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The Need for a New Punishment: The Sentencing of Criminals after 1718

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

With the passage of the Transportation Act in 1718, Britain became the only European country after 1700 to transport convicts as part of a major governmental policy. The sentence of transportation was popular among judges and quickly became the preferred punishment for crime, since mass executions were considered too barbaric, long-term imprisonment in the absence of penitentiaries was too expensive, and the punishment was seen as a more effective deterrent to recidivism than corporal punishment.

The punishment of transportation to the American colonies was often used in cases of petty theft, but even offenses that normally called for the death penalty, such as murder and theft of anything over ₤2, were often commuted to transportation as well. Between the years 1718 and 1775, more than two-thirds of all felons were sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey–which was where criminal cases from the City of London and the county of Middlesex were tried–while only one-sixth received the death penalty. Convicts transported from England during this period accounted for half of all emigrants to the American colonies, and about 20 percent of these convicts were women.

The novelty of convict transportation as a punishment caught the attention of the press as well. Reports of trials that ended with transportation as a verdict were circulated in the coffee houses, especially those that were particularly sensational. Newspapers even reported on the loading of convicts aboard ships and their departure for the American colonies.

Transportation and Jonathan Wild

Even though the Transportation Act contained a provision specifically aimed at curtailing the business of Jonathan Wild, the Act had the unintended consequence of actually helping to strengthen Wild’s hold on those who helped form his criminal empire. Convicts who had returned to England early from transportation now made ideal candidates for his criminal network.

Under the Transportation Act, returning before the term of transportation had expired was an act punishable by death. Once Wild learned of convicts who had returned early to England, he could now quickly and easily bring them into his fold by threatening to reveal their identity to the authorities. Since the Transportation Act also made it a crime to collect a reward for returning stolen goods without turning in the perpetrator as well, Wild used transported convicts to return the stolen goods that he had acquired and to collect the reward. These convicts not only provided him with protection from this provision in the Transportation Act, but if they ever tried to turn against Wild, he could easily turn them in for a large reward, and they would receive an automatic death sentence.

Wild was a master at manipulating the law in order to keep those working in his criminal empire under his tight control, but eventually the law caught up to him. In 1725, Wild was arrested for theft and receiving stolen goods. After his arrest, William Thomson, the architect of the Transportation Act, drew up a warrant to keep Wild in custody, citing 11 articles that provided details about the operation of Wild’s criminal empire. Wild was found guilty and was executed in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd on May 24, 1725. After this execution of the “Thief-Taker General,” the number of criminals apprehended and convicted fell sharply.

The Fates of Richard Wood and Edward Higgins

Even though Richard Wood and Edward Higgins were tried and sentenced just before the passage of the Transportation Act, they both felt its effects. Higgins, who was convicted of stealing two coach cushions, was subject to Benefit of Clergy and was sent back on the streets after being branded on the thumb with a “T” for theft. Wood, on the other hand, was originally sentenced to death for pick-pocketing.

The Transportation Act, however, allowed the punishment of transportation to be retroactively applied to those who were sentenced before the Act’s passage. Under this provision, Wood’s death sentence was changed to transportation to the American colonies for 14 years. On August 28, 1718, Wood boarded the Eagle, a ship originally used in the slave trade, and along with 106 other convicts was the first to be transported to America under the Transportation Act. The ship’s initial destination was Maryland or Virginia, but after a run-in with a pirate, the ship was rerouted to Charles Town, South Carolina. With its arrival Wood completed his narrow escape from execution.

Higgins, on the other hand, confirmed just what the authorities generally feared when they originally passed the Transportation Act. Higgins evidently did not learn his lesson from his first brush with the law, for two years later he was once again caught stealing 3 coach seats. This time, the court was not so lenient and sentenced him to transportation. He was turned over to Capt. Darby Lux and placed on board the Gilbert, which set off for Annapolis, Maryland in October, 1720. Higgins did not appear on the Gilbert’s landing certificate, so it is very possible that the man who initially received Benefit of Clergy for his first offense died during his passage to America for his second.

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Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

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