Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches

Written by Naomi Clifford
Review by Edward James

1797 to 1837 were the years of the ‘Bloody Code’, with 188 capital offences on the English statute book by 1815, most of them added since the mid-18th century.  Yet this was the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, when they no longer burnt heretics and hung witches or executed political prisoners, at least not in England!  Why this sudden blood lust?

Admittedly most death sentences were commuted, but even so over 2000 people were hanged in this period, including 131 women.  Perhaps this can be explained as a desperate reaction to the problem of social control with a growing and increasingly urbanised population in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.  With the advent of an organised police force and an expanded and better organised prison system, the Bloody Code was gradually unwound until only treason and murder remained capital offences.

Clifford lists all the female hangings in these 40 years, with a brief note on each and considers 20 of them in greater depth.  Like searchlights, they light up corners of Georgian society which are otherwise hidden from history.