15 Historic Terms for Crime and Punishment, Defined

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What does it mean if one “pleads the belly” so as to avoid “gibbeting,” perhaps as a punishment for “petty treason,” all the while hoping to just be sentenced to “transportation”? These were terms used daily in courtrooms throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, each one representing a fascinating and often disturbing piece of history. Here are 15 terms of historic crime and punishments defined.

1. Pillory

To be pilloried was to be placed in stocks for the purpose of public humiliation. Criminals found guilty of lesser crimes, such as non-fatal arson, fraud, or rioting were made to stand with their head and arms locked in place for a suitable amount of time, usually three days. Their crime was often written on paper above them, and public abuse was not discouraged. It was miserably uncomfortable and humiliating, but one of the few historic punishments not intended to be fatal or disfiguring.

2. Plead the Belly

In centuries past, most sexually active women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. When a woman was sentenced to death, many would “plead the belly” or claim that she was pregnant. Early pregnancy was near impossible to prove. Some laws stated that the fetus must be “quickened,” or demonstrating detectable movement, to warrant a stay of execution. Courts determined pregnancy by gathering a “jury of matrons” to inspect the accused. They would examine her and decide whether or not she was with child. Governments would not kill a pregnant woman; her sentence would be postponed until after she gave birth. A pregnancy would often buy enough time for a woman to have her case further examined, and it was often that her sentence was commuted during her “confinement.”

3. Gibbeting

Gibbeting was, up until the late 1700s, a method of execution also referred to as “hanging in chains.” It was the act of suspending a criminal from a scaffolding, his body encased in a steel cage. His death would come about through slow dehydration, and his suffering would be used as a public deterrent. It was also common to put the already executed bodies of criminals in chains for the same purpose. 

4. Drawn and Quartered 

From 1283 until 1867, when a man was found guilty of treason—for anything from counterfeiting money to trying to convert someone to Catholicism—he was sentenced to be executed and was drawn and quartered. (Women found guilty of treason, however, were usually burned at the stake.) The “drawn” part of the punishment is debated by historians. It could have meant the part where the prisoner was drawn (dragged) behind a horse to the place of execution, or the part where, after being hanged by the neck but cut down before death, he was “drawn” to the butcher’s block. Or it might have meant the part where his entrails were drawn from his still-live body. Various interpretations also involve heart removal, emasculation, and beheading. But the quartering part is agreed upon. It refers to chopping the remains into four pieces (quarters), often with the help of four strong horses all pulling in opposite directions. That would allow lawmakers to display deterrents in four different locations. A 1533 rendering of the entire horrible event, which in this case is Henry VIII punishing Catholic monks, can be seen here

5. Barratry

Barratry may be a very old word, but it’s a particularly obnoxious crime still in practice today. It was defined in old law books as a “vexatious stirring up of quarrels or bringing of lawsuits.” Or frivolous lawsuits, brought forth to either intimidate or avenge an opponent, or simply to get money. 

6. Petty Treason

At its simplest, treason is the crime of ceasing to honor a superior force to which you have, even inadvertently, sworn your allegiance. Today, that mostly means governments. But 200 years ago, there were many more superior/inferior relationships. Petty Treason was the killing of a master by a servant, a religious superior by an underling, or a husband by his wife. The latter case was the one that showed up most in the records of The Old Bailey. The most common execution for petty traitors was death by burning.   

7. Run the Gauntlope

You've heard this term using its modern corruption, gauntlet. Gauntlope comes from the Swedish words for lane (gata) and running (lopp). The punishment was thoroughly described in the 1805 Principles and Practice of Naval and Military Courts Martial: The entire crew formed two opposing lines, one on each side of the ship (so technically there would be two gauntlopes to run). Each man was given “a small twisted cord of spun yarn called a knittle, having two or three knots upon it.” The offender was then stripped to the waist and made to march, not run, the gauntlope, walking in either Ordinary (75 steps a minute) or Quick (108 steps a minute) time while his crewmates whipped him with their knittles. To assure he moved slow enough to be thoroughly lashed, the ship’s Master at Arms walked backward in front of him, sword to his chest, and ship’s Corporal followed behind, sword also drawn. The offender walked around the ship, entering both gauntlopes at least once but no more than three times. The practice of running the gauntlope was abolished as a naval disciplinary action in 1806.

8. Highway Robbery

In the 16th and 17th centuries, poor people didn’t travel much. If you saw a carriage on one of the King’s rutted, muddy highways, or even a rider on a fine horse, you could assume there was some money riding along with him. Highwaymen (which Robin Hood could be classified as) were romanticized even in their own time, since they rode horses (unlike common footpad thieves) and confronted their prey openly. Plus they were more likely to be stealing from the rich (Robin Hood again). In truth, most highwaymen were just as cowardly and indiscriminate as any thief, and they most certainly didn’t share their stashes with the likes of Friar Tuck.

