"Villainy Detected!" Crime and Consequences in Britain and America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The Accused

The Accused and the Judiciary in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Ian P.H. Duffy
Professor of History
Lehigh University

There are no comprehensive statistics of criminal defendants in England and Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. National figures of committals on indictment begin in 1805, covering fifty crimes until 1834 when they become almost complete. Thus, for data about much of the period, we depend on qualitative evidence and the surviving records of the courts in each county. These show that the volume and composition of indictments were determined by various factors, particularly the legal definition of crime and the zeal of prosecutors and officials. It is clear that prosecution rates varied both between crimes and over time. As a result, criminal statistics offer a poor indication of the fluctuating level of crime. However, they shed very telling light on a society whose laws were enacted by the landed elite and applied by wealthy magistrates and juries of tradesmen. The pattern of indictments demonstrates starkly a determination to protect property and an assumption that it was endangered by the criminality of the lower orders. This was a self-fulfilling conviction since, by targeting the offenses of poor men and women, the law ensured that they comprised the criminal class. In contrast, the countless offenses of nobles, gentry, shopkeepers, and tradesmen went largely unpunished and white-collar criminals were more familiar to readers of Charles Dickens than to officials of the criminal courts.

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