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Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain

Throughout the second half of the 18th century, Britain, the United States and continental Europe began to rapidly transition from agricultural-based societies to predominantly industrial and manufacturing-based. This rapid transformation is known as the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain, with many of the innovations and inventions originating there - this would help Britain become the commercial centre of the world, and dominate as a global empire. How did this profound change affect society, specifically crime and punishment?

Crime and punishment in Industrial Britain summary

As Britain began to industrialise in the mid-18th century, crime and punishment began to alter just as rapidly as society was beginning to change. This can be attributed to several changing social, economic and political factors.

By 1800, even though Britain was still primarily rural, towns and cities had already begun to gain a reputation as havens for poverty and criminals. As British society became more urbanised, a younger population emerged, no longer faced with rural isolation. New types of criminals and crime emerged and, by 1900 crime had firmly come to grip the public consciousness.

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain A crowded street in London StudySmarterFig. 1 Crowded Street in nineteenth century London

The period saw crime rates rapidly increase, followed by a subsequent decline with reform and adjustment to the justice system. With so much political and social change, crime now became a political as well as a social burden, with Spencer Perceval becoming the first and to date, the only British Prime Minister assassinated when he was killed in 1812.

At the beginning of the industrialisation period, punishments had been dictated by the Bloody Code, which introduced the death penalty for even the most minor of crimes. As the nineteenth century progressed, these laws began to be seen as harsh and ineffective, with punishment evolving to fit the changing criminal landscape. How criminals were apprehended changed too, with the establishment of professionalised police forces and sufficient prison networks.

Crime and punishment and the Industrial Revolution

With the rise of industry, young people flocked to towns and cities in search of work. No longer needing to labour long hours on rural farms, people began to marry earlier, and as a result, have more children. This caused the population to dramatically increase, with the population in England and Wales swelling from about 6.1 million in 1750 to 17.9 million in 1851.

Did you know? The preceding years had been relatively stable, making this change even more significant.

With so many people in such crowded conditions, crime thrived, with an abundance of young men, who were the most likely culprits of this new crime wave. Statistically, crime steadily increased from about 1750 to the mid-19th century, followed by a steady decline until the early years of the 20th century. This also correlates with a general increase in living standards during this later period.

The Industrial Revolution also specifically impacted punishment in several ways:

  • The increase in crime associated with urbanisation made current punishments (such as the death sentence for even minor crimes) unfeasible.

  • The justice system began to focus on rehabilitating criminals instead of exclusively using punishment as a deterrent.

  • With many crimes now taking place regarding the theft of goods and property, crime rates highlighted wider societal issues, and therefore punishment also needed to take into account other factors.

Crime and punishment 1750 to 1900

Now we have a broad overview of what crime and punishment looked like in the industrial period, let's find out more about why people committed crimes, what types of crime were common, and how exactly these criminals were punished.

Crime rates during the Industrial Revolution

It has widely been accepted that crime rates increased throughout the Industrial period, but several factors influenced this.

For a start, crime statistics before industrialisation were practically non-existent as the justice system was heavily localised, relying on parish constables to deal with criminals. Statistics that emerged later are also hard to assess as the increasing amount of resources dedicated to catching criminals led to more arrests.

It is therefore quite difficult to assess specific crime statistics from this period.

Reasons for crime

With people living in ways they never had before, in quantities they never had before, the types of crimes people committed and why they committed them took a sudden detour. In many newly emerging industrialised cities, people resorted to crime for several reasons:

CrimeExplanation
SurvivalWith such awful conditions and poverty, people often stole and engaged in other crimes out of necessity, whether acquiring food to eat, assets to sell or engaging in any other criminal activity deemed necessary to survive.
Wealth & powerPoverty wasn’t the only explanation for the increase in crime. The industrial revolution not only created slums but great wealth and power, often centred in the newly emerging cities. This resulted in more items to steal, while it was also easier to steal - dirty, dark and overcrowded conditions made it relatively easy to commit a crime, as a large population made it more difficult to detect criminals.
Defiance/protestWith the emergence of several new social and political movements in large population centres, people began to break the law openly and publicly instead of discreetly to raise political awareness or protest other issues.

Types of crime

The nature of crime varied from petty theft to violent crime. There is usually a particular emphasis on petty theft, considering it accounted for 75% of recorded crime in London at the time, compared to 10% for violent crime.

