Violent crime is on the rise in London and you can’t pick up a paper or turn on the news without the latest report of stabbings, beatings, muggings and even murder. It’s disturbing that the Justice system, crippled by overcrowded jails and soft sentencing guidelines, often punishes inequitably to the crime.
However, we have it good in comparison to Ye Olde London Town who suffered waves of crime with such alarming titles as "Assault with Sodomitical Intent", "Returning from Transportation" and "Seducing from Allegiance". All of which, we’re sure mask serious criminal intent, but sound like the script direction from a bawdy Carry On film.
All this information comes with our discovery and mini-obsession with the on-line repository of The Old Bailey’s Proceedings from 1674 to 1834. It is still the Central Criminal Court in England and was the original site of Newgate Prison where prisoners sentenced to death would reside before the chop (or dangle, we suppose). The site is an exhaustive reference to the ills of society that plagued London over that crucial 150 years. It provides an incredible account of how desperate and depraved the criminal element and mentally deranged behaved as well as showing how harshly the Justice system dealt with these people once charged. In some cases it even hints towards the tragic depths Londoners had to sink to feed their families and the outrageous risks they faced in doing so.
And after looking at it for far too long, it’s also hilarious.
It just is.
Even the punishments sound, although menacing, disastrously comical such as "Branding on the cheek", "Military or Maritime Duty", "Pillory", "Burned at the Stake" and a sentence surely most of today’s Judges would bang their Gavels in joy if brought back, "Private Whipping"!
Reading some of the text of the court transcripts and summaries, you simply can do them no justice (pardon the pun) except for simply copying an excerpt. Take the case of the unfortunate "Scotch Seaman" who was fined for offences against the King and for using seditious words. The actual case showed that after the "extraordinary drunk" seaman had uttered "some most wicked and detestable words of our Soveraign (sic) Lord the King", proved by a "Gentleman of Quality", he broke down in court and threw himself on the mercy of the Lord of Justice. The Lord responded with pity and gave him a fine in this instance but what is funniest about the case is the Jerry Springer type afterward that accompanies the summary like a warning for future generations. It reads:
And certainly this one Example might warn and deter all reasonable persons from this odious sin of Drunkenness, which makes men act and say things they never imagined, & frequently brings their lives into such imminent danger, as in this Case, wherein nothing but extraordinary mercy could save the unhappy Criminal.
Will we ever learn?
Image from Swiv's lovely flickr photostream and used under the Creative Commons license.