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Crime

Early 17th century England saw the emergence of pirates, much romanticised creatures whose lives were often nasty, brutish and short. Adrian Tinniswood examines one such career.

The execution of a pirate at Execution Dock in Wapping, London

Where are the days that have been ... when we might do what we list, and the law would bear us out in it? When the whole sea was our empire, where we rob at will?’

(Andrew Barker, A True and Certaine Report of ... two late famous Pirates, 1609)

One consequence of the Somerset House Conference, which brought an end to the ‘long and most cruel ravage of wars’ between England and Spain in the summer of 1604, was the cessation of privateering. This legal variant on piracy, whereby private individuals carrying letters of marque from their government were permitted to seize goods and ships belonging to an enemy, was big business. In the late 1590s at least 85 privateers were operating out of London and the south coast ports and the prizes they brought home accounted for between 10 and 15 per cent of English imports.

How far, asks R.D. Storch, did the reforms in the system of law enforcement, and the detection, trial and punishment of criminals introduced in the nineteenth century make for better order and a real reduction in crime?

By 1900 England was a considerably less crime-ridden and more orderly society than it had been in 1800. Exactly how this improvement came about is still a matter for debate. The entire machinery or detection, law-enforcement and punishment of crime to which we are the uneasy heirs was created in the nineteenth century. Was the nineteenth-century invention of a modern, efficient and articulated system of criminal justice responsible for better order and the reduction of all types of crime by 1900?

Before the nineteenth century, a formidable battery of capital statutes had been established to deter crime and legitimate the rule of the propertied classes. As a system of crime control, the old capital code was not very effective. Prosecutors and juries developed many stratagems to circumvent the execution of the full penalty of the law. Relatively few criminals ever made the fatal journey to Tyburn. The nineteenth century saw the dismantling of the old draconian code, the improvement of the efficiency of the courts, the implanting of a modernised police force and the invention of the penitentiary. These reflected a new definition of public order which appeared in the l790s and triumphed by 1850.

William D. Rubinstein reviews the achievements of the Ripperologists and considers the arguments surrounding the so-called Ripper Diaries.

One of a series of images from the Illustrated London News for October 13, 1888 carrying the overall caption, "With the Vigilance Committee in the East End". This specific image is entitled "A Suspicious Character".The five prostitutes were stabbed to death in Whitechapel between August 31st and November 9th, 1888, always late at night. Then, for unknown reasons, the killings stopped. Each of the women – Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols (August 31st, 1888), Annie Chapman (September 8th), Elizabeth Stride and Catharine Eddowes (both September 30th, about half-a-mile apart), and Mary Jane Kelly (November 9th) – was not merely murdered, but horribly mutilated, with organs removed and a strong possibility of cannibalism. The last victim was mutilated almost beyond recognition. Even today, the photographs of the bodies are still deeply shocking.

Robert D. Storch argues that the state of policing before Peel was not always as bad as the reformers liked to claim.

In the Tudor and Stuart periods, English constables were important local figures in rural parish life. Drawn from the more substantial members of the village community, the status of constables appears to have been on a par with churchwardens and overseers of the poor. Propertied village worthies seem to have rotated through all three offices. Constables in this period have been characterised as 'headmen' - high-status locals who played a mediating role between the village and central authorities, and functioned both as agents of the Crown and village representatives. Despite perennial criticism, the state took the old constabulary seriously enough to assign it an important role in the enforcement of its plans to reform morality and control crime. This was especially true in the seventeenth century, but as late as the 1780s, magistrates attempted to mobilise and pressurise the constables to act against moral offences, drinking and local disorders - though apparently with disappointing results.

Richard O. Collin tells the story of Italy’s parallel police forces, and how they have contended with Mussolini, the Red Brigades – and the Mafia.

Looking at Italy today, penologists see a curiously non-violent society which becomes progressively less murderous with every passing year.

Despite past images of Mafia gunmen, jealous lovers, and Red Brigade assassins, present-day violations of the Italian criminal code tend to be rather more gentle. Even twentieth- century Italian civil conflicts have been relatively bloodless; the 1919-22 turmoil that saw Mussolini’s fascisti destroy the country’s fledgling democracy only cost about 2,000 lives – and produced about as many books.

When Italians themselves have looked at Italy, however, they have historically seen rampaging anarchy, time-bombs ticking, and daggers drawn as criminals and subversives compete for the honour of destroying the social order. When the peninsula found itself haphazardly unified in the mid-19th century, Italy’s founding fathers inherited many policemen and many enemies. Nervously, they recruited even more policemen to fight bandits and revolutionaries (often the same people).

So suspicious were Italy’s early leaders that they created mutually antagonistic police organisations to ensure that none became too powerful, according to the time-honoured principle of divide and rule.

Beginning our new series on the history and development of policing, Clive Emsley sets the scene with a broad discussion of the origins and issues of early policing in Continental Europe.