In terms of violent crime, higher wages and more work could result in higher consumption of alcohol, which in turn resulted in a higher rate of violent crime. The press often focused on these violent crimes, as they could affect all reaches of society and be used to cause hysteria and sell newspapers. For example, the 1862 mugging of Hugh Pilkington MP horrified the public and was used to demonstrate the high incidence of crime in cities at the time.

Smuggling and poaching continued as they had in the medieval and pre-industrialisation periods but seriously intensified. With the development of more roads meaning more goods/money on the move, often violent highway robberies became a huge issue.

The general public found murder cases particularly concerning, with the media closely following the ‘Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s in Whitechapel. The fact that the killer was never found only produced more hysteria.

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain Newspaper illustration of the discovery of Jack the Ripper's first victim StudySmarterFig. 2 Discovery of Mary Ann Nichols, Jack the Ripper's first victim

Although crime was higher in urban slum areas, it certainly was not confined to these areas, occurring in wealthier suburbs and rural areas, with widespread unrest at the time.

A significant aspect that emerged from industrialisation was public unrest. In an era with such social, political and economic change, many working-class people still did not have the right to vote. As a result, the public reacted through protest and even rioting.

Public Unrest and the Peterloo Massacre

An event that sums up this changing landscape is the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The massacre occurred in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester and is of particular significance as the events are reflective of the rapidly changing circumstances at the time.

Did you know? The Massacre was first called "Peterloo" in reference to the bloody Battle of Waterloo which had occurred four years previously and as the massacre had happened in St. Peter's Field.

What happened at the Peterloo Massacre?

Resulting in at least 15 deaths, the massacre occurred when mounted cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 people demanding parliamentary representation. This demonstrated the outdated nature of maintaining public order and the public appetite for change. It also occurred at a time when unemployment was high and the harvest had recently failed in 1816, with many of the demonstrators walking for hours from surrounding areas to attend. This further highlights the emerging urban/rural divide, and the reasoning many rural workers were attracted to cities, further emphasising the reason for social unrest.

In terms of maintaining public order, Peterloo demonstrated the need for a defined police force that could maintain order, as opposed to militias and other military units as had been used previously.

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain Peterloo Massacre illustration StudySmarterFig. 3 Peterloo Massacre

Around the same time as the Peterloo massacre, an organisation known as the Luddites was formed in 1811 made up of textile workers who opposed automation. It quickly gained support across England, and its actions included protest and in some cases destruction of machinery. In response, 12,000 soldiers were deployed to suppress the Luddites. Machine breaking became a capital crime and harsher sentences were introduced, with the trial of prominent Luddites usually in the public eye. This legal and military suppression would eventually kill the movement, with the movement largely extinct by 1817.

Changing punishment in Industrial Britain

Just as crime had changed, punishment needed to change in retaliation. People were uneasy about crime due to overcrowding, poor conditions, and media representations - a strong reaction was necessary.

Various political reforms were introduced, from better-lit streets to vast prison construction projects. The government also used a harsh set of laws known as the bloody code to enforce law and order. This led to a greater number of people being sentenced to death.

Bloody Code

The name given to the system of punishment in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries due to the sharp increase in the number of crimes that required punishment by death.

In terms of specific punishment, the period was rather experimental.

  • Older, ‘shaming’ punishments such as the pillory or the stocks were phased out.

  • For more serious crimes the use of public execution began to be seen as inhumane, with the Bloody Code eventually being dismantled, fewer hangings later taking place and public executions being phased out entirely in 1868.

  • For many, the solution was transportation to one of Britain's colonies, many of which were short of labour. America's 13 colonies were initially used, but upon their independence in 1776, attention was turned to Australia.

  • Once this became unsustainable, attention was turned to large-scale prisons.

Prisons and incarceration

Previously, most prisoners had been incarcerated in old ships (known as convict hulks) and other temporary arrangements.

Incarceration

The State of being confined in prison; imprisonment.

These served as both a punishment and a means to keep criminals away from the general public in the face of overcrowded, insufficient prisons. However, this was incompatible with modern Victorian ideals and the government embarked on a campaign to construct prisons in large numbers.

Did you know? Victorian ideals included the principles of responsibility, individualism and self-reliance. Victorian society, therefore, aimed to reform criminals to be released back into society as model citizens and contribute positively.

In the period between 1840 and 1877 for example, 90 prisons were constructed, an unprecedented number even by today's standards. Examples of these prisons include Pentonville (1842) in London, Strangeways (1868) in Manchester and Mountjoy (1850) in Dublin.

