Charles Dickens’s classic novel, Oliver Twist, offers up a glimpse of the hard-knock world of England’s nineteenth century. Workhouses and orphanages were a fact of life for unfortunate children who had nowhere else to go and no one to care for them. Poverty and severe neglect sent these children into the streets. Like the character of Jack Dawkins, many turned to crime and pick-pocketing to survive. In the cities, some of these boys and girls were motivated and led by adult Fagin-types who showed them how, when, and from whom to steal. In the countryside, wayward children sometimes roved in bands and were involved in highway thievery and looting.
Unlike today, children were considered accountable for their crimes (and worthy of capital punishment) by the age of seven. Punishment could be severe. Technically, children could be executed for any number of infractions. Records from Newgate Prison suggest children’s death sentences were often commuted to lesser punishments (many were sent to Botany Bay in Australia); obviously, most people did not like to see children hanged. Nevertheless, execution for brutal crimes was not unusual.
In 1629, John Dean was convicted of arson with malice aforethought and was hanged. He was thought to be around eight or nine. In the nineteenth century, however, records show most children executed were between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. By the 1830s, execution of children was rare, and as the public changed their thoughts about capital punishment in general, public executions greatly diminished.
It is interesting to note that many girls were hanged as well. The last girl hanged in the nineteenth century was in 1849. Sarah Harriet Thomas was eighteen when she was hanged for the murder of her mistress. It was recorded that she was so distraught and hysterical as she stood before the gallows that even her executioner was unnerved by the end of it.
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