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In the 18th century, while heinous crimes were punishable by death, some punishments for some minor crimes went above and beyond. Besides, a corrupt legal system and a lack of a police force gave way to very brutal punishments.  

The 18th century, often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, was also a bawdy, brutal, and filthy age. Crime rates were at an all-time high and hanging days became city holidays as thousands of city dwellers cheered on the scoundrels and chatted with them a few minutes before they kicked the bucket. Everything then looked backward and didn’t make any particular sense. 

The rising crime rates during this time can be indirectly attributed to the increased poverty rates in the cities. Most people left their farms to look for opportunities, that more often than not didn’t exist in the big cities. In a legal system that mostly favored the rich, being poor was highly criminalized during this period.

Crime and punishment history in the 18th century show that some of the common crimes included drunkenness, prostitution, burglary, murder, rape, highway robbery, and pickpocketing among others. Most of these minor crimes carried severe punishments such as death by hanging, imprisonment, transportation to far colonies like Australia, and physical punishments. 

1. Set a Thief to Catch a Thief

It takes a thief to catch a thief, is an age-old saying that became more common in 18th century England. With no existing police force, the citizenry took it upon themselves to fight crime. This was often done through neighborhood constables, whose main work was to chase after and arrest those who broke the law.

Since constables didn’t investigate crimes, thief-takes were often contracted by affected victims to help them recover their stolen properties. If they were well-paid, they’d also arrest the criminal and present them before the sheriff. Successful thief-takers often achieved this by using their contacts in the underworld.

It’s no surprise that not all thief-takers with links in the criminal world would be legitimate. Some would extort protection money from the criminals while also taking the citizen’s reward money. Other thief-takers went to the extent of manipulating the gullible to take part in a crime, only for them to stab them in the back and arrest them for payment. 

John Wild was a famous thief-taker who also doubled up as a gang leader and a British government anti-crime consultant. At the height of his career as a “Thief-Taker General,” Wild was “recovering” property he had stolen himself. However, since there’s no honor among thieves, he was betrayed by his gang members and sent to the gallows in 1725.     

2. Paying for Your Jailtime

Modern prisons would look like a luxury hotel of some sort to the 18th-century convict. This is mainly because their upkeep would be coming from taxes, and not their pockets. Whether one was found innocent or not, they had to pay for their short or long stint at a prison.

Running a prison was so profitable that the prison wardens would often bribe the government to retain their position. They didn’t mind paying up to £5,000 for this chance, knowing too well that they’d recover this investment by charging prisoners. For instance, prisoners had to pay a fee to Newgate’s Prison warden when they entered and left the prison gates.

Prisoners also had to pay to make their lives a bit comfortable while in jail. They paid a fee to get soap, beddings, candles, or have the leg irons put on or taken off. Relatives also had to pay a fee so that they’d get a dead prisoner’s body from jail. 

As with any other prison, the prisoners themselves ran an extortion ring amongst themselves. Debtors found it rough during this time since they particularly found themselves in jail for not having money.    

3. Public Executions Were a Source of Entertainment

Public executions were meant to help deter the public from taking part in a life of crime. But who would have guessed that execution days would turn out into city holidays, and form a public spectacle where the criminals were cheered on? During execution days, thousands of people in London lined the street from Newgate Prison to Tyburn.

The criminals rarely showed any remorse for their crimes and some would often hurl insults to the court and witnesses. Some of the malefactors would put on their best clothes on their way to the hanging scaffold, while others would be piss drunk from alcohol given to them by sympathetic spectators.

Those members of the public with morbid curiosity would often buy the best seats in the house, including the condemned final speeches. Unpopular prisoners had items thrown at them, whereas the popular ones were cheered on. The executions were so popular that they became a tourist attraction.

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4. Citizens Had to Arrest Criminals

There were no police in the 18th century and most communities organized themselves to fight crime. Upon sighting a crime, it was upon the citizen to raise the alarm to that effect, often at the top of their lungs. This would bring their neighbors' attention, and the citizenry would spring into action to catch the criminal and bring him before a court. 

In preparation for any such event, every household was required to be equipped with weapons. The weapons ranged from swords, knives, and helmets to bows and arrows. Due to the sense of communal responsibility, fines were imposed on communities that failed to catch a criminal.  

5. People Were Easily Charged for Piracy

Piracy or any association with a pirate would often lead to severe punishments such as death. Such was the misfortune that befell six Englishmen who were caught after partaking in a bowl of punch aboard Calico Jack Rackham’s ship. The lot was charged and later executed for being armed and aiding and abetting a known pirate by helping him row his ship.

Most convictions were often mundane since any crime committed on a water body was considered to be piracy. Whether it was a mutiny on a steamship over a minor argument or an assault on a ship's officers, all suspects were charged for piracy. It was best for anyone at that time not to associate themselves with a well-known buccaneer, lest they lose their head on that account.      

6. An Unjust and Irrational Criminal Code 

The criminal code that was applied during the 18th century didn’t make any particular sense, especially when it came to punishing criminals. Frightening punishments such as guillotining, public hanging, and public flogging were meant to deter the public from committing that particular crime. However, the punishments for some crimes weren’t very clear.

Similar crimes had different punishments depending on when they were committed. For instance, stealing fruit from a person's tree was a minor offense while stealing an already harvested fruit was a capital offense. 

Burglary done at night was punishable by death while it was a minor crime when done during the day. Pickpocketing was a capital crime that could lead you to the gallows, whereas child kidnapping wasn’t. 

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7. There was No Real Justice in the Legal System

The legal system in the 18th century was designed to favor the rich and disadvantage the poor. Offices were bought and given to friends by already powerful government officials. Corruption was considered an investment during this period. It’s only individuals who had the means that were capable of making important decisions. 

Men who had no means and women stood no chance of wielding power in government. In the event a case was brought against a powerful person, witnesses in favor of the defense would be bought. In an already corrupt prison system, convicted rich people were allowed to bring money and other items of comfort with them.

The poor didn’t get to enjoy such advantages. Poor people were more likely to be found guilty of one crime or another and would be sent to prison, hanged, fined, or transported to prison colonies such as Australia. Besides, poor people would be arrested for being vagabonds. 

Conclusion

Punishments for various crimes in the 18th century ranged from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most people were hanged, guillotined, imprisoned for life, and transported to far colonies for minor crimes by a corrupt legal system. Since there were no police, citizens devised ways of reducing crime by hiring thief-takers and forming vigilante groups. Things just worked differently back then.    

Author Bio:

Scott Mathews is a freelance academic writer and editor working with College paper reviews, Write my dissertation, Best essay help, and Dissertation writing services. His superior writing skills and high-level professionalism makes him the top choice for college and university students to get their writing assignments done. In his free time, he loves going for jogging, reading history and business management books.