Did you know? Pentonville prison was the first of its kind, containing natural light skylights and radiating wings, which allowed one guard to keep watch on numerous different wings.

Prison began to attempt to rehabilitate prisoners in conjunction with punishing them, with prisons designed to be less crowded, more liveable and more efficient for guards. Although this was a significant shift in attitudes towards incarceration, transportation to Australia continued until the 1860s, not being completely phased out until 1875.

Rehabilitation

The action of reforming someone and restoring them to normal life through training and appropriate punishment after imprisonment.

By 1900, many of the older practices had died out; the industrialisation period and immediate aftermath had certainly provided a unique period of experimentation and reform in terms of both crime and punishment.

Famous criminals and figures in the Industrial Revolution period

Industrial Britain produced some noteworthy criminals and figures, many of which are still talked about today.

  • Jack the Ripper: The most famous criminal of the period and perhaps in British history, Jack the Ripper was the name given to an unidentified serial killer active in Whitechapel in the second half of 1888.
  • John Bellingham: Bellingham was responsible for the 1812 assassination of British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, the only Prime Minister to be assassinated. He was later hanged.

  • Celestina Sommer: She was convicted of murdering her daughter in 1856 - this case ignited debate on capital punishment, crime and insanity, and crime and gender. She was deemed fit for trial but eventually transferred to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1859.

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain Jack Ripper illustration StudySmarterFig. 4 Newspaper illustration of Jack the Ripper

  • John William Bean: He attempted to shoot Queen Victoria in 1842 to secure transportation to Australia.

  • John Babbacombe Lee: Lee was a convicted murderer who survived three attempts to hang him and had his sentence changed to life imprisonment.

  • Richard Carlile: Carlile was a political agitator who was arrested in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre for publishing material that might encourage people to hate the government.

  • Sherlock Holmes: British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the fictional detective in 1887, demonstrating a public fascination with crime.

With the increase in crime due to the impact of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, punishment altered significantly. Punishment throughout the 19th century would be radically new and at times experimental, but would gradually alter to resemble punishment in the modern world. This can be attributed to new ways of thinking, adjustment to conditions and new circumstances. With improving economic conditions a gap between rich and poor would emerge, facilitating the theft of the vast array of wealth on display. Industrialisation and the new crime and punishment it would spawn would ultimately inspire a vast array of social, political and economic movements, further formulating new types of crime and punishment in itself.

Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain - Key takeaways

  • Large-scale population increases and migration to cities created ideal conditions for crime to thrive.

  • Changing social and political conditions also made crime easier to get away with within the newly industrialised world.

  • Criminals became associated with newly emerging cities.

  • Punishments began to move away from the previously established model and moved toward the modern model of effective policing, imprisonment and rehabilitation.

  • Punishment became more humane but also more effective in response to rising crime.

  • Crime consistently increased as industrialisation occurred but eventually began to decline until about 1900.

Frequently Asked Questions about Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain

Some of the most popular crimes committed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries included theft and smuggling. With tax duty on many goods being imported at the time smugglers attempted to avoid these taxes and therefore make more money. Violent crime was rare while 80% of those transported to Australia had been convicted of petty theft, which accounted for 75% of crime in London. Prostitution was a common crime for female convicts.

At the beginning of industrial Britain, the Bloody Code enforced the death penalty for most crimes, both minor and severe. As the 19th century progressed transportation to Australia became more common and by the end of the century transportation had been abolished and imprisonment had become the most common punishment.

The Industrial Revolution led to crime for a number of reasons:

  1. Industrialisation created overcrowding in cities and led to poverty in some cases, leading to an increase in crime.
  2. Industrialisation also created great wealth for certain people and an increase of goods on the move, which were easy to steal.
  3. Poor conditions and a high concentration of people in cities led to the formation of social and political movements, which could sometimes become violent or commit crimes in protest.
  4. The high concentration of people in towns and cities made crime easier to commit and get away with.

There were three main types of crime committed in industrial Britain:

  1. Crimes against the person - this included assault, murder and other violent crimes. Urbanisation made this easier.
  2. Crimes against property - mainly consisted of theft and smuggling of various different goods. Could also include sabotage of property such as arson.
  3. Crimes against the state - mainly included protest, political assassinations, treason and sabotage

The rise in population due to the industrial revolution increased numbers of criminals. It also put population pressure so crimes of survival, such as stealing food, increased.

