Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: April 2014

The "Golden Age" of Sedition: #ESSHC2014

From "True reform of parliament" by James Gillray

From “True reform of parliament” by James Gillray


“Sedition: conduct or language inciting to rebellion against the constituted authority in a state” – Oxford English Dictionary

Last week, I was in Vienna at the biannual European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) – known by the hashtag #ESSHC2014 on Twitter.

One of the most interesting papers I attended was one by Peter Rushton on The Rise and Fall of Seditious Words in England, 1550-1750. I have found his articles on the magistracy – written with Gwenda Morgan – incredibly interesting (and very useful within the context of my own PhD on the rural magistracy), and his paper was equally so.

The paper looked not just at what was sedition, but at how it was dealt with at a local level, looking particularly at magistrates in northern England as, according to Rushton, “magistrates WERE the local government” in Early Modern England.

Sedition arose from a belief that the reputation of rulers had to be preserved, and as part of the criminal law, the Star Chamber could punish all forms of attack on a king or his ministers, whether written, spoken, sung, or drawn (such as in a political cartoon).

Truth was no defence; if a statement was seen as dangerous to the social and political order, then it was deemed to be seditious, whether based on truth or not. It was even possible to prosecute for sedition if the victim of it were dead – such as if the defendant had insulted the king’s parentage (see Burn, Vol 3, 250, where he states ‘the offence is the same, whether the person libelled be alive or dead’).

By a local extension of the law, Rushton argued, it could also be sedition to insult a provincial Justice of the Peace, as subordinates of the monarch were protected. Richard Burn discussed this in his handbook for magistrates, The Justice of the Peace, differentiating between libel and genuine discussion:

“Although it is an aggravated misdemeanour to publish an invective against judges and juries with a view to bring into suspicion and contempt the administration of justice in the country, still it is lawful with candour and decency to discuss the merits of the verdict of the jury or the decisions of a judge.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 250)

But could magistrates be the victims of sedition? Or were they instead slandered? And what was the different between slander and sedition?

Rushton noted that “all seditious speech was scandalous, but not all scandalous speech was seditious”. He detailed the language used in various cases, but said it was hard to work out from the words used or who the victim was, just what was sedition and what wasn’t.

The prosecution of sedition was, though, less about the exact words used, and more to do with how wide an audience heard the allegations, or whether disorder could result from that particular use of words. Despite there being evidence of allegations made against magistrates – such as a 1650s example given by Rushton, “The justices you run to are tyrants” – many acts of defiance of local orders issued by JPs were not defined as seditious.

In fact, defamatory words uttered against local magistrates and mayors were not treated as sedition, even if they reflected badly on them, so Rushton believes that there was a tolerance of some words and acts. There is little evidence of sedition proceedings brought by magistrates – because they were attempting to defend the dignity of the magistracy rather than the state, Rushton argued, they may have treated cases as insults instead of sedition.

They were vulnerable to personal attacks, but the personal should be stressed; magistrates tended to face down the insults rather than making it a bigger deal by prosecuting, thus preserving their dignity.

In addition, in terms of the audience hearing a seditious comment, witnesses were often the people who brought a sedition case. Yet few would hear the words uttered about a magistrate in his justicing room, so unless he was willing to bring the case, thus publicising the comments, he might have decided to keep quiet about it.

Burn failed to differentiate between libel and sedition in his guidance, his main advice being:

“Libels on persons employed in a public capacity receive an aggravation as they tend to scandalise the government by reflecting on those who are entrusted with the administration of public affairs; for they not only endanger the public peace…by stirring up the parties immediately concerned to acts of revenge, but also have a direct tendency to breed in the people a dislike of their governors, and incline them to faction and sedition.” (The Justice of the Peace, Vol 3, 249)

In this statement, it can be seen that there was a blurred line between libel and sedition, but that sedition could be seen as a more active, political form of libel that risked disrupting an orderly society.

Rushton argued that, in the later part of this period, the rise of print culture replaced anxiety about the spoken word. There was more of a fear of rumour being spread by news sheets, via coffee-houses, from London and out into the provinces. Official priorities therefore were redirected from the spoken word to the dangers of print and the written word, with printers and writers being prosecuted.

Rushton concluded by saying that the focus on the written word, and on printing, has meant that speech has been neglected. Likewise, the “local” needs examining – what was happening away from the London-based print prosecutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

The century between 1650 and 1750 was, Rushton said, a “golden” age of seditious speech – and as such, I believe it was also a fascinating age.




The Crime of Suicide

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

Suicide was a crime in England and Wales until 1961 (when the Suicide Act was passed). Originally, it was a sin in religious terms, but from the 13th century, it became a common law offence – one of ‘self-murder’ or felo de se.

A person could only be deemed to have committed this offence if they were sane; as time went on, inquests frequently determined that someone who had killed him or herself had done so while the balance of their mind was disturbed – thus suggesting that they were not to blame for their act.

Prior to 1822, a suicide victim’s possessions could be confiscated, a forfeit to the Crown, and thus his family could suffer financially as well as socially for an act not committed by themselves. Someone who killed themselves might also be denied a decent burial, being traditionally buried at a crossroads with a stake through their body.

In 1800, for example, Thomas Flynn, from Hammersmith, was found to have cut his throat, dividing his oesophagus and making it impossible for him to eat or drink. He survived for four days before succumbing to his injury.

An inquest was held the day after his death, where it was decided that he had ‘feloniously, wickedly, and of his malice aforethought, killed and murdered himself’ and the coroner ordered that he be buried ‘in some public highway’. [1]

But already, by this stage, attitudes were starting to change; and the perceptions of Flynn may have been influenced by knowledge – presented by witnesses at the inquest – that he was widely known to be a wife-beater and a generally violent man, who had tried to kill his wife before harming himself. Flynn’s ‘self-murder’ came at a time when public attitudes towards wife-beating were also hardening.

