Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Despite its awful history, I’d sometimes back death penalty

Ancestry.co.uk has published online the details of 1.4m criminal trials carried out in England and Wales.



These trials took place between the years of 1791 and 1892, by which time there were 222 crimes that carried the death penalty. These crimes included ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’, stealing from a shipwreck, poaching rabbits, picking pockets or even ‘showing signs of malice’. Showing signs of malice, what does that mean, exactly?

My giddy aunt! Is it any wonder that 10,333 men, women and children ended up on the gallows during this time? Of the rest, there were 900,000 terms of imprisonment and 97,000 poor souls were transported to various far-flung penal colonies. The youngest person on the records to be hanged was a 14-year-old boy.

It makes you wonder what those no-nonsense Victorian judges would have done with some of today's murderers, arsonists and thieves.

For, if they would happily sentence a humble rabbit poacher to the hangman's noose, I'm sure they would have no bother popping on the black cap to condemn a bunch of thugs who burnt down a school.

Of course, the poor didn't have recourse to state benefits back then, so there really was no alternative but to go poaching rabbits and stealing bread if your family was hungry. As for the most serious crimes, well, the ruling elite must have reckoned they could create the perfect nation if they could just hang enough of the bad apples.

I wonder if any exceptions were made for criminals with learning difficulties or with a mental illness, those from difficult or particularly poor backgrounds, or for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol?

I also wonder if they hanged many of the upper-crust gents for interfering with the laundry maids? Somehow I doubt it.

It's interesting to note that this period in British legal history also includes the Great Irish Famine of 1845-47. So it's my guess that if the government was hanging hollow-cheeked petty thieves in London during this time, they were unlikely to have much sympathy for the plight of the starving Irish.

No doubt they considered the poor, both at home and abroad, as nothing more than an inconvenience and an eyesore. A blot on the landscape, if you will. All of those raggedy beggars with their bony outstretched hands must have really ruined the view from the grand mansions and fancy carriages of yore.

I remember reading somewhere that convicted coin clippers in England were frequently hanged, and their bodies left to rot in iron cages as a deterrent to others.

Coin clippers were people who trimmed thin shreds of metal off the edges of coins and melted them down to make new coins. Apparently the government of the day regarded such an activity as being on a par with murder.

Again, it makes you wonder what they'd have done with many of today's drug-dealers, greedy bankers and scam-merchants. The death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1998. Until then it was kept on the books for treason and piracy. The last hanging in this country took place in 1964.

As a young person I was absolutely opposed to the death penalty. For the majority of prisoners, both today and in Victorian times, hail from broken homes with absent or violent fathers, ineffectual or depressed mothers, disrupted schooling or other social or economic problems.

So I always imagined it wasn't the fault of the individual prisoner if he strayed off the proverbial path and ended up |behind bars.

But as I've grown older, frailer, slightly more prosperous and become a parent, may God forgive me but I'm wavering. I still don't think I would vote for the death penalty to be re-introduced.

But if it were re-introduced, I don't think I'd bother to go the front of City Hall and protest. Does that make any sense to you? Or am I sitting on the fence? Would I want the Omagh bombers hanged? Probably.

If someone close to me were brutally murdered would I want the killer hanged? Oh, probably.

If someone stole my mobile phone or the family car, would I want him or her hanged? No. I'd prefer community service. It's sad that the human race hasn't really progressed very far since 1892. We're still discussing whether or not to murder our murderers.

Isn't it a great pity that, despite all our general advances, a young person still isn't safe on the streets after dark?

And anything not nailed down will be stolen as soon as your back is turned? I can only conclude that some humans are programmed to build and accumulate. Others are programmed to plunder and destroy. Makes you wonder if humanity is nothing more than a long forgotten science experiment that's gathering dust on God's primary school desk.

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