Monday, July 2, 2007

Victorian Culture: Punishments

Execution announcement in Victorian paper

At the start of the 19th century, over 200 crimes were punishable by death, ranging from murder to sodomy to stealing an item worth 5s ($1.25) from a shop. The reform movement a the end of the early 19th century brought an end to most death penalties, and by 1850 only treason, piracy, murder, and arson of a dockyard or arsnal still carried the death penalty. The penalty was carried out by hanging. Hangings were considered entertainment - a well-publicized hanging might draw tens of thousands of spectators. Last speeches to the crowd were popular in folklore, ballads, and novels.

En route the prison colony of Botany Bay

The first replacement for hangings was transportation, or shipping criminals over seas. Botany Bay, in Australia, was a prison colony, and over 140,000 convicts were sent there between 1810 and 1852. As gold mining and sheep ranching attracted voluntary colonists, they voiced objections to the introduction of more convicts and the system was abolished.
Imprisonment, which replaced it, was a new idea. Accused offenders awaiting trial had been imprisoned for many centuries, but prison as a punishment in itself only went back to the 18th century. Early prisons tended to chaotic, with large numbers of prisoners under minimal supervision. Reformers in the early 19th century went to the other extreme, favoring solitary confinement of all prisoners and requiring total silence. Solitary confinement was retained for troublesome prisoners long after the first versions of the present-day prison system were established in the 1800s.

Prisoners on a treadmill in the early 20th century

Many prisoners were sentenced to hard labor, from 1818 to 1898 this was performed on the treadmill, a muscle engine powered by walking steadily upward. British prisoners spent six (6) hours a day on the treadmill; Australian convicts spent 40 minutes out of every hour from sunrise to sunset, climbing the equivalent of three (3) miles. Labor on the treadmill was dreaded, as it was both physically difficult and tedious. Less physically fit prisoners were assigned to making oakum (tar-impregnated rope for caulking wooden ships).
Corporeal punishment was abolished in the armed services in the 1850s. It remained in use in schools, typically in the form of caning, though blows to the hand were sometimes used.

Stoddard, W.H. (2000) - Gurps Steampunk, pg. 62-63, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]

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