The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.




Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword History, 2017
hardcover & ebook
236pp; illus; chronology; notes & biblio; index
£19.99 hardback & £14.39 ebook

I remember reading how men and women were publicly executed for picking pockets and how pickpockets roamed among the crowds come to witness these appalling scenes and picked their pockets. The story was told by way of illustrating that not even the death penalty acted as a deterrent. It was Frederick Porter Wensley, the renowned East End detective, who commented that punishment did not act as a deterrent if the criminal thought he could get away with the crime, therefore the best deterrent was increasing the probability of getting caught. I’m not sure that that’s a lesson we’ve properly learned.

Certainly, back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries this lesson wasn’t appreciated at all, although in fairness crime was so bad that the authorities probably weren’t so much interested in preventing crime as in permanently removing criminals from society, and the number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased by over 100 from the middle of the 18th century, so that by 1815 they numbered 288. Executions were frequent and numerous, and multiple executions weren’t unknown – in 1785 twenty men were hanged outside Newgate, mainly for various forms of theft, none of them for murder. Between 1797 and 1837, 131 women were hanged in England and Wales. Their crimes were many and varied, and in this book Naomi Clifford, who has previously authored the well-received true crime history The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, looks at the lives and stories of eighteen of them.

They are divided into those who committed crimes against the person and against property, the former embracing murder and the attempted murder of husbands, infants and children, and the latter of crimes from theft, fraud, and arson, to passing forged banknotes.

There is also a complete chronology of all the women executed over the forty years covered by this book, which includes a brief account of each case.

Overall, the stories of these women tell us much about the world in which they lived. Most of them were poor and desperate, some were probably insane, and others such as Mary Bateman, the so-called “Yorkshire Witch”, died because in the dawning scientific age they managed to tap into a deeply rooted belief in sorcery and witchcraft.

This is a highly readable look at some women, some crimes, and, more particularly, at the mores of the last decades of the Georgian era. It’s well written and well researched.

Review by Paul Begg.


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