villette, the Ordinary, (Newgate’s chaplain) met them. Their leg irons were removed by the prison blacksmith and the Yeoman of the Halter supervised the proceedings as the hangman and his assistant bound their wrists in front of them with cord and also place a cord round their body and arms at the elbows. White nightcaps were placed on their heads. The prisoners were now led across the Yard to the Lodge and then out through the Debtor’s Door where they climbed the steps up to the portable wooden gallows. There were shouts of “hats off” in the crowd. This was not out of respect for those about to die, but rather because the people further back demanded those at the front remove their hats so as not to obscure their view of the execution. Once assembled on the drop, the hangman, probably Edward Dennis, put the nooses round their necks while they prayed with the Ordinary. Elizabeth might have had her dress bound around her legs for the sake of decency but the men’s legs were left free. When the prayers had finished at about 8.15, the under sheriff gave the signal and the hangman moved the lever, which was connected to a drawbar under the trap, causing it to fall with a loud crash, the prisoners plunging 12-18 inches and usually writhing and struggling for some seconds before relaxing and becoming still. If their bodies continued to struggle, the hangman, unseen by the crowd, within the box below the drop, would grasp their legs and swing on them so adding his weight to theirs and thus ending their sufferings sooner. The dangling bodies would be left hanging for an hour before being either returned to their relatives. It was not recorded whether Elizabeth struggled or whether she died easily.

Although still by no means an instant death at least being hanged outside Newgate and being given some drop was a considerable improvement over executions at Tyburn with the long and uncomfortable ride to the gallows where prisoners died a much slower death as they got virtually no drop.

* The other two were Frances Warren and Mary Moody.

** William Garrow was a wet-behind-the-ears barrister at this moment having been called to the bar just the year prior, but he went on to a career as one of the age’s great Whig jurists and (thanks to his unusually energetic advocacy for his clientele) a key figure in the development of the adversarial trial model. He’s notable for coining — in 1791, in a case that he lost — the phrase and then-novel doctrine “presumed innocent until proven guilty”. He’s the subject of the 2009-2011 BBC series Garrow’s Law. -ed.

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1789: Ford, unfortunate wretch

Add comment August 4th, 2019 Headsman

This story hails from Dublin by way of the New York Daily Gazette, Oct. 31 1789:

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1780: Dennis Carragan, John Hill, and Marmaduke Grant, robbers

Add comment May 6th, 2019 Headsman


From the Pennsylvania Packet, May 23, 1780.

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1780: Elizabeth Butchill, Trinity College Cambridge bedding-girl

2 comments March 17th, 2019 Headsman

A Cambridge University servant was hanged on this date in 1780 for infanticide.

Elizabeth Butchill made her way turning down the beds for the boys attending Trinity College, work she had secured via her aunt who held the same position. She somehow got pregnant, an event which does not appear to have inordinately exercised her eventual judges perhaps by virtue of its very obviousness; as Frank McLynn wryly observes, “It does not need the imagination of a novelist to reconstruct the events that led her to the gallows.”

She was surely desperate to avoid social opprobrium and unemployment, so we find from the Newgate Calendar that “she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning [January 6, 1780], about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house.”

“Modest, patient, and penitent” during her confinement awaiting the noose, Butchill died

firm, resigned, and exemplary. She joined with the minister in prayer, and sung the lamentation of a sinner with marks of a sincere penitent, declaring she had made her peace with God, and was reconciled to her fate. Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

Whether the nameless infant’s nameless father shared those tears is a matter for the novelist’s imagination.

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1787: Three robbers, “very penitent”

Add comment December 27th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of the 27th December the following malefactors were executed in the Old Bailey, viz., Richard Carrol, a blind man, for breaking open the house of John Short, in the parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate and, and stealing a quantity of wearing apparel, &c.; George Roberts, for assaulting Benjamin Morgan on the highway near Finchley, and robbing him of one guinea and some silver; and Thomas Kennedy, for stealing a quantity of silver buckles, plate, jewels, and other goods, to the amount of 100 l. in the dwelling-house of Richard King, where he was shop man. They all behaved very penitent. There have been 105 persons executed from the 12th December, 1786, to the 11th December, 1787, only 24 of which number have been reported to be buried as such within the Bills of Mortality.

Clipping found in the prison journal of 19th century Newgate Ordinary Horace Cotton — beside the handwritten notation, “105 executed in one year”.

The Old Bailey was in use at this time as a venue for conducting executions as well as pronouncing them, following the end of the Tyburn tree in 1783. A temporary gallows in the central courtyard of the Old Bailey served the purpose, with the hanging conducted using the classic “turn the man off the cart and let him strangle” technique.


London Morning Herald, Jan. 1, 1788. The blind(?) man was also reputed to be oddly adept at playing cards.

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1787: John Bly and Charles Rose, Shaysites

Add comment December 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1787, the only two men to hang for the infant American republic’s seminal post-independence rebellion went to the gallows at Lenox, Massachusetts.

