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The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century (Book Review)

by Peter Linebaugh
(Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Review by Sandy Judd

A title like The London Hanged might make a person think this is another book about death--an 18th century version of those true crime books about people like Ted Bundy--but it isn't. Instead, it's about the struggle to survive. Author Peter Linebaugh is a social historian who has taught at such institutions as the Federal Penitentiary in Marion Illinois and Harvard University, giving him both the academic and the real-life credentials to write authoritatively about a struggle to survive that took place two centuries ago.

The book opens with the story of Jack Sheppard, a carpenter turned burglar who was famous for his ability to escape from prison. A folk hero hated by the ruling class for his attitude, Sheppard embodied Linebaugh's definition of idleness: "the refusal of discipline, subordination or obedience." After being sentenced to die, he received a visit by a prison official interested in saving his soul. Sheppard replied, "One file's worth all the Bibles in the world."

Linebaugh's main theme is that most of the people who were hanged in London during this period were executed for trying to support themselves or their families. A trend that comes up time and again is the attempt by employers to take away the customary benefits that the workers counted on to survive. For instance, it was traditional for tailors to keep leftover scraps of fabric in order to piece together hats or children's clothes to sell at the open market. Employers who couldn't stop the practice themselves had the government make it illegal, and a bunch of tailors ended up on the 18th century version of death row.

Then, as now, "crime" was defined by the wealthy. Although today's working class is woefully unaware of this fact and unconcerned that the only people who ever get executed are poor, the working class of the 18th century wasn't nearly so gung-ho on capital punishment. For example, a judicial official named Wilmot was responsible for the condemnation of three men blamed for the beating death of a witness in a previous political trial. Wilmot barely escaped the wrath of the crowd at the men's public execution. As Linebaugh points out, public executions had long since ceased to terrorize the London masses.

There's a lesson here somewhere, but like most modern historians, Linebaugh refuses to point it out. Granted, the book is already 484 pages long, and not a sentence could be cut without losing either something essential or something entertaining, but many people who read it will walk away knowing more about capital punishment in 18th century London than they do about capital punishment in 20th century America. With any luck, however, the multitude of striking, and often humorous, details in this story about the past will stimulate us to more closely examine the present.

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