Significance of individual cases in changing attitudes towards crime and punishment
Since the 19th century, law enforcement and punishment has developed rapidly into the justice system we rely on today. Obscure laws that had become irrelevant in an industrial and post-industrial era were fast being replaced, and despite its lack of existence at the beginning of the 1800’s, policing standards are, today, high. The necessity for this drastic change in approach to crime has stemmed from the needs of industrial Britain, and the increased awareness of the public, and government, and their perception of crime and punishment.
Rather than individual cases having a direct impact on these changes, in general they provide an insight as to the reactions of the public at the time, and along with the myriad of other cases, allow us to develop an understanding of how attitudes towards crime and punishment changed. The case of James Hardy Vaux serves as a prime example of the inefficiency and weakness in the British justice system, especially in terms of punishment. It is significant in highlighting how ineffective trials were at convicting criminals. Over his criminal career, he was trialled 4 times, and eventually transported for life.
His 3rd trial is perhaps the most significant in providing an outlook on the inefficiency of the trialling system. Vaux had stolen a silver snuff box out of the pocket of a gentleman in a theatre. After leaving it with the landlady of a public house to have it refilled, he was caught picking it up again, along with the scissors he used to slit the gentleman’s pocket in his possession. Despite the large amount of evidence against him, he was found not guilty by the jury, thanks to the tactics he employed to avoid a sentence.
He dressed very expensively, and acted gentlemanly, and paid for the best lawyer he could find. He swayed the jury with his demeanour. Such was common at this time, for a criminal to sway the public, bribe witnesses and even threaten the prosecutor. After 1000 trials at the Old Bailey in 1793, 562 were acquitted. Bear in mind that back then, the prosecution had to pay for and organise their own trials, so a very small proportion of criminals were actually getting convicted. Consider this in contrast to the attitude towards several cases of execution in the 20th century.
In 1923, the sentence of Edith Thompson was protested by a 1 million signature petition, saying she did not deserve the death sentence. She had written letters to her lover expressing her desire to kill her husband, but had no idea her lover would actually murder him. In 1950, Timothy Evans was executed, but evidence found after the trial suggested he was innocent. Only a few years later, in 1955, Ruth Ellis was sentenced to death for murdering her boyfriend, who had physically and emotionally abused and manipulated her.
All of these cases received significant attention from the public, with the majority disagreeing with capital punishment. Seeing as the Homicide Act, which differentiated between murders which deserved capital punishment, was passed soon after in 1957, it may seem that changing attitudes swiftly resulted in reform. This is, however, not the case. Even in the 18th century, capital punishment was relatively controversial. In the same 1000 trials at the Old Bailey in 1793, 68 were sentenced to death.
Many people took pity on criminals, and only in few cases did people feel someone deserved the death sentence. This is further reinforced by the fact that, on average, only a fifth of those sentenced to death were actually executed, the rest were let off with less severe punishments after the trial, such as transportation. This showed sympathy coming even from the law, highlighting the lack of faith the justice system had in its own punishments.
It is more likely that cases like Timothy Evans were responsible for the eventual repeal of capital punishment; not because of the moral issues considering the death sentence, but the fact that methods of collecting evidence were becoming much more efficient, with fingerprinting and increased policing standards. It was the worry that the criminal being sentenced would be found innocent in light of new evidence after death, and there is no way of undoing a death sentence, that pushed this reform. The Tolpuddle Martyrs are a significant case in showing the increased involvement of the public in speaking against the justice system.
In 1834, members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers were transported under an outdated law that prohibited the taking of oaths, when they protested for a better wage. Perhaps what brought the most sympathy for the case was the fact that their protest was peaceful, despite the history of violent protest among workers with riots and groups such as the Luddites. The authorities were equally unsympathetic to this case as they were to the other, more violent movements. Even after public interest attracted an 800,000 signature petition, protesters were oppressed at a demonstration in Oldham.
