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The Need for a New Punishment: The Trials of Richard Wood and Edward Higgins

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

Richard Wood

On February 11, 1718, Richard Wood wandered the Newgate Market at 10 o’clock at night, carefully studying the people around him. The often crowded market was located between the notorious Newgate Prison and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and it served as a central source of meat for the population of London. Market activity would have been slower but still significant at this late hour, as markets were beginning to stay open later and well past nightfall to accommodate the new consumerism that was emerging with the onset of the industrial revolution.

Richard spotted a woman purchasing some meat. He casually walked up beside her and in a flash grabbed her small purse and ran. The woman cried out for help, and Richard was immediately pursued. He ran along the line of market stalls, heading towards London’s twisting streets that could help him elude his pursuers, but he was not fast enough. As he was about to fall into the clutches of those who chased him, Richard quickly dropped the purse in an attempt to shed himself of any guilt in the crime, but both he and the purse were gathered up and taken into custody.

Two weeks later on February 27, Richard was brought to the Old Bailey for trial. He was indicted for pick pocketing, a capital offense defined as stealing goods worth over one shilling without the owner’s knowledge, a condition that often made the crime difficult to prove in court. Unfortunately for Richard, the purse he stole contained 2 handkerchiefs and 9 shillings, with a total value of 1 guinea and 2 pence, and there were plenty of witnesses willing to give evidence against him. Even though in court Richard denied having stolen the purse, the jury found him guilty. For his crime of stealing a purse, Richard was sentenced to death.

Edward Higgins

During the same court session, Edward Higgins of St. Giles’s in the Fields was brought before judge and jury for feloniously stealing 2 coach cushions. On January 23, 1718, Edward and an accomplice removed the cushions from a coach that was standing on Russell Street, not far from the Covent Garden Market, London’s fruit and vegetable market. The coach belonged to Sir Philip Jackson, who three years later would become a director of the Bank of England. Jackson was possibly visiting one of the many coffee houses that lined the street, which increasingly served as both intellectual and business centers for England’s elite. Luckily for Jackson, several witnesses saw Edward and his accomplice take the cushions and started to run after the two thieves. Once Edward and his accomplice realized that they were being chased, they threw down the cushions to give them both a better chance for escape and a pretext for denying their crime. Edward was eventually caught by his pursuers, but his accomplice managed to get away.

At his trial, Edward claimed that he merely found the cushions in the street. The jury, however, did not believe “he had been honestly so lucky” and convicted him of simple grand larceny–the theft of goods valued over 1s. without any aggravating circumstances, such as assault or stealing without the knowledge of the owner. The jury was not without some sympathy for Edward, though, because they found him only part guilty of his crime and reduced the value of the cushions to 4s. 10d. By doing so, the jury avoided handing down a mandatory sentence of death for stealing goods valued at over 5 s., which the two cushions surely were. As punishment, Higgins was branded on the thumb with a “T” for theft.

Similar Crimes, Different Sentences

A trial at a criminal court, the Old Bailey in...
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The difference between the crimes that Richard Wood and Edward Higgins committed was not great. Both stole goods that had a relatively high value; both ran away from their pursuers and tried to dump the goods they took as they were being followed; and both denied having committed the act in court. Neither criminal had appeared for trial in the Old Bailey before this time.

The sentence that each received for their crime, however, couldn’t have been more different. Richard received a death sentence for his impulsive act, whereas Edward merely got away with a burn on his hand. Edward received a lighter sentence because the goods he stole were valued lower than those taken by Richard. But the jury had purposely undervalued the cushions that Edward stole, so that Edward would not receive a death sentence. The same jury did not extend a similar show of mercy on Richard. Given the fact that Edward had stole items of value from someone as important as Sir Philip Jackson, one might assume that he would have received a harsher sentence than Richard, but this was not the case. Furthermore, whereas Richard probably had no foreknowledge of exactly what was contained in the purse he stole, Edward had full knowledge of the items he stole and their potential worth.

Why did Edward receive what appears to be preferential treatment, whereas Richard did not? Did Richard appear more reticent to reform? Were Richard’s protestations of innocence perceived to be more insulting to the court in the face of guilt than Edward’s? The trial accounts do not offer any clues in answer to these questions. The stark difference between the sentences of Richard and Edward, though, dramatizes the tough choices that English judges faced in sentencing during this early part of the eighteenth century.

Acts of petty crime could be punished in one of two ways: corporal punishment, in the form of whipping or branding, or capital punishment, in the form of hanging. Holding to the letter of the law in sentencing would have resulted in a state-sanctioned bloodbath, and so judges and juries were given great leeway in handing down sentences. They could reduce the sentence by handing out verdicts of partial guilt or undervalue the stolen goods, so that the convicted criminal would receive a more reasonable sentence given the relative magnitude of the crime. Still, sentencing choices were limited, so the criminal either was let back out onto the street after receiving some form of physical punishment or was executed. These two sentencing alternatives were proving to be unsatisfactory, especially given the rising crime rates that plagued this period.

This situation was about to change. The trials of Richard and Edward that took place on February 27, 1718 would turn out to be the last Old Bailey session before the British Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1718. The passage of this act would radically transform sentencing practices of Great Britain’s criminal justice system. Had Richard been tried one session later than he was, he probably would have received a very different sentence than the one he received.

Resources for this article:

  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1607-1776 (CD-ROM). Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996.
  • —. The King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 1997.
  • Ekirch, A. Roger. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
  • Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker. “Crimes Tried at the Old Bailey: Explanations of Types and Categories of Indictable Offences.” Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 1 February 2008).
  • Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 1 February 2008), 27 February 1718, trial of Edward Higgins (t17180227-19).
  • —. (, 1 February 2008), 27 February 1718, trial of Richard Wood (t17180227-33).
  • Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, 1983.

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).

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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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