When England was on the cusp of the Victorian era in the 1820s, there were more than 200 offenses that were punishable by death. They ranged in severity from mass murder to consorting with “Gypsies,” but thanks to the so-called “Bloody Code,” all took the same toll: a public hanging. By the time Victoria took the throne in 1837, that number had dwindled to 15; by 1860, there were only four ways to get officially killed by the English state.
How could there be so many capital crimes in the Georgian/early-Victorian era? What were the crimes? Many of them were crimes straight out of CSI, such as rape, murder, and brutal assaults. But others seem insane to modern sensibilities, such as looting shipwrecks, cutting down trees, and writing threatening letters. Read on for a peek into the minds of Georgian and early-Victorian legislators.
Being in the Company of Gypsies for More Than a Month
In the mid-18th century, especially, historians say there was “violent prejudice” against gypsies in England – from the top down. There was a “barrage of statutes,” all unsuccessful, to “banish them from the kingdom.” A perfect example of this violent prejudice is making it a capital offense to even be in their company for an extended period of time for almost one hundred years – specifically, for more than one month.
It’s unclear why one month is the maximum exposure one can have to gypsies. What happens after that? As one writer notes, getting to the heart of the insanity of such a law, “Murder of the king carried the same penalty as being in the company of gypsies.”
Damaging Westminster Bridge
Many landmarks were protected under threat of capital punishment, but Westminster Bridge was especially safeguarded during the era of the “Bloody Code” because of its “immense civic and strategic importance.” Dogs couldn’t even cross it! It opened in 1750 as only the second bridge in London that crossed the Thames.
A Compendious Digest of the Statute Law (1787) lists punishments for damaging London bridges, and Westminster is the only one where “willfully destroying or damaging” it means you are “guilty of felony without benefit of clergy.”
Strong Evidence of Malice in a Child
Specifically, this capital crime was intended for children “seven to fourteen years of age.” To prove “strong evidence of malice,” prosecutors had to prove the child didn’t have the “ability to tell right from wrong.”
There’s no evidence of children on the youngest end of this range actually being executed during the “Bloody Code” era, but there is a case from 1629. John Dean, “between eight and nine years,” was hanged for setting two houses on fire in Windsor.
Throughout the “Bloody Code” era, there were indeed cases of kids aged 12 to 18 executed for malicious crimes ranging from “housebreaking” to rape and murder. In 1908, the minimum age for execution was raised to eighteen.
Blacking Yourself Up at Night
No, this one has nothing to do with a cultural aversion to blackface or minstrelsy. The crime that Georgians thought was worthy of death was simply darkening your face at night. What’s so wrong with that? The BBC says it “made people assume you were a burglar.” Simply looking like a burglar was enough to get you hanged.
(Presumably actors playing Othello, such as American John McCullough shown above in a post-“Bloody Code” illustration from 1878, would have been exempt.)
Cutting Down Young Trees
Court documents from February 24, 1821, from the Isle of Ely reveal the thinking behind this one. A man executed for “cutting down young trees in a plantation” had also set fire to “corn-stacks,” and slashed “fine horses” and cows with a knife. But it was cutting down the trees that most offended the judge:
…cutting down young trees, from malice to the owner, is as great a proof of malignity in the criminal, and may be a much greater injury to the owner; for wealth may replace the corn and cattle, but the loss of the trees is irreparable, both to the owner and to the public.
Unmarried Mother Concealing a Stillborn Child
Criticized even in the mid-Georgian era for its “horrid severity,” this capital crime is just what it sounds like: an unmarried woman that doesn’t immediately disclose that she gave birth to a stillborn child is assumed to have killed the child, and therefore deserves to die. Married women, meanwhile, would be spared because being married means you’re what, too virtuous to do such a thing?
Thomas Jefferson was a critic of this particularly cruel and insane law in the “Bloody Code,” pointing out that it makes what is “only presumptive evidence of a murder, conclusive of that fact.”
Writing a Threatening Letter
One of the first people to be hanged for sending a threatening letter in England was Jepthath Big in 1729. His crime? He tried to “demand money with menaces.” In 1754, it became a capital offence to send any threatening letter, regardless of whether or not the sender was attempting blackmail. It wasn’t just about threats to civilians’ lives: the law was also intended to “deal adequately with those who sent threatening letters as a primitive form of social protest.”
Stealing from a Shipwreck
How did looting shipwrecks become a capital crime? Lobbyists. The “vociferous and insistent” pressure from representatives of “the shipowning community, the insurance companies, and the merchant class in general” led to a law in England in 1753 that made looting wreckage punishable by death – even if no one aboard had survived. Sometimes, the military even intervened to enforce the law: about a dozen were wounded and three killed at a shootout in 1782, for example, between soldiers and “wreckers” near Bridgend.
The History and Results of the Present Capital Punishments in England (1832) says that fewer than half a dozen people had been convicted of shipwreck-looting between 1753 and 1832 and “its diminution must be attributed to the advance of moral feelings, and not to the influence of capital executions.” But threatening to hang offenders and flexing military muscle likely helped a little, right?
Returning from Transportation
To “return from transportation” is to escape from exile, or “being unlawfully at large before the expiration of a sentence.” Starting around the time of George I, criminals were frequently sent to America, Africa, or Australia for either “life, for fourteen years, or for seven years.” If they somehow managed to return to England, early on they faced the death penalty just for violating the law for the second time, but later on, in the Victorian era, they would have to be proven to be “engaged in fresh acts of dishonesty or violence” before being executed.
Historical documents show that this was a relatively rare cause for execution, especially closer to the Victorian era, when exile was typically for life.
Impersonating/Assaulting a Chelsea Pensioner
Quick background: a Chelsea Pensioner was and still is “a resident at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement home and nursing home for former members of the British Army located in Chelsea, London.” So it’s a retired soldier receiving a pension. This makes punishment for impersonating or assaulting one reasonable, but why the death penalty?
First of all, “impersonating” in this context doesn’t mean “dressing up as” (and they do have formal, scarlet-colored uniforms – see Sergeant William Hiseland above). It means drawing a pension you don’t deserve (i.e. stealing from the government). That’s still a pretty mild offense to be hanged over, but that’s in line with the rest of the “Bloody Code.”
Destroying Turnpike Roads
Why kill someone over destroying a turnpike? Historians say there was “widespread resentment” against toll roads in the early 18th century in England because “carriers had to pay tolls to do what they had previously done free.”
In 1735, it officially became a capital offense to destroy turnpikes, in part to curb the rioting and rampant “destruction of turnpike gates and toll-houses.” It only took one year after the law was official before two men were killed for “cutting turnpikes” in Herefordshire.