In order to settle a debate with her boss, Rebecca, a self-described “curious technical writer,” asked Early American Crime, “Were American pickpockets executed in the 1700′s and 1800′s? I know Britain was big on this, but how about America?”
As far as I can tell, pickpockets were not executed in America as they were in Britain. I can’t definitively say that it never happened, but I haven’t been able to find an instance when it did.
The reason why pickpockets could be executed in Britain but weren’t in America raises some interesting comparisons between the two countries. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, Britain executed many of its petty criminals because it relied on strict sentencing laws to deter crime in the absence of a professional police force. The British were fearful that a government-sanctioned police force could easily lead to the creation of a standing army, which could then be used to infringe on individual liberties. This fear was so great that England did not create a professional, organized police force until 1829. Armed with only a lantern and a pole, the City Watch was the only official body patrolling the streets in the 18th century, and it was considered inept and formed the butt of many jokes.
Rising population and overcrowding in the cities contributed to England’s petty crime woes. London in the eighteenth century was by far the largest city in Western Europe, having surpassed Paris earlier in the 17th century, and about one-tenth of the entire population of England lived there. This large concentration of people, combined with no serious organizational body policing the streets, created ample opportunities for acts of petty theft, such as pickpocketing. As crime rates rose throughout the century, the authorities in frustration increasingly turned to capital punishment as a means of discouraging thieves from committing such crimes.
Social conditions in America were quite different from those in England. Both the general and urban populations in America were much smaller, so there were not as many opportunities for criminals to commit the predominantly urban crime of pickpocketing as there were in England. Property crimes in America tended to be more in the form of larceny, robbery, or burglary, although petty acts of crime, such as pickpocketing, did occur.
Each colony in America had its own set of laws, so the punishment for pickpocketing varied among the colonies and changed over time, especially as punishments became based less on biblical and more on secular principles of law. In Massachusetts, theft was generally punished with fines and whippings, although a third-time offender who stole something valued over three pounds could be put to death. Picking a pocket in Massachusetts, in other words, simply wouldn’t bring a death sentence. In Pennsylvania, Mary Isaac received 21 lashes for pickpocketing in 1734. On June 4, 1752, The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that John Broughton was burnt in the hand with the letter “R” and sentenced to servitude for pickpocketing in Annapolis, MD.
African-Americans were often accused of pickpocketing, and the penalty for them was usually whipping. The American Weekly Mercury of Philadelphia reported on June 23, 1743 that a “Negro Fellow having stole a Pocket Bottle of about three Pence or four Pence Value, was ordered to be corrected for it at the Publick Whipping Post.” Just as he arrived for his punishment, the man suddenly pulled a knife out of his pocket and “very heroically cut his own Throat, chusing rather to suffer Death than be exposed to Publick Shame.”
Since the African-American accused of pickpocketing took his own life, his death cannot be construed as an execution. Consequently, I am sorry to report that Rebecca lost the friendly debate with her boss.
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