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.)