Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Crime and Punishment in Victorian England

You own a small palace. You have your trusted staff and you can live happily ever after. Right? In the movies we hear the Mistress of the house defending her staff when there is anything amiss. They were all exemplary. They came with references and could not have done wrong. And besides, she was a proper lady and would not suspect.

There was a great divide, though, between the rich and poor. The rich had vast excess while the poor were in misery. A good many would have liked to work their way into an aristocratic household to get their hands on anything they could redeem for cash. Therefore, it was necessary for you, as the Mistress of the house or the steward, to check references very carefully. Any girl old enough to have worked before, say age 16, had better come with a good "character", as references were called. Even then, there was the problem of forged characters. However, a job in such a household was highly esteemed, for servants in a great house ate regularly and had a roof over their heads. Those who came in with the right motives safeguarded their futures by behaving by the book.

While you might be safe in your own exquisite home with your carefully hired staff, you had to hide any valuables in a hidden pocket of your dress, often under a flap of fabric, when out and about in Town (the capital T means London Town). If for any reason you were out of your carriage and standing in a crowd, there were an abundance of skilled pickpockets not far away and drawing nearer. One might create a diversion while another stuck his hands into your pockets. Even a gentleman with hidden pockets in his coat would go home to find that his gold pocket watch had somehow disappeared, though he hadn't felt a thing.

Children were often hired to carry your expensive clothing here or there to be laundered or stitched. They were often relieved of their burdens by crooks looking for something nice to sell. Children of the aristocracy, if left alone to wander in a park or down some street to shop, were often relieved of the clothing they were wearing and sent home to you naked and crying.

Railway travel was an exciting new sport for the gentry of early Victorian times, but once again, there were crooks waiting nearby. You might arrive home after long travels and have your trunk lashed onto the back of a carriage to be hauled home behind you, only to arrive and find that the lashes had been cut and your trunk was missing. This would be worse yet if you arrived from your country home and the clothing you had intended to wear for the Season had disappeared.

Should anything sensational occur, you would want to be right there in court alongside a number of other upper class viewers to enjoy the proceedings. Large courtrooms were packed; you might even want to buy a ticket in advance if the case would prove to be interesting, like the case of Lord Frankfort. He had provided a home for a prostitute, but when she wanted to leave, he prevented it for two months. When he stepped out to a club one night, she took the jewels he had given her and left. He sued for the jewelry, apparently forgetting that his wife would get wind of it. She then sued for a judicial separation. The mistress was found not guilty of theft in the matter, and the aristocracy had enjoyed the show. Well, they didn't have TV and couldn't follow along with Poirot, could they. Ten years later, Lord Frankfort was back in court, charged with publishing an indecent communication in the shape of a letter to peeresses and the daughters of the nobility, offering to arrange to drug their husbands to sleep so that they could spend the evening with lovers. One clergyman had opened his wife's letter, of course, and went on the witness stand about what he had read. However, his decency moved him to ask the judge to send all ladies outside the courtroom so they wouldn't have their ears damaged by what he was about to say. The judge merely ordered the ladies not to listen. Lord Frankfort went to prison for a year, but used his financial goodwill to be exempted from oakum picking and the treadmill.

Sentences could be savage and arbitrary. Two young men had stolen a handkerchief worth 1s and were transported (to Australia, likely) for seven years. Two others each stole a handkerchief worth 3s and 2s and the same judge sentenced them, one to a month in a house of correction and the other to four year's penal service. Someone who took a bottle of gin worth 2s got only fourteen days.

Those who were incarcerated, however, might get the first bath of his life and clean shirts once a fortnight when new and more humane prisons began to be built. They were taken out for exercise wearing caps that had flaps to cover their faces so that other prisoners could not recognize them. They were taught trades and even given a good suit of clothes when leaving prison. However, they often sold these quickly as they did not match the clothing of the people of the Town.

By 1861, only murder and treason could be punished by death. Few murderers were, in fact, hanged. In 1854 only five hanged, and the annual average was between nine and sixteen. It was, however, still another sort of entertainment, and thirty thousand showed up to watch one hanging of a man and wife convicted of murder. Charles Dickens was in the crowd, having paid only 10 guineas for a place on a rooftop to see all the better, but he apparently was not pleased with it, and he wrote to the Times that executions should no longer be public. At least, he said, the hangman "should be restrained in his unseemly briskness, in his jokes, his oaths and his brandy". He also noted that the woman, hung in her black satin dress, was elaborately corseted and artfully dressed.

Things were much worse for convicted criminals before Queen Victoria's time, and over her decades gradual changes were made toward humane dealings with them.

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