And in the late 18th century, people had started to publicly question whether suicide should be treated so harshly. As this website has detailed, David Hume wrote essays on suicide in the 1770s, and there was also a debate on whether suicide was an act of courage. Legal handbooks, however, still stressed that suicide was an act of the devil (see illustration below).

In Victorian England, attitudes varied. In 1871, Maria Norman, aged 50, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by taking a large amount of carbolic acid. She badly burned her mouth, lips and throat.

From Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

From Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

She could have died – a doctor called to help her after she was discovered by her landlord refused to help, presumably because she did not have the money to pay him. But a local hospital physician gave her olive oil and glycerine to soothe her and she survived – only to be charged with a crime. [2] 

Yet five months later, a 45 year old labourer named William Atkins was charged with attempting to commit suicide by cutting his throat, at his home in Little Milton, Oxfordshire. He was taken to the county gaol, but when the magistrates were told they had to decide if he was sane, and that if he were, they would have to ‘send him for trial and he would be liable to severe punishment’, they decided they were ‘inclined to take a lenient view of the case’ – deciding he was not sane at the time, and therefore could be discharged. [3]

There was also sympathy for those impacted by suicide. In Oxfordshire, in 1873, an inquest jury clubbed together to give money to a woman, Leah Nicholls, whose husband Joseph had suffered from depression and had cut his throat, leaving her to look after their large family; this was not an isolated occurrence. [4]

What is evident from the many newspaper reports of suicides is that economic reasons and a history of depression were commonly given motives for individuals to kill themselves. Worry over how to feed one’s family, job insecurity during times of economic depression, and a fear of being forced to seek poor relief were all given as possible motives, although other motives could be complex and highly individual.

But they show that life in the past could also be stressful and traumatic, and lead to desperate acts. Some, like Flynn’s, may have been criminal acts, in a way; but many others deserved sympathy and understanding.

1. Derby Mercury, 14 August 1800
2: Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 19 March 1871
3: Jackson's Oxford Journal, 26 August 1871
4: My personal research into Leah and Joseph Nicholls of Chipping Norton






Data And The Digital Panopticon

The view from my seat at the DP data visualisation workshop

The view from my seat at the DP data visualisation workshop

Yesterday, I went to All Souls College, Oxford, for a data visualisation workshop organised by the Digital Panopticon project.

The project – a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania – is studying the lives of over 60,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875, to look at the impact of different penal punishments on their lives.

It aims to draw together genealogical, biometric and criminal justice datasets held by a variety of different organisations in Britain and Australia to create a searchable website that is aimed at anyone interested in criminal history – from genealogists to students and teachers, to academics.

This is a huge undertaking, and it is no wonder that the project aims to harness digital technologies in making the material accessible to a wide audience. But how could data visualisation techniques help?

The data visualisation workshop – #dpdataviz on Twitter – heard from three academics at Oxford who use data visualisation: Min Chen, Professor of Scientific Visualisation at the Oxford e-Research Centre; William Allen from Migration Observatory; and Arthur Downing from All Souls College.

Min Chen looked at the four levels of data analysis and visualisation:

1. the disseminative level, or “This is…!”

2. the operational level, or “What?”

3. the analytical level, or “Why?”

4. the innovative level, or “How?”

He stressed the importance of considering the audience you are creating visualisations for; you need to identify who they are, and what you want them to get from the visualisation. Good data visualisations, to me, are the ones that you go, “Oh!” at; the ones that move away from simply telling you something to making you feel as though you are discovering something yourself.

However, the three speakers also highlighted various ways in which often complex data can be visualised – such as Downing’s use of network analysis – but also pointed out the dangers of skewing figures by using overly simplistic tools.

Allen, for example, pointed to analysis of the terms used to describe immigration in the British press over a two-year period, showing how some diagrams – such as a bubble chart that focused on a single term – could suggest that one word was used more than another by the media, when a different diagram might show that actually this wasn’t the case.

dataviz can be thought provoking... or inspiring.

dataviz can be thought provoking… or inspiring.

The workshop then went on to look specifically at the challenges facing the Digital Panopticon team, looking at how elements of the Old Bailey data – such as gender or occupation, the type of crime committed, and where a convicted person was transported to – could be visualised, and the drawbacks of tagged data.

For example, only a minority of entries refer to a defendant’s occupation – particularly in the 19th century – and there is repetition of job titles (servant and servants being classed as separate jobs, for example, and different spellings – e.g. tailor/taylor – also being classified as different occupations) which can make visualisations skewed.

Another issue lies in the sheer amount of data that the Digital Panopticon team will be processing over the next couple of years. They are looking at the lives of thousands of individuals, using lots of different sources that will give them a huge amount of data on people’s health, height, weight, criminal record, social background, and so on. How do you present that in a way that is informative, accurate, yet easy to process and understand?

That is still an issue to be decided; but this workshop really showed how historians can use data visualisation to present their research in new ways, whilst still being academically rigorous. And now I’m off to have a play with Tableau Public, one of the many data visualisation applications I learned about on the workshop. I’m hoping the results will make it onto this blog at some point in the not too distant future. 🙂

The Digital Panopticon project can be followed on Twitter – @digipanoptic


15 Punishments We Used To Think Were Acceptable

Condamné_à_la_potence_lpdpI’d forgotten I had done this, but I did a quick list for Buzzfeed (on its community section).

So to see my list of 15 punishments we used to think were acceptable, click here.

Not an in-depth look at crime and punishment, but an, um, lighter-hearted look at execution and such like.

"She speaks with much dexterity": the life of a female forger in early 18th century London

My guest post for the Old Bailey Online/London Lives blog Crime in the Community.

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