I recently received a question from a reader who had seen something in another book about a young child being hanged for a crime, and the person wondered if such was true.
Unfortunately, such was true, but it was not as widespread as one might think. I do know that right before the Regency began there were an inordinate number of hangings in 1802 and 1803. In the uneasy peace between 1802-1803, when the Navy was half-decommissioned and even the old, rotting hulks in the Thames were full of ‘criminals’, there were more hangings than normal. Navy ships were being used to protect privateers from the French and in Egypt still to stop French takeover, as well as, in Ireland to put down the Emmet rebellion. So with the prisons overflowing and not enough ships to transport convicts here to Australia, there was a greater tendency to hang people for minor crimes – even children, though the trials were presided over by judges and all was not simply a riot itself.
On a side note, for those of you unfamiliar with the Emmett Rebellion, or better known as the Irish rebellion of 1803, it was an attempt by Irish republicans to seize the seat of the British government in Ireland, Dublin Castle, and triggered a nationwide insurrection. Renewing the struggle of 1798, they were organized under a reconstituted United Irish directorate. Hopes of French aid, of a diversionary rising by radical militants in England, and of Presbyterians in the north-east rallying once more to the cause of a republic were disappointed. The rising in Dublin misfired, and after a series of street skirmishes, the rebels dispersed. Their principal leader, Robert Emmet, was executed, while many simply went into exile.
Hanging was a very pubic and very gruesome practice. Quite often a person would be brought before the jury and charged with the theft of an item worth more than 40 shillings. The grand jury would indict for a lesser value and the trial jury would often convict of a still lesser sum. If someone took a dress or cloak off a line, the value would probably be cut down to something like 10 shillings so the criminal would be transported or spend a few months in prison rather than to be hanged.
However, there were no real public prosecutors so if a shop keeper or a homeowner wanted to make an example of a child or a man he could press forward with his claim more diligently. Many just wanted that person stopped from stealing and an example made, but they were particularly anxious to have anyone hanged.
Many of the children brought to trial were not of the London underworld, but were just poor wretches caught up in something they did not truly understand.
Children were expected to know right from wrong by age SEVEN. However, while a child of seven could be executed for a crime, a child of that age was seldom allowed to be a witness because of lack of credibility.
Thinking themselves merciful, those accused were made to “read” Psalm 51:1 to be saved from hanging, that is, if the offense still provided for the benefit of clergy. The illiterate class often taught the verse to those who could not read in order to save someone from hanging. Even small children could be made to “recite” it.
Psalm 51:1 – “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness; according to the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.”
Many of the adults were not at all stoic when it came to be hanged. Grown men broke down and cursed, sobbed, and in other ways made a scene. Some of the children might have been too frightened to move. Children often were not heavy enough to break their necks with the jerk. It was hard to hang children because the rope was too think and the children were too light. Quite a few were sent off to Australia instead or had their sentences made lighter by an appeal to the King (really to the Home Secretary) if there was anyone to care. Though the number of people hanged was high, it was only a percentage of those sentenced to death. The Benefit of Clergy privilege (all those who could read or quote the “neck verse”) plus pardons, and commutations of sentences reduced the number of those actually hanged.
Jane Austen World has an excellent article on the “spectacle” of a public hanging, which included vendors selling wares to the gathering crowd, as well as the adverts announcing events. Check out: Regency Crime
Georgian and Regency Britain provides us a Regency Guide on How to Behave When Being Hanged
Geri Walton provides us with a piece on Georgian Era Executions: What They Were Really Like
Historic UK provides us A History of Hanging
An excellent source on the private prosecution of crime can be found at this link: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/England_18thc./England_18thc.html
Thanks for this very interesting and sad article! I know all sorts of atrocities have occurred, involving children, throughout time. It is terrifying to think that a hungry child could be so severely punished for stealing food for himself and maybe even siblings.
This is truly scary, for history repeats itself.