Friday, June 21, 2013

Crime and Society

Crime and Society


For many years, crime and punishment have been described as important aspects of human experiences in the society. The issues of crime and punishment have been deemed to be some of the disturbing and intriguing aspects of the history of European culture in the 18th and 19th centuries . Consequently, many people have argued that, the medieval ideas about crimes, punishment and policing were largely punitive and inhuman. On the other hand, it has been argued that, during this time crime was a serious problem and hence the need for strict and the Elizabethan forms of punishment provided as fair way of handling the rampant crimes and insecurity issues at that time. This essay seeks to analyze the issue of crime and transformation in punishment during the c1700-1850 period.

Several studies have mentioned that during the 18th and 19th centuries, crime was a serious problem facing not only the government but also the society as a whole. Historians have described this period as violent times. This was because, crimes were perpetuated violently, and also the punishments were equally cruel. Consequently, offences that threatened human victims, taking of property, and other types of felony triggered the sharpest anxieties and even stronger responses from the authority .

On the other hand, critics have mentioned that, the violent times were due to the corrupt environment that shaped the nature of crime and hence the punishment imposed against perpetrators ignored the role of corruption, bad companions, and more hardened associates who lived among the population.

Therefore based on this analysis, the use of human torture in crime punishment ignored other social problems that were equally responsible for the high rates of crime. This led to unfair treatment and irresponsible persecution that left many people tortured and even hanged for petty crimes that could have been solved by other mechanisms. As a public spectacle, it can be sated that while this form of punishment acted as deterrent forces, they equally contributed to human torture and persecution that could be alternatively prevented.

Crime and punishment

The violent nature of crimes during this period forced the authority to ins
tigate cruel punishment on the offenders. As a result such punishments assumed greater public spectacle since many of the executions and punishments were done in public and hence witnessed by the large crowds of people. It has been mentioned that through public manifestations, people who witnessed such kinds of punishment and execution on offenders would have something to learn and hence engage with the authority in fighting crime especially in the urban centers. Therefore, the deterrent effect of the cruel punishment and public execution were viewed by the authority as appropriate ways of dealing with crime in the present and the future .

Many critics have argued that such punishments and public execution deemed the offenders and provided bad picture of human treatment. Consequently, it has been stated that the ways of indictment employed by the authority saw a reduction in the level of crime across the country where many people feared such heavy punishments or execution.
It is clear that, during this period there were stringent legal frameworks that could have ensured fair treatment of individuals by the law. Furthermore, during this time, crimes were categorized according to their level of seriousness as thought by those in authority. Surprisingly, in some situations it has been stated that even stealing was put in the same category of serious crimes as rape and murder . This was based on the notion that, the social groups determined how crimes were handled. For instance, the rich people in the society wanted to be protected from those who owned less. Therefore, thieves were hanged for the sake of protecting those who owned more in the society. It has been noted that, this form of discriminatory justice undermined the notion of equal treatment before the law as perceived in the modern times.

It is further noted that, such kind of punishment were incapable of dealing with serious crimes and hence only acted only as a limit to justice. On the other hand, this form of punishment was deemed appropriate following the high level of insecurity and crime due to the increased unemployment. Therefore, it was viewed relevant to protect the noble class so as to ensure substance of the economy by reducing the threats from the poor people of the society through such punishments. Furthermore, while many of the punishment and execution have been condemned as unfair treatment of the lower classes, historians have indicated that even the royalty were equally subjected to this form of public execution and punishment for their respective crimes.

Crimes of the nobility
During this period, there existed different social groups where people were grouped as either belonging to the upper class, the nobility and courtiers and lower classes. The lower class in this case formed the majority of the population based on socio-economic factors that undermined individual development and employment levels. It is shown that, the upper class consisted of the wealthy, well educated and those associated with royalty and high members of the clergy. The political and economic influence of this group made them to engage in activities that were deemed to be criminal .

For instance, the involvement in political intrigue and other matters of religion left members from this group exposed to factors that may have led them to go astray. Therefore, the crimes of the nobility were regarded as crimes committed by other members of the society. There are numerous crimes considered to be of the nobility. These crimes could lead to the use of torture and other inhuman means as ways of punishment. Some of the most common crimes categorized as crimes of the nobility include blasphemy, high treason, rebellion, spying, murder, alchemy, sedition, and witchcraft. During the eighteenth century, these crimes were highly perceived as dangerous crimes that attracted serious and cruel punishment including hanging among other torturous methods.

Crimes of the commoners

The commoners represented the members from the lower classes and mostly faced with poverty and high level of desperation. There are a number of crimes that were considered to be crimes of the commoners. They include theft, begging, adultery, forgers, dice coggers, debtors, cut purses, vagabonds among other devious activities. Ironically, some of the petty crimes done by the commoners attracted heavy punishment such as death sentence. Furthermore, activities such as begging were made illegal and therefore a crime. It is noted that, the beggars were beaten thoroughly . These punishments were very torturous, merciless and bloody and even sometimes some of them sent prison and even hanged.