Final Crime and Punishment in Industrial Britain Quiz

Question

Give three reasons why people resorted to crime in industrial Britain?

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Answer

1. Survival 2. Wealth/Power 3. Defiance/Protest

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Question

In terms of population, what effect did industrialisation have?

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Answer

It led to a general rise of population and migration to towns and cities.

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Question

What type of crime accounted for approximately 75% of crime in London during the 19th century?

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Answer

Petty Theft.

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Question

The rally prior to the Peterloo massacre in 1819 demanded what?

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Answer

Parliamentary Representation.

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Question

Why did public executions stop in 1868?

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Answer

It was seen as inhumane.

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Why did crime become a political issue?

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All Three Answers

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What was a convict hulk?

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Answer

A ship used to contain criminals.

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Question

Name one feature of newly designed Victorian prisons such as Pentonville?

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Answer

Radiating Wings

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Question

After the American Revolution, convicts facing transportation were primarily transported to which penal colony?

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Answer

Australia.

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John Bellingham assassinated which public figure in 1812?

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Answer

British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval.

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Crime was more likely to occur in which areas?

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Answer

Impoverished Slums

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In the second half of the nineteenth-century crime rates generally?

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Answer

Decreased

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Name one reason young people were attracted to towns and cities?

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Answer

Higher-income, more jobs, less of an isolated lifestyle

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Why did the Bow Street Runners wear uniforms?

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Answer

To appear professional

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What year were the Bow Street Runners established?

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1748

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Who were the Bow Street Runners formally associated with and receive payment from?

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Bow Street Magistrates

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In what year did the Bow Street Runners merge with the Metropolitan Police?

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1839

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Who established the Bow Street Runners?

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Answer

Henry and John Fielding

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Why did the Bow Street Runners patrol the streets?

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To prevent crime

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How did the Bow Street Runners gain information?

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Through newspapers and informants

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How did the Bow Street Runners aim to remove corruption?

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By working under close supervision from the magistrates

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What was an issue with the thief-takers?

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They were unreliable making mistaken or malicious arrests

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What is one way that the Bow Street Runners prevented crime?

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Patrolling the streets

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What were the police known as in the 19th century?

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Answer

Bobbies

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When were professional Police forces first introduced in Britain?

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Answer

19th Century

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Question

Before the formation of a formalised police force, which of these groups was NOT responsible for maintaining law and order?

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Answer

Highwaymen

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In what year was the Metropolitan Police established?

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1829

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Which police force was established in 1800?

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City of Glasgow Police

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In what decade did the government introduce centrally funded police forces across the country?

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1850s

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What was policing by consent?

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That the police's basis for maintaining law and order was the support of the general public

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In what year was the investigative "detective branch" established in the metropolitan police?

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1842

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Who dealt with public unrest before the formation of the police?

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Part-time soldiers/the army

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What was the name of the magistrates police force that pre-dated the Metropolitan Police?

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Bow Street Runners

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Give one factor that led to urbanisation in 18th century Britain?

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Answer

Industrialisation

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Which of these crimes is considered a crime against property?

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Answer

Smuggling

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What factor contributed to high crime in urban areas?

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Overcrowding

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What helped lower urban crime rates?

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Answer

Better Policing and Penal Reform

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The Scottish Insurrection (Radical War) occurred in what year?

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Answer

1820

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The leaders of the Scottish insurrection were dealt with in what way?

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Execution and Transportation

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Give one reason crime against authority increased?

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Answer

Terrible social/economic conditions

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Besides urbanisation, what is a possible reason for an increase in crime statistics in the 19th century?

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More crimes reported upon establishment of police

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Name a crime associated with rural areas?

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Highway Robbery

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Why did highway robbery become so common in rural areas?

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The roads were isolated and unprotected

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What was the enlightenment?

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Answer

A philosophical and intellectual movement in the 18th and 19th century

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The enlightenment sought to.......

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Improve humanity through rational thinking

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In what year was the Bloody Code abolished?

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1815

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Which of these figures was an enlightenment crime reformer?

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Answer

Cesare Beccaria

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Question

Beccaria's 1764 work "On Crimes and Punishment" advocated what?

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Answer

Abolition of the Death Penalty

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How did the enlightenment effect Crime and Punishment?

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Answer

A shift towards rehabilitation over punishment - widespread reform

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Question

Where did the Enlightenment occur?

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Answer

Across the world

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