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For as long as humans have lived in groups, crime has been a part of life. Throughout history and across the globe, crime was dealt with in varying ways, some of which may seem downright barbaric by modern standards. Branding was a common punishment in the 1700s, both in colonial America and England. Also during this time, the first organized forces were formed to help keep the peace.

A lot has changed in the realm of crime and punishment since the 18th century, but the core principles of natural law remain firmly rooted in modern times. Initially developed from Christian teachings, natural law refers to the underlying moral principles of humanity. One of those principles is that you shouldn’t take from another human, yet theft was commonplace in the 1700s and remains so today, albeit in a much more complex landscape.

 

For instance, cybercrimes are essentially rampant in the 21st century, yet stealing was a decidedly tangible enterprise in the 1700s. Concepts such as intellectual property and copyright infringement are solely confined to contemporary society, but that doesn’t make those crimes any less serious. Those who commit any form of copyright infringement, even unconsciously, may find themselves on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit.

 

Although unpleasant, lawsuits are still preferable to the harsh, often inhumane punishments handed down in the 18th century.

The Commonality of Theft in 18th Century England

Today, when one is convicted of stealing or another form of theft, likely the harshest punishment he or she will face is jail time. And in some states, stealing charges are eligible for expungement following the successful completion of one’s sentence. When someone’s criminal record is expunged, it’s akin to starting over after repaying their debt to society.

 

Punishment was exponentially less forgiving among thieves in 18th century England. A 2009 academic paper cites numerous examples of extreme sentences handed down to convicted thieves. For example, in 1690, Anne Henderson was found guilty of simple grand larceny for allegedly stealing a silver tankard. She was sentenced to death.

 

Henderson’s death sentence was an extreme form of punishment for theft, however. Typically, convicted thieves in 18th century England were branded, or effectively banished to the colonies following the passage of the Transportation Act in 1717. Interestingly, those colorful punishments were handed down by ordinary citizens and possibly a parish constable or two. The first known organized force to deal with criminal investigations was the Bow Street Runners of London, formed in 1751.

Law, Religion, and Punishment in Colonial America

Colonial America, of course, is one of the aforementioned colonies where convicted English felons were sometimes shipped. And in America’s early days, the law and Christianity were virtually synonymous. Colonists in Virginia were even legally required to attend church every Sunday, and to behave in an orderly manner. As such, religious orthodoxy essentially doubled as the criminal justice system, at least until the national judicial system was established in the latter half of the century.

 

At the time, the punishment for skipping mass varied based on the social status of the accused, as well as whether it was a repeat infraction. Failing to attend church could result in a fine, the loss of food rations, and/or whipping. Beyond church attendance-related crimes, however, criminal punishment was often quite gritty and savage.

 

As in England, property crimes were some of the most common criminal infractions in colonial America. Those who committed an act of burglary, general theft, seditious libel, or a similar crime were typically punished via branding. Burglars were given a capital “B” on their right hand, while thieves received a branded “T.”

Punishments on the Spanish Frontier

But the practice of branding as a form of punishment was largely confined to colonial America. As the nation was founded in what we now call the East Coast, it’s easy to forget that another piece of America existed, more than 1,000 miles away in the desert Southwest. What’s more, the so-called Spanish Frontier was a thriving region inhabited by various Native American tribes and the descendants of early Spanish settlers.

 

Generally speaking, the original colonies are looked upon as more civilized than the Wild West. Yet punishments for breaking the law in the Spanish Frontier were rather humane compared to those in the colonies, even when slaves were involved.

 

For example, an Apache slave named Luis Quintana was charged with theft, assault, and banditry in 1741. Quintana was found guilty following a trial in Santa Fe and was sentenced to banishment and hard labor for one year. It’s unclear where Quintana served his banishment sentence, but his punishment seems almost tame compared to those handed down in the Eastern colonies.

Fighting Crime in the Modern World

Fortunately, branding and banishment as viable forms of punishment fell out of favor in the last few centuries. Within developed nations at least, the criminal justice system is relatively straightforward, and punishments typically fit the crime. Branding, flogging, and similar forms of retribution are no longer seen as acceptable ways to punish criminals. 

 

Crime itself, however, is much more nuanced and complex in modern times. And copyright law is just the tip of the iceberg at the intersection of technology and crime. For example, identity theft is unfortunately common as well as costly. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, identity theft involving financial accounts caused about $16.8 billion in total losses.

 

It’s likely that our 18th-century ancestors could never have imagined that theft and stealing would remain so prevalent hundreds of years later. But perhaps our diverse potential crime landscape is a small price to pay for a criminal justice system that’s significantly more fair and balanced.