Monday, 2 January 2012



At the Sussex Assizes held in Chichester in March 1805, there were 29 prisoners for trial of whom 15 were sentenced to death. Their offences ranged from sheep stealing and the theft of bridles and saddles to the theft of £3 in notes by a 14 year old boy. None involved murder or manslaughter. Fifteen of those charged were sentenced to death but as was common, at the end of the Assizes, before the judges left town, they reprieved seven people.

But one decision on this occasion reveals something of our forefathers' attitudes. Certainly they were not thirsting for revenge. But this example shows that there was a concern that a condemned girl should have time to reflect on her offence and to make her peace with God before her execution. It is her state of mind, the hope that she will accept her punishment and ask for God's mercy, and not the ultimate price she will pay which most concerns the writer of the following passage in the Sussex Advertiser.

'The unhappy young woman, for the murder of her bastard child, was to have suffered on Thursday last, but being represented to the Judge that her mind was in a state of distraction from the effects of her sentence, he humanely granted her a respite...'

Note that. '...he humanely granted her a respite.' Not a reprieve.

The paragraph continues: '… until her mind should become more quiet, and she was better reconciled to her melancholy fate...'

As if the more time she had to ponder over what was going to happen to her so much the better for her!

'...but of this she betrays no symptoms, as her excessive perturbation continues, and shuts out all hope of consolation, and her death is, we hear, in consequence, daily expected.'

This account is not devoid of sympathy for the young woman but it clearly accepts, with some regret, that the law must run its course.

Enough to make you weep? Well, in reaching guilty verdicts and in handing down the ultimate punishment, both jurors and judges were known to weep. Small wonder.

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