The public was aware of the struggles of the poor worker, but the government still dismissed it; refusing to recognise the desperate circumstance of workers and citing greed as the motive of the Martyrs. Clearly the case had little impact on government opinions, with the treatment of the Chartists and the Rebecca Rioters later in the same decade being the same. But an important contribution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs case was the impact it had on public opinion, and the increased popularity of worker’s unions.
This case might suggest that reform is unrelated to the attitudes of society at the time, seeing as public upheaval was significant, while the government gave them no sympathy. This is in contrast to the situation in the 1950’s, where public opinion was starting to influence police and judicial reform. In the case of Bentley and Craig, in 1953, there was a significant outcry against Bentley’s death sentence, due to a few factors. Bentley was charged for murder, despite the fact that it was his partner, Craig, who committed the offence and shot and killed a police officer.
Because Craig was a minor, and could not be executed, they passed the sentence on to Bentley. Another interesting factor was that Bentley had a mental age of 11, which fuelled debate on whether or not he should be held responsible for his crimes due to his mental state. Similarly to the Tolpuddle Martyrs case, there was a public outcry against this case; when it was announced that the hanging had taken place and Bentley was put to death, there were riots outside Wandsworth Prison, staged by members of the public, where the execution took place.
However, unlike before, there was significant government attention to this case, and over 200 MP’s signed a petition in favour of the Queen granting clemency. While this wasn’t successful, it highlights the differences between government attitudes towards crime in these 2 periods. What is also significant to note, is that the Homicide Act of 1957 was introduced only 4 years later, and introduced the concept of diminished responsibility, where mental deficiency or retardation is accepted as a plea.
The fact that the act was, chronologically, passed in close proximity to the trial, and introduced diminished responsibility, a topic of defence in favour of Bentley, suggests that the trial had a significant impact on reform. However, it must be noted that the concept of diminished responsibility was already present in Scottish law; it is more likely that the case itself didn’t significantly impact reform, but instead contributed towards changing perceptions, and public awareness.
The trial of Oscar Wilde is interesting in that it demonstrates how in some aspect, society could be influenced to be less tolerable and sympathetic towards certain crimes. Before the case, homosexual acts and sodomy were already frowned upon, and there had been cases before of people being tried for these reasons, namely Boulton and Park. But homosexuality had never been vilified so greatly before as it was after the Oscar Wilde case; people tended to look upon it with sympathy and pity.
What’s important to note is that the advancements in the distribution of information and the media contributed towards the change in public opinion towards homosexuality. What was most horrifying to people, and was highlighted by the media, was that the people involved in homosexual acts with Wilde, at the brothels, were all very young and barely men. The idea that the media is responsible for influencing the case, and public opinion, is reinforced by a statement from Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover: “I submit that Mr.Oscar Wilde has been tried by the newspapers before he has been tried by a jury, that his case has been almost hopelessly prejudiced in the eyes of the public”.
The case re-kindled popular contempt for homosexuals, with artistic and poetic flamboyance now being attributed with homosexuality, due to the way Wilde dressed and talked. It became an important factor in the further criminalization of homosexuality. However, to a more positive degree, Wilde directly influenced the prison system. While serving his sentence, Wilde wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol, a piece of work that was not commonly known to have been produced by him at the time.
It described the harsh conditions of a new experimental prison system, called the “Silent System”, where prisoners were forbidden to interact. The revelation mustered strong opinions in favour of abolishing this system, and many of the points addressed in the Ballad were addressed not long after, in the 1898 Prison Reform Act. Individual cases do not usually have much impact on reform. This is especially true for cases in the early or mid-1800’s. However, as time progresses, reform that directly addresses issues raised in cases becomes more common.
This is mostly due to the contribution of several cases stretched over a century; each case having an impact on public and political opinion, which has a snowballing effect over this period of time. The more cases that appear that highlight a key issue, the more it is put under the spotlight. People will only have opinions on a topic if they are aware of their presence, and with several cases highlighting the issues multiple times over a long time period, it will eventually lead to a point where strong public opinion can sway governments to introduce reforms and measures.