Pardons and Other Ways Out

As those prisoners granted pardons have been released, we will have to simply describe an example of someone who received a pardon. In 1748, William York was convicted of murdering Susan Mahew. At the time of the crime, William was ten years old, and Susan was five. Both children lived in a poorhouse in Suffolk, where they shared a bed. On May 13th, William followed Susan out of the house toward a dunghill after making her cry. He took hold of the girl's hand, then proceeded to cut her with a knife and a hook five times to the bone, on her arms and thigh. Afterwards, he filled a pail with water, washed Susan's body, and buried her in the dunghill. William York confessed to this and was proven guilty. The only reasons he gave for the murder was that Susan had fouled their bed, and she was sulky. William was sentenced to death, but the execution was postponed many times because of his young age, and he was eventually pardoned for the same reason [1].


Another famous incident in which a man escaped a hanging death involved John Smith, otherwise known as "Half-Hang'd Smith." This man was convicted of stealing gloves and sentenced to death. On December 12th, 1705, Smith was taken to the gallows and made to hang, but he was not dead after a quarter of an hour. Throughout the crowd, there were shouts of "reprieve," and he was immediately cut down and had some blood let to restore his health. Smith was taken back to Newgate Prison, and eventually pleaded for a pardon on February 20th, 1706. He suffered terrible pain through the half-hanging experience, but not enough to keep him from crime after he was released. He was never officially convicted of a crime again [2].



The Bloody Code in England is based heavily on its provisions for capital punishment. In 1688, the death penalty was the standard punishment for about fifty crimes, but by 1765, the number rose to around 165 crimes, and it finally reached 225 before the system of law will be abolished in 1815 [3]. Though the laws of the Bloody Code allow for the punishment of death, the number of executions do not equal the number of indictments. For instance, only 10% of those indicted in London in 1700-1750 were actually hanged [4]. Instead of carrying out the death penalty consistently for every crime that allowed for it, English rulers of the century keep potential criminals in a state of uncertainty. "Their principle aim was social control. Pardons played an important role in this, for 'acts of mercy helped create the mental structure of paternalism…mercy was part of the currency of patronage'"[5]. English rulers try to appear merciful by granting some pardons, perhaps taking the emphasis off the strictness and cruelty of the Bloody Code. The attempt to create a "paternal" structure is not the only reason for reducing the rate of executions. Theorists and rulers alike realize that frequent, indiscriminate use of the death penalty for the range of crimes listed in the Bloody code is self-defeating [6]. A law system which murders more criminals than criminals murder others may seem contradictory to English society. Though this may be an effective means in putting fear into the hearts of possible criminals, does England want its entire society to live in fear of the monarch?

Royal pardons are granted by the king; De facto pardons are granted because the courts and litigants of a case can reshape the code for the purpose of mercy through precedents. Sometimes the latter will take the form of reducing a non-clergyable offense to a clergyable one [7]. Prior to 1706, individuals convicted of some capital crimes could receive a pardon through the benefit of clergy, based on the rights of clerics to be tried by ecclesiastical courts; this right was extended to some men and women who could prove they were literate [8]. In this manner, the courts can reduce the punishments for criminals who will otherwise be sentenced to hang.

Two main factors determined whether a pardon is granted: the degree of violence used during the crime and the reputation or "character" of the prisoner [9]. Interestingly, neither of these apply in the example we cited earlier of William York. His crime was very violent, and as he lived with his victim in a poorhouse, William had few important people to speak well on behalf of his character. This case is a good example of the unpredictability of the capital punishment system in eighteenth-century England. Perhaps it is also evidence of the "mercy" of the system, as the case shows a willingness to consider the mental state of the child William.

Pregnant women receive pardons from death sentences. "While awaiting execution the women were herded together in a huge cavernous ward on the top floor of Newgate. From here the object was to find men who would impregnate them so that they could plead their belly" [10]. Children are considered in other types of cases as well. A man who has a family is more likely to get a pardon for the excuse of being driven to crime by poverty as a last resort, as opposed to a single man [11].

If all chances for a pardon were impossible, another way out of an execution, though ending with the same result, is suicide [12]. Like the indiscriminate use of the death penalty, this is self-defeating, but one could interpret suicide as another rebellion against the system of laws. Very daring prisoners can attempt to escape, like Jack Sheppard in the upper right-hand corner of the picture.






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