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 1860s, only a handful of crimes were worthy of capital punishment.
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.
In the mid-18th century, especially, historians say there was “violent prejudice” against gypsies in England - from the top down. There were many laws that were intended to effectively banished 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 - 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.”
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 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.”
Specifically, this capital crime was intended for children from the ages of seven to fourteen. 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, who was eight or nine years old, was executed for arson.
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.
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 think that you were a burglar. Simply looking like a burglar was enough to get you hanged.