The newborn United States emerged from the American Revolution (1776-1783) in a parlous financial condition. Forever short of gold and credit, it had paid George Washington’s Continental Army in worthless scrip* and promises of goodwill. Instead, many a Cincinnatus returned from Yorktown to discover his debtor farm dunned by creditors and taxmen, as desperate as he for hard currency.

Come 1786, protests against unpayable taxes verged into an outright rural insurrection in western Massachusetts. Known for one of its principals, Daniel Shays — who like so many of his fellows was a Continental Army veteran turned penniless farmer — this rebellion continued for several months and took earnest aim at the hated Massachusetts merchant elites. Some 4,000 “Shaysites” would eventually admit to** taking the field as rebel guerrillas. They mounted an attack on a federal armory, and seized weapons where they could for their own use.

A few books about Shays’s Rebellion

It was this last act which occasions our men’s hangings.

The new American authorities, who had not so many years ago been beckoning this same populace to take up their muskets in revolution, exercised in this moment a brittle authority and they would calculate that the proper balance of due regard for their power without unnecessary resentment entailed only a circumscribed approach.

Instead of charging Shaysites wholesale, most were waved away with a free pardon. And instead of charging treason, the Bay State made its demonstration cases with regular criminal offenses — for burglary when our men John Bly and Charles Rose followed some Shaysite militiaman’s order to confiscate guns and powder from nearby houses. In 1787, that was still a potential hanging offense.

Of course, everyone understood well enough the real offense. On the eve of their executions, someone got the condemned men to sign onto a “Last Words & Dying Speeches” broadsheet with a lesson addressed “To the good People of Massachusetts, more especially to Daniel Shays, and other Officers of the Militia, and the Select men of Towns who have been instrumental in raising the Opposition to the Government of this Commonwealth:”

Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the Government … Advert to those things — live peaceably with all men — be not too jealous of your Rulers — remember that Government is absolutely necessary to restrain the corrupt passions of men — obey your Honest Governors — be not allured by designing men — pay your honest debts and your reasonable taxes — use your utmost endeavours to give peace to your divided, distracted country …

There was another legacy: the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion — and the federal government’s impotence to respond to it (it was haltingly suppressed by state militia, with the insurgents at points escaping into New York for breathing room) — helped catalyze the Constitutional Convention from May to September of 1787, and informed its creation of a stronger federal state and of the system of checks upon democratic action that a rebellious populace might wish to undertake.

There’s a podcast episode about Shays’s Rebellion here.

* So widely shunned was the depreciated paper Continental currency issued during the Revolution that the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered the parlance of the times; it was these notes that had been given to revolutionary soldiers by way of aspirational salary like so many stock options from a foundering Silicon Valley startup. In 1791, these Continentals were bought out by the new federal government at one cent on the dollar.

** This census arrives via applications for the free amnesty eventually offered to the Shaysite rank and file.

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1789: Five wheelbarrow men

3 comments October 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Byrns (aka Francis Burns), John Bennet, Daniel Cronan, John Ferguson (aka John Taylor) and John Logan* hanged in Philadelphia on this date in 1789.

The offenders were “wheelbarrow men,” which in the idiolect specific to late 1780s Pennsylvania denoted prisoners who were detailed, in order “to correct and reform offenders, and to produce such strong impressions on the minds of others as to deter them from committing the like offences,” to suffer “continued hard labour publicly and disgracefully imposed.”

As its own text declares, the 1786 statute creating this class was a part of Pennsylvania’s avant-garde move towards a penitential penal philosophy, with a corresponding reduction in capital sentences for property crimes: Pennsylvania had hanged about 40 people for mere robbery or burglary in the preceding decade. As explained by Louis Masur’s Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (which is also our source for the count of hanged thieves), “in 1786, most almanacs in Philadelphia and elsewhere included the proverb that industry promoted virtue.”

It became readily apparent, however, that the “wheelbarrow law” neither reformed the prisoners nor prevented vice. Indeed, it seemed to many that the convicts became even more licentious and that unprecedented amounts of criminal activity infested the community.

Such prisoners were “subjects of great terror, even while chained” given these walking spectacles’ notorious dissolution, and still worse their propensity for fleeing their wheelbarrows to become desperate fugitives. Pennsylvania newspapers from this era have an alarming quantity of notices published by gaolers warning of escaped wheelbarrow men … and not a few reports of actual or suspected crimes committed by them. For example …


Philadelphia Mercury, Oct. 23, 1788.

New-Hampshire Spy, Dec. 2, 1788.

By the time full 30 wheelbarrow-men escaped on a single night in October 1788, elite opinion had turned solidly against this disastrous experiment, and the law would be repealed by 1790 — substituting for public shaming the penitential benefits imposed solitude. But before the wheelbarrow men had disappeared into historical curiosity, our five of them in September 1789 robbed and also murdered a man named John McFarland in his home on Philadelphia’s Market Street.


New York Daily Gazette, Sep. 25, 1789.

* Quite a few Johns about down the years.

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1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

Add comment September 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

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1781: Beata Dolores, the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition

1 comment August 24th, 2018 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post on the last person done to death by the Spanish Inquisition, “Beata Dolores”, who on August 24 of 1781* became in Seville the last person ever sent to the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. Lea’s summary first appeared in his Chapters from the Religious History of Spain Connected with the Inquisition. -ed.)

