Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century


Warning: The following is for mature audiences only

Murder, burglary, theft. You think they’re all a product of recent history. Think again. Violent altercations occurred often in the hurly, burly world of early American life. Soon laws were enacted, courts established, and a justice system (of sorts) grew up to right the wrongs and mete out punishments.

Penalties were designed to punish the wrong doer and to discourage others from committing crimes. Flogging was a favorite. The perpetrator would be stripped to the waist (men and women both), their hands tied over their heads, and the punishment administered. What merited this merciless punishment? Robbery (even one so minor as filching an apple from an overhanging branch), adultery (especially married women who had physicial concourse with a man not her husband even if he raped her).  Hanging was another favorite. And a community spectacle, allowing the citizenry to witness the result of wrongdoing and discouraging future capital transgressions, presumedly.

So, what were the crimes so onerous that they merited severe punishments? Let me count the ways!

We call unintentional killings manslaughter today and punishments are more lenient than for murder convictions. However, 19th century juries were more tolerant of accidental killings-as in a sudden quarrel or even in the commission of an unlawful act. According to the Statutes of Ohio in 1833, the penalty for killing without malice aforethought was not to exceed $1000 and imprisonment not to exceed 2 years.  Willful murder merited death by hanging.

In addition, if a man shall “carnally know any woman, with force and against her consent” or “carnally know any woman child under the age of ten years” and convicted of such crime, the penalty was death. (I’m glad to see our forebearers desired to protect our distant sisters, however much it was to protect the blood heritage of their descendents!)

If, however, a man only attempted a rape, he would be “whipped not exceeding thirty-nine stripes on his naked back.” (Statutes of Ohio, 1833). Forgery and counterfeiting warranted the same punishment.

An arson that caused a death merited a likewise punishment: death. An eye for an eye, anyone?

Punishments of various other crimes are spelled out in the statutes.

Fifty stripes on a naked back were ordered for:

             Cutting out a tongue

             Putting out an eye

             Cutting off an arm or leg or rendering them useless

             Severing or destroying a man’s “privy member”

Why weren’t more convicted people sent to prison, you ask? Because they were few and far between. Local jails primarily housed prisoners pending their trials. Few facilities to house prisoners long term existed until later in the 19th century. Justice was to be administered swiftly and severely.

Prisoners’ rights? They never heard of them. Corporal punishment, deterrence, and retribution characterized 19th century justice. The good of society and morality governed court decisions.

I wonder…have we changed all that much today?

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