« AnteriorContinuar »
understand the word to-day, but a man who had twice married, or had married a widow. Save professed nuns, all women were excluded from “benefit of clergy."
In 1487 Henry VII made some effort to restrict the privilege, by enacting that a man convicted of a clergyable felony should be branded on the thumb, and this enactment shows us how light the ecclesiastical penalties must previously have been.
As the law stood, until 1487, any man who could read might steal, or commit a murder, almost with impunity, and for long afterwards all he had to fear was a T or an M branded on his thumb. Elizabeth in 1576 abolished purgation and enacted a term of imprisonment, not to exceed one year, for the convicted clerk. James in 1622 allowed "clergy” to women for larceny of goods under 10s. in value, and William and Mary (1692) put women altogether on the same footing with men in this respect. Anne, in 1705, extended the privilege of “clergy” by abolishing the necessity for reading. George I (1717) made an alternative of seven years transportation for branding, and George III, in 1779, abolished branding, thus leaving the penalty as seven years' transportation without alternative. This was the statute law, but at common law there were many capital offences which were not clergyable, e.g., high treason, highway robbery and arson ; then later, murdering his lord, murdering in churches, robbing churches, theft from the person above the value of 1s., rape, abduction without intent to marry, stealing clothes from racks, or stealing from the king's stores. It is curious to note, in this connection, that according to the doctrine and practice of our legislators, the greater the facility for the crime the greater must be the punishment.
George IV, in 1827, abolished “clergy" altogether, and thus left death, without alternative, the punishment for nearly every crime, great or small.
THE BLOOD SACRIFICE. The number of lives sacrificed to the law in England has been tremendous. It is said by Holinshed, an Elizabethan writer, that during the reign of Henry VIII -a period of not more than 38 years—upwards of 72,000 persons were hanged as thieves and vagabonds. This statement is not very reliable, as there were no complete statistics of that time; but that there should be even a tradition of such a large number of executions, will give us some idea of what went on in those “good old times," which some people profess to be so anxious to bring back again. From a history of the Quarter Sessions (Elizabeth to Anne), compiled by Hamilton from records preserved at Exeter Castle, Sir James Stephen took the figures for the single year of 1598, and out of 390 convicted prisoners in the one county in that year, he found that 74 were actually hanged. If however, he said, we take only twenty as the average number hanged in each county, this would mean a total of something like 800 executions yearly in the forty English counties. And that, of course, was at a period when the whole population of England was less than that of greater London to-day. To take an example from later times, at the Lent Assizes of 1785, 242 persons were sentenced, and of these 103 were hanged. In 1816, Townsend, a well-known Bow Street officer, gave evidence before the Royal Commission that he had seen batches of twelve, sixteen, and twenty hanged at one execution, and once after an Old Bailey Sessions of 1783 he had seen forty hung in two batches of twenty each.
In regard to the manner of execution, hanging was not the only method of legal murder. Henry VIII enacted that the punishment for poisoning should be boiling to death, but this law was repealed under Elizabeth; men were usually hung; or hung, drawn and quartered; women were burned; and heretics also were burned, irrespective of sex. As late as 1777, a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive on a charge of false coinage ; a reprieve came, but only just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. It was thirteen years later before the Act was repealed under which that sentence was passed.
For six centuries, therefore, from about 1230 to about 1830, the chief punishment for crime in this country was deprivation of life, with or without accompanying torture.
One hundred years ago there were 160 offences punishable by death, but by 1810 this number had risen to as many as 222, and a story is told showing how lightly these enactments were made. It is said that on one occasion Edmund Burke thrust his head into a Committee Room of the House of Commons, and asking what the members were doing, was answered “Oh! almost nothing; we are merely creating a new felony-death without benefit of clergy."
BECCARIA'S INFLUENCE. But by 1810, when our capital offences numbered 222, we were approaching an important point in the history of the death punishment in this country, for it was shortly after this, that we saw the first practical results of Beccaria's influence in England; although even then it took many years of persistent work before anything like a thorough-going alteration in the laws was made. Before 1810, signs had not been wanting to show that public opinion was setting against capital punishment, but the great bar to public opinion becoming public law was then, as so often happens now, the House of Lords; and foremost amongst the obstructionists in the House of Lords, was the Bench of Bishops.
In 1764 Beccaria wrote his treatise condemning the death penalty, torture and excessive punishments of all kinds. This little book created a profound sensation ; it was translated into many different languages and read everywhere. Blackstone in the following year frequently referred to Beccaria; and Blackstone has the honorable position of being the first professional lawyer to find fault with the frequency of the death punishment in England. In 1770 a committee of inquiry, moved for by Sir W. Meredith, reported in favor of the repeal of two or three Acts which punished certain offences with death-one of which was the crime of belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians?—but, although the Commons consented to these repeals, the Lords refused to agree to them. As the opponents of capital punishment, inspired by Beccaria's work, grew bolder and stronger, those in favor of it became more active and more determined, and in 1784 and 1785 books were written, advocating the unfinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. The immediate consequence of this was, that in the year following the issue of the first of these books (Madan's "Thoughts on Executive Justice”) the number of executions was nearly doubled, and it is recorded that, about this time, an English Chief Justice, in charging the Grand Jury for Hertford,
Sir S. Romilly quotes Lord Hale as speaking of thirteen persons who were actually executed at one assize for the offence of associating with Egyptians for one month.
warned them that it was his intention during the circuit, to leave for execution every person convicted of a capital offence. He kept his word and spared no one; what this meant may be guessed from one case, where he caused four men and three women to be hanged outside a house, in which they had committed a robbery.
SIR SAMUEL ROMILLY AND ARCHDEACON PALEY. The man, who above all others, was chiefly responsible for delaying any alteration in the laws was Archdeacon Paley. The year after Madan’s book appeared, he wrote his “ Moral and Political Philosophy,” dedicated to the Bishop of Carlisle, father to Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, in which he defended the existing state of things. Paley condemned “ the overstrained scrupulousness or weak timidity of juries” who hesitated to send a man to a disgraceful death, and seemed to think it of little importance if even an innocent person should occasionally suffer. The issue of Madan's book, however, had aroused a powerful advocate on the other side, Sir Samuel Romilly, who commenced his long war against capital punishmentby writing an answer to Madan's arguments. This, in the course of time, he followed up by an endeavor to obtain from Parliament a reform of the criminal law. Here he found himself constantly confronted with the influence of Dr. Paley, and the only measure of alleviation he was able for some time to win, was the repeal of the law which made it a capital offence to steal from the person anything of the value of 18. or upwards, and even to this the alter-native punishment, proposed by the mercy of Lord Ellenborough, was transportation for life. This offence of stealing from the person anything of the value of thirteen