Issues of law and order have a high profile today across the media and on political agendas. Central to the political debates and the factual and fictional narratives are the police and policing. In Britain in particular there is an inclination to look back to a golden age when there was an avuncular, uniformed bobby patrolling every street ensuring that crime was kept to a minimum, and that offenders were speedily brought to justice. Portraying the past in this way and as a stick with which to beat the present is nothing new, and is not confined to matters of law and order. Yet while, over the last quarter century, there has been considerable historical research into crime, police and policing, historians have been perhaps a little reticent about engaging with some of the claims about the golden age and in challenging some of the, to them rather familiar, 'new' solutions to crime and disorder. An understanding of how and why police institutions developed, and how they related to the societies in which they functioned will not provide easy solutions to contemporary problems, but, if nothing else, it will ensure that participants in the debates are better informed.

Women as perpetrators of crime, rather than its victims, were figures of especial fascination and loathing in the Victorian popular press. Judith Knelman delves deeper.

The domestication of women early in the reign of Queen Victoria – inspired largely by her example – made it especially difficult for the English to believe that women would harbour, let alone indulge, murderous impulses. By this time the popular press had, through its sensational treatment of such figures, defined the murderess as a cold-blooded monster who operated by stealth and was particularly attracted to poison as a weapon. Such women, having betrayed the trust of their nearest and dearest, could not be understood as women, and so they were loudly derided as traitors to their sex. The crude woodcuts of nineteenth-century broadsides often showed a freshly hanged female figure being gawked at by an assembly of her moral superiors. Newspapers were more reliable but not much less subtle in their depiction of murderesses.

From about 1830, newspapers faithfully recorded all the physical and psychological details they could muster of the few women who were prosecuted for murder. Before that, newspaper reports of murder cases were fairly short and to the point, the point usually being that an execution date had been set. But these could be supplemented with colourful, sometimes poetic and often fictitious accounts in the form of broadside ballads chanted and sold in the streets.

In the aftermath of 1798 the British had to deal with thousands of political prisoners. Michael Durey traces the mixture of decisiveness, pragmatism and clemency with which they were treated.

Within two days of his arrival in Dublin on June 20th, 1798, the new Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief, Charles, Marquess Cornwallis, received encouraging news of the defeat of the Irish rebels at Vinegar Hill and the recapture of the town of Wexford. Although the rebellion was by no means over - large pockets of resistance were to remain for many months and a French invasion force was still to arrive - the issue was no longer in doubt. The immediate concern of his government was, therefore, to bring some semblance of order and normality to Ireland. Cornwallis and the young Irish Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, were convinced that priority had to be given to returning the tens of thousands of rebels still in arms to their allegiance to the king. To achieve this they developed a strategy which sought to bring the rebel leaders to justice, but exonerated the deluded rank and file. On surrendering their weapons and taking the oath of allegiance, ordinary rebels not involved in murders or robberies were to be permitted to return quietly to their homes.

Marika Sherwood trawls contemporary reports of the anti-Catholic protests that rocked London in June 1780 to reveal the black men and women who took part, exploring their motives and punishments for doing so.

'The evident Decay of Trade, the enormous Increase of Taxes to carry on a ruinous War against our Colonies, joined with a Perfect Hatred against the secret Advisers and Promoters of it... the Ministry has laid too many Burthens on the People to be borne with Patience. I only wonder they have been quiet so long...'

So wrote 'A Detester of ill-grounded Accusations' to the Public Advertiser on Ju1y 24th, 1780. The 'they' were the Londoners who had rioted during the first week of June 1780.

The poor of London, as well as the not-so-poor, had many other reasons for discontent. For them the city was an unsavoury, unsanitary and grossly overcrowded place, where footpads and robbers were a constant menace and 'justice' was often meted out on the evidence of paid informers. The many gaols housed the bankrupts, the criminals and the political discontents: some 200 'crimes' merited capital punishment. There was resentment against war-profiteering and against the numbers of the Government's 'placemen' and pensioners. Those not liable to taxes were liable to impressment, into both the army and the navy, whose thirst for men seemed unquenchable. Employment was insecure and irregular and 'combining' to attempt to obtain better wages and conditions was illegal.

Alistair Goldsmith describes how Glasgow's police force endeavoured to preserve the city's standing as it played host to a series of international set-pieces.

The spate of international exhibitions held in Glasgow from 1888 to 1938 endeavoured to underline the economic importance of the city. Their organisation as examples of large-scale sustained events linked Glasgow to international projects going back to the Great Exhibitions of London (1851), New York (1855) and Paris (1855). The Empire Exhibition in 1938, for example, far from being seen as a parochial imitation compared with the magnificence of Wembley in 1924-25, was likened in the most positive terms, particularly architecturally, to the Paris exhibition of 1937. In addition, the Glasgow Exhibition authorities welcomed visiting organisers from the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco and the New York World's Fair held the following year.

Traditionally, the reaction of the authorities to large assemblies of people has been one of suspicion. Crowds could be, and were, seen as potentially seditious and as disruptive magnets for criminals, to be con- trolled at all costs. This anxiety was echoed by the City of Glasgow Police when the first exhibition was staged in 1888, coming at a time when fears of social unrest were widespread. The predisposition of the Glasgow police to the four exhibitions held in the city, while not overtly hostile, was guarded, apprehensive even.

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