More remarkable in every respect was the case of Maria de los Dolores Lopez, known as the Beata Dolores, who suffered as a Molinist, in 1781, at Seville.

She was, or pretended to be, blind and ascribed her ability to read and write and embroider to miraculous interposition. At the age of twelve she left her father’s house to live as a concubine with her confessor. Four years later he died, when she went to Marchena and assumed the habit of a beata [a nun -ed.] which she continued to wear.

Her quick intelligence gained for her a high reputation among the people, who imagined that only supernatural gifts could enable a blind person to divine things so readily. The fame of her sanctity and of the special graces enjoyed by her spread far and wide; she held long conversations with her guardian angel, after the fashion of Josepha de San Luis Beltran, but her career at Marchena was brought to an end by her corrupting her confessor. He was relegated to a convent of rigid observance and she went to Seville, where she followed the same hypocritical life for twelve years till, in July, 1779, one of her confessors, pricked by conscience, denounced both herself and himself to the Inquisition, and abundant evidence as to her scandals was easily obtained.

The trial lasted for two years, for she resolutely maintained the truth of her pretensions; since the age of four she had been the object of special grace, she had continual and familiar intercourse with the Virgin, she had been married in heaven to the child Jesus with St. Joseph and St. Augustin as witnesses, she had liberated millions of souls from purgatory, and much more of the same sort.

Had she been content to confess herself an impostor she would have escaped with the customary moderate punishment of reclusion, but she rendered herself guilty of formal and obstinate heresy by maintaining the so-called Molinist doctrine that evil actions cease to be sinful when God so wills it.

Every effort was made to convert her. The most eminent theologians were summoned and vainly exhausted their learning and eloquence; Fray Diego de Cadiz preached to her constantly for two months. She was equally unmoved by the threat of burning; God, she said, had revealed to her that she would die a martyr, after which he would in three days prove her innocence.

Burning was going out of fashion, and the Inquisition honestly endeavored to escape its necessity, but her obstinacy admitted of no alternative, and on August 22, 1781, she was finally condemned and abandoned to the secular arm. She listened unmoved to the sentence, after which, in place of being as usual hurried at once to the stake, she was, as a supreme effort, kept for three days [sic] in the chapel with holy men exhorting her to no purpose.

Then at the auto de fe every one was melted to pity on seeing her with the mitre of flames and demons, while she alone remained impassible during the sermon and ceremony — in fact she had to be gagged to suppress her blasphemy. Finally however on her way to the stake she weakened, she burst into tears and asked for a confessor. The execution was postponed for some hours and her punishment was mitigated, according to rule, with preliminary strangulation.

* Three hundred years after Seville had the first Inquisition auto-de-fe, both events the discerning traveler can explore at the city’s Museo Del Castillo De San Jorge. For reasons that I’m unable to determine there are a number of citations abroad placing this execution on November 7, 1781. I’m affirming the 24th of August based on primary documentation such as this archival document cited by Lea, or the August 25 correspondence reporting the events of the preceding day addressed to Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. This detailed account is quoted in full in Jovellanos: vida y pensamiento; alternately, this Spanish-language page summarizes the day hour by hour based on that same source. -ed.

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1786: Five men at York Castle, under the “Bloody Code”

1 comment August 19th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1786, five young men were hanged together before a large crowd in front of York Castle. They were William Nicholson, John Charlesworth, James Braithwaite, William Sharp and William Bamford.

William Knipe’s Criminal chronology of York castle; with a register of criminals capitally convicted and executed at the County assizes, commencing March 1st, 1379, to the present time records,

The above were all executed at Tyburn without Micklegate Bar.

Nicholson, aged 27, labourer, for stealing two geldings, the property of Robert Athorpe Esq., of Dinnington. Thomas Whitfield, Mr. Athorpe’s man, was the principal witness against him.

John Charlesworth, of Liversedge, clothier, for breaking into the house of Susan Lister, of Little Gomersal, single woman, and stealing various articles of trifling value; also further charged with stopping William Hemmingway, of Mirfield, clothier, and robbing him of three guineas and a half and some silver and copper. He was 21 years of age.

Braithwaite, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, of Long Preston, innkeeper, and stealing various article therefrom. He was a hawker and a pedlar, and 30 years of age.

William Sharp, labourer, aged 26, and William Bamford, labourer, aged 28, for robbing Duncan M’Donald, of Sheffield, button-maker, by breaking into his house, and carrying away a number of horn combs, a silver threepenny-piece, and fourpence in copper. Sharp was a native of Conisbro’, and Bamford, a native of Clifton.

It was noted that Nicholson, Charlesworth, Sharp and Bamford all left a widow and children behind, but Braithwaite had “two wives and three children by his lawful one, and two by the other, to whom he gave £70, and appeared most attached to her, as he would not permit the former to take leave of him.”

This British Library article on crime and punishment in Georgian Britain explains why these individuals were punished so severely for what, to modern eyes, look like relatively minor offenses:

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death—by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason — even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage — could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.

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