With the examination of our benefits system in a recent channel 4 documentary causing all sorts of debate, would a similar probe into our justice system have similar effect?
The principal means of punishment during the 18th century was transportation, prison or hanging. Hanging was the most severe punishment with the number of offences punishable by hanging in the region of 200. These ranged from serious crimes, such as murder to much more petty crimes, such as pick pocketing or theft of food.
Public concern about the harshness of the penalties led to a gradual reduction in the number of people sentenced to be hanged. However, even after 1823 when the number of capital offences punishable by death was reduced, there were still about 100 offences on the statute books for which you could be hanged and of course many people were.
Interesting and odd get-out pleas were also raised including for example for women who were sentenced to death. If in their case they “pleaded their belly“, that is said that they were pregnant and if having been examined by a jury of matrons that was found to be the case, then their punishment was postponed until after the baby was born.
Whilst in principle it could then be carried out, in practice the mother was often pardoned.
Another interesting get out for those sentenced to die was what is known as “Benefit of Clergy“. This was where many defendants found guilty of offences punishable by death were spared and given a lesser punishment instead.
The idea went back to the middle ages and was a right accorded to the Church so that it could punish its own members itself. In this instance somebody claiming Benefit of Clergy would be handed over to the Church Authorities to be dealt with.
In time, however, any convict who claimed Benefit of Clergy and who were then able to read a passage from the Bible could obtain a lesser punishment. In an age of general illiteracy this was not easy but usually verses were chosen from the 51st psalm which was known as “The Neck Verse” as if correctly read it could save many people from being hanged.
Basically, if Benefit of Clergy was claimed, the judge would indicate the passages to be read – as I mentioned usually from the 51st psalm – and provided they were read satisfactorily a lesser punishment might be imposed.
It is said, possibly with some justification, that many if not most people being illiterate, there were those who learned the psalm by heart as a form of insurance so as to be able to recite it before a judge should the need arise!
There is little doubt that the public feel a review of modern day punishments is required, 18th century comparison may seem a little harsh, however reoffending rates would certainly reduce, you only get sentenced to death once after all! 😉