Strange Crimes that Warranted the Death Penalty Before the Victorian Era

Right before the Victorian era began, there were more than 200 criminal offenses that were punishable by death. These crimes ranged from mass murders to “consorting with Gypsies”. But thanks to the movement known as the “Bloody Code”, each crime took the same punishment, a public hanging. By the time that Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, that number had gone all the way down from 200 to 15. And by 1860, there were only four ways that would cause a criminal to be publicly executed.

How could there be so many capital crimes during the Georgian era you ask? And what exactly were these crimes? Many of them were understandable such as rape, murder, and brutal assaults. But others seemed to be insane when compared to our modern system. They included oddities such as looting shipwrecks, cutting down trees and writing threatening letters. Here are just a few of the horrible crimes according to the Georgian and early-Victorian legislators.

Being in the Company of Gypsies for More Than a Month

During the mid-18th century, there was a violent prejudice against gypsies in England. THere was a “barrage of statutes” all unsuccessful to, “Banish them from the kingdom.” A great example of this violent prejudice is making it a capital offense to even be in their company for an extended period 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 the Westminster Bridge

There were many landmarks in Britain that were protected under the threat of capital punishment. However, the Westminster Bridge was especially kept under watch during the time of the Bloody Code. It is due to the landmark’s immense civic and strategic importance. Dogs were not even allowed to cross it at the time. The bridge opened in 1750 as the second bridge in London that cross the Thames River.

A Compendious Digest of the Statute Law (1787) lists punishments for damage to the Westminster Bridge and other London bridges. The Westminster was the only one that was listed as “willfully destroying or damaging” it means you are “guilty of felony without benefit of clergy.”

The Strong Evidence of Malice in a Child

As grotesque as it sounds, this punishment was intended for children who were age “seven to fourteen years” to prove “strong evidence of malice,” prosecutors had to prove that the child didn’t have the “ability to tell right from wrong.”

While there is no evidence of children on the youngest end of the range being executed during the Bloody Code era, but there was a case that occurred in 1629 that involved a young boy named John Dean who was “between eight and nine years” and was hanged for setting two houses on fire in Windsor.

All throughout the Bloody Code era, there were several cases of kids between the ages of 12 to 18 executed for malicious crimes that ranged from breaking into houses to murder. In 1908, the minimum age for execution was raised to 18.

Blacking Yourself Up At Night

No this doesn’t have anything to do with the cultural aversion to blackface. The crime that Georgians were referring to that they believed was worth of death was simply darkening your face at night. So, what exactly is wrong with that? According to the BBC, 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 McCuillough, would have been exempt.

Cutting Down Young Trees

Court documents that were found from February 24, 1821 from the Isle of Ely revealed the thinking behind this one. A man was 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.”