9. Chance Medley

The term “chance medley” is a strange usage of Old French and English words, translating to “random mix-up.” In old legal terms, the mix-up meant a squabble, one that escalated and resulted in a death. This offense was an early version of manslaughter—meaning that, yes, one person killed another, but it wasn’t with malice or planning. It was merely a fight that got out of control and was viewed with leniency in court. Interestingly, the law of chance-medley didn’t last long in the early United States. Americans were good at self-governing and tended to walk around armed, and thus everyone knew what fighting words could result in. It was best to keep a civil tongue.

10. Non compos mentis

There have been many changes to how a person may plead “insanity” in a court of law. Non compos mentis (Latin for “not having control over your own mind”) was one of the earliest. A good example of it is this case, where a man snatched another man’s beaver hat off his head, dropped it and ran away. The prisoner appeared baffled and had no defense, but all who knew him testified that he was not of sound mind. Non compos mentis was replaced in English courts in 1800 with the verdict “Guilty but Insane.” This was because a verdict of non compos mentis was basically an acquittal, allowing the offender to keep offending. “Guilty but Insane” allowed the government to sequester the “Lunatick” at His Majesty’s Pleasure (keep him in the madhouse for the foreseeable future).

11. Branding

Branding was a relatively mild punishment. After the trial was finished, the guilty party was, immediately and in front of the court, burned on the thumb with an iron bearing the letter of their crime: T for theft, M for murder, F for felon. This was ostensibly so that if they ever tried to get away with it again, they would be known as a repeat offender and executed. Between 1699 and 1707, the branding punishment was moved from thumb to cheek, but this was considered too harsh and self-defeating because it made the offenders unemployable—and, therefore, more likely to commit another crime.

12. Transportation

When you’re building the largest empire on earth, you’re going to find yourself with a lot of surplus land that needs English colonization. And most of your citizens aren’t lining up to leave their homes for the terrifying unforgiving wilds of the Americas and Australia. Meanwhile, the streets of London are choked with petty criminals, pickpockets and prostitutes. To control the undesirable population, there were 222 crimes that resulted in the death penalty in the mid-1700s, including stealing a rabbit. It was around this time a solution to both was implemented: Britain began “transporting” thousands of minor offenders to penal colonies, primarily in Australia.

First, the government sent just men to work the land, which made for a brutish environment. Then, female convicts were heavily transported, usually marrying an officer or freed convict as soon as possible, which basically made them free women. The desired effect was felt, and many people who had been forcibly moved to Australia made no attempt to return to England when their sentence was up, having created a better life than they had ever had in the London gutter. Transportation ended in 1868. Today, it's estimated that about 22 percent of Australians are descended from English convicts. 

13. Gaol

If you were to take the Latin for “cage” and send it down about a millennia or two of French and English, banging up against each other, you’d get jaiole from Old French and gayole from Anglo-Norman French and you’d fiddle around with the hard and soft g sounds until you had a word to describe a prison that is pronounced “Jale.” In the UK and Ireland, you might go on spelling it the old way for a while, but eventually, with a little encouragement from American English, we'd all agree to spell it like it sounds: Jail.   

14. Benefit of the Clergy

During his reign, Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Beckett butted heads over who should have the most authority over members of the clergy. Beckett didn’t believe the king could pass judgment on men sworn to be servants of God. This was one of the earliest sources of Benefit of Clergy: If a man of the cloth, anywhere on the religious hierarchy, should commit a capital crime, he could claim that as a man of God his sins were to be dealt with by his religious superiors (who never invoked the death penalty), not a secular court. The tradition, being changed and challenged many times, continued into the 19th century. At one point, anyone who could read a selected Bible passage was acquitted by benefit of the clergy. But if you couldn’t, obviously you were not under the clergy’s protection, as shown in this 1676 case:

… there were in all five persons that received Sentence of Death, three men and two women; two of the men for robbing upon the High way, and the other for having two Wives at once, who though he prayed the benefit of his Clergy, was not able to read when he came to the book, and suffered death.

Eventually, church and state came to agree that certain crimes—murder, rape, highway robbery, burglary, horse-stealing, pickpocketing, and theft from churches—could not be acquitted by a Bible verse. The practice itself was abolished from English courts in 1827.

15. Stand and Deliver

Stand and Deliver was the 18th century version of “Your money or your life.” It was a cry delivered by highwaymen robbers as they attacked a moving target. “Stand” meant come to a standstill, or stop. And deliver … that is revealed in a quote from the transcript of the 1720 trial of robber Robert Jackson.

The Prisoner clapt a Pistol to a Child's Head and said [to Andrews], G - d D - n you, stand and deliver your Money and Watch; and that he saw the Prisoner clap a Pistol to Andrews's Breast, and take his Watch; that he is sure the Prisoner is the same Person.