Sunday, March 12, 2006


Hanging Answers All Things

Over at the Guardian Nicholas Lezard hails the new edition of Peter Linebaugh's history The London Hanged:

What Linebaugh has done is to examine closely the records of all those hanged in London during the 18th century and draw some fascinating conclusions: namely, that the death penalty came to be used not so much as a deterrent against witchcraft and treason (accusations of which were more common in earlier times) as a specific response to new property rights..... In 1734, one Jacob Vanderlint wrote a tract called Money Answers All Things - nice title - and broke down a typical labourer's expenses and income. There was a shortfall, and very often this was taken up by crime. And in reply, the ruling class cracked down: execution became a kind of unspoken fiscal policy.

Even a cursory glance through the Old Bailey records online shows what Linebaugh's talking about. Tellingly, what really drove the government to sheer kill-'em-all bloodlust was a crime that seems almost quaint in today's era of phishing and credit theft... namely, counterfeiting.

Oh my, you did not want to get caught doing that back then.

Incidentally, Lezard includes something well-nigh unheard of in newspapers: a request that he get sent more review copies. But not just any review copies (god knows there's enough of those already) -- "this is the kind of work that is normally put out by a university press - more of whose publications, incidentally, I would like to be sent, so I can recommend the odd one."


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