Types of punishments

Torture and execution

The purpose of torturing the offenders was mainly to deter, to intimidate, revenge or punish them based on the crimes committed. Torture was also used as a tool for extracting required information or confessions about crimes and other related issues. There are a number of methods that were used to torture the offenders during the sixteenth century. For instance, many of the victims from the lower classes were beaten, castrated, choked, cut, blinded, ripped off their nails and or teeth among other inhuman methods . This forms of torture left the victims in excruciating pain and at the mercy of the torturers. Other method included flaying the victims, drowning, disfigurement, Finger removal and to the extreme removal of their tongue. It was believed that, the impacts of these forms of tortures would be felt by the entire society in the sense that very few people would engage in crime for fear of the consequences. Additionally, other forms of human torture include starvation, whipping, branding in a public place.

Drawing and hanging

This was considered to be one of the most grievous and merciless punishment to offenders from all social groups. The convict was dragged on a hurdle or sled, to the place where they are hanged. In the state of being half dead, the offender was taken down and then quartered alive which then followed a step where their members were cut from their bodies and then thrown into the fire. This form of punishment was deemed as an appropriate way of punishing treason, rebellion, murder and other heinous crimes. While the effectiveness of this method had been applauded, the inhuman treatment of the victims amounted to torture and irresponsible forms of justice.


This was one of the terrifying and most daunting punishments in the sixteenth century. This punishment involved the use of an axe where the head was cut and severed by numerous blows by the executioners . These forms of punishment were mostly held in public for the sake of attracting large crowds of people. After the head was cut, the already severed head was held by the hair by one of the executioner. It is mentioned that, the purpose of doing so was not entirely to show the crowd the head, but rather to show the head the crowd! Additionally, the punishment of beheading continued even after the victim was pronounced dead. Consequently, the heads of those deemed to be traitors were displayed in public places as a way of warning any prospective traitor or rebellious individuals of the consequences of their actions.


This involved burning of the offender as a way of punishing them for their devious deeds. It can be noted that, the act of burning an individual alive led to a very terrible and painful death . Therefore, the excruciating pain that resulted from burning of the victims by the executioners was due to the suffocation that led to the lack of oxygen for the victim. Consequently, the victims had to die helplessly under terrible circumstances. As a matter of fact, burning is a very tenacious form of punishment that is equally detrimental and undermines the very existence of humanity. Therefore, as much as it was used to punish criminals, it was by all standards torturous and terrible form of punishment.

Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Benthman

Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham were the founders of classical criminology which occurred between late 1700s and mid 1800s. It was during this period that criminology first appeared in the academic world. Beccaria is credited for coming up with various principles of classical criminology. He stated that laws should be used in maintaining the social contract since human beings sacrifice their liberty in order to live in a safe environment . Beccaria also held that it was important to have one main authority that represents every person.
He therefore suggested that only legislators should have the responsibility of creating the law. These views were accepted by many people and they were widely applied in different countries. Another principle that was developed by Beccaria in the 16th century was that judges should only impose punishments according to the law. This was meant to ensure that the law is strictly adhered to. He stated that judges should not interpret the law and they should be impartial in administering of the law.

Beccaria stated that punishment for any kind should fit the crime in order for it to be effective. He insisted that punishment should not be based on the actor but instead it should be based on the criminal act to avoid any biasness. According to Beccaria, all people should be equally treated before the law and punishment is supposed to be prompt and effective . There is need for speedy trial to ensure justice to the victim. Beccaria held that no single person has the right to authorize death sentence as a punishment for crime.

He therefore advocated for abolishment of capital punishment such as death sentences. He was also against the use of torture to gain confessions from suspects terming it as a bad way of getting the truth. Beccaria emphasized on crime prevention as opposed to punishment and he promoted the use of education to prevent crimes. On the other hand, Bentham strongly believed in Utilitarianism whereby actions and law are evaluated based on how much pain or pleasure they bring. He believed that any law which makes many people unhappy is bad and if it gave pleasure to many people, it is good.

The views expressed by Beccaria and Bentham eventually became basic principles of classical criminology in the 16th century. These views gave a different perspective to the issues of criminal justice, man and the society as a whole. Prior to the adoption of these principles, criminal suspects did not have any human rights before the law. Torture was commonly used to gain confessions from the suspects and severe punishments such as death sentences were very common. There was no fairness in law as some people were discriminated against while others were immune to the law. However, the views expressed by Beccaria and Bentham created a new perspective about criminal justice and the society as a whole. The society started viewing criminal suspects as human beings who are also entitled to the basic rights. The judicial system started treating all people equally regardless of their social background and punishment was based on the act, not the actor . These principles of the classical criminology ensured justice was done and the use of torture to gain confessions was abolished.


The methods used to punish criminals in the 18th and 19th century was very inhuman. Despite acts of the poor people in the society they were not faced with humility and understanding but rather as a total mischief that demand repercussions. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, the cruel methods employed by the executioners as authorized by the rulers was largely based inspired by the need to lower crime rate in the society. However, regardless of the kinds of crimes committed, there may not be any appropriate justification for such merciless and torturous forms of punishment. This led to the adoption of views expressed by Beccaria and Bentham as a way of reducing brutality on criminals. They advocated for treatment of criminals in a human manner and emphasized on equality among all human beings.


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