What was it?
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, a key feature of the punishment system was the massive increase in the number of crimes that were supposed to be punished with execution. The punishment for serious crimes such as murder or treason had always been execution, and this continued into the 16th century and beyond. However, as time passed, more and more crimes acquired the death penalty as their allocated punishment. The sorts of crimes that now had the death penalty included petty theft of goods, being out at night with a blackened face, poaching rabbits, stealing livestock (farm animals). The period became known as the period of the ‘Bloody Code’ due to the number of crimes lumped with execution as their punishment. The executions that took place were usually in public, helping make an example of the criminals.
|Year||Number of crimes with the death penalty|
Why were so many crimes punished so harshly?
The laws were made by a small number of rich and privileged men, who didn’t sympathise with the plight of many criminals. They believed that these people were either greedy, idle (lazy) or simply bad people. They felt criminals needed to be punished harshly to set an example to others considering a life of crime. Another reason was that these rich lawmakers felt under threat from crime and criminals. As a result they introduced laws that protected their interests and property. As there was no police force to protect them and their property, the bloody code seemed a logical way of protecting their property.
Did it work?
Not really! Many people who committed crimes were doing so out of desperation, trying to survive or trying to help their families. Juries also became unwilling to find people guilty as they realised that this would result in them being executed. It appears a completely unfair lottery when you went to trial; the rich would pay for reputable character references, making it far more likely for them to be found innocent. The trials themselves, like earlier periods, lasted only a few minutes and in this time, all the evidence couldn’t be properly examined. Being proved innocent or guilty appears at times to have come down completely to luck.
The code was unpopular with many common people who thought it was unfair, with evidence showing that only around 200 executions took place each year during the 18th century. Other punishments would soon be introduced…
Ending the Bloody Code
At the start of the 1800s, men like Samuel Romilly began to argue that the system was an unfair farce, and that something else was needed. Slowly but sure over the following years, the amount of crimes punishable by death decreased.
As you have already read, juries had a problem with sentencing so many people to death and a other forms of punishment were needed. The start of transportation during the 1700s was a perfect alternative, that was seen as a harsh enough alternative to execution.
By 1861, there only remained four crimes punishable by death; murder, treason, arson in naval dockyards, piracy with violence.