Somebody Said the Past is a Different Planet: They Were Right

By Joe Darby

Okay, let’s jump into our imaginary time machine and see what happens. It takes us back to England in the 18th century. Could have been worse, right? We could have landed in the time of the dinosaurs or in the middle of the European Black Death pandemic in the 1300s. So, we should be okay. Or, maybe not.

Unfortunately you materialize as a defendant in a criminal court case in the Old Bailey, the famous London courthouse. You stand accused of cutting down timber on your neighbor’s land. You’ve been found guilty. And you watch in horror as the judge places the black cap on his head to read your sentence. “I sentence you to hang by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead and may God have mercy on your soul.”

And that’s the way it was some 250 years ago. Cutting timber that was not yours was one of some 225 crimes for which a person could receive the death penalty in England in the 1700s. It was considered just as heinous to commit a crime against property, which tended to upset the good order of things, as it was to take another’s life.

Plus, your death by hanging will have no trace of dignity and your end will not ensue behind the privacy of prison walls. Nope. You, and a few of your fellow death row inmates, will be made part of a spectacle to be enjoyed by the drunken, raucous crowds of London, from the lowliest poor to dandified aristocrats watching from their gilded coaches.

If you were among the common run of folk, you’d be placed in a horse-drawn cart and taken from the infamous Newgate Prison out to Tyburn, where a specially constructed gallows awaited you. Your route would be lined thickly with crowds all along the way, ready to party as you die. If you were perhaps a dashing highwayman, admired by the crowd, they might feed you pies or give you strong drinks. If your crime was a more despicable one, you will have trash, rotten tomatoes and excrement tossed your way.

The crowds are so thick because hanging days, which occur about every six weeks, are public holidays. Folks can stay home from work today to attend the hanging, and have a good time while they’re at it. Flirts, hookers and pickpockets will be amongst the throng, so attendees should be on their guard. Vendors are also about selling food, beer and whiskey.

When you reach your destination, you will be led up to the gallows and given a chance to say your final words. A hood will be placed over your head, the cart you are standing on will be pulled out from under you and your life will end. Cutting those trees was hardly worth it, was it.

But this column is not just an attempt at depicting a certain flavor of life 250 years ago. I have a point to make. Almost no one these days would find it seemly and proper to party while someone is about to lose their life. The disregard of all compassion, complete lack of dignity, and the callousness would be very alien to us today.

So my point is this. The past really was like a foreign planet. People thought differently, behaved differently, entertained themselves differently and most led short, difficult lives. That’s just the way it was and that’s the way our ancestors were brought up to behave and think. So how can we, of the early 21st century, possibly impose our standards of behavior and thinking on a people so different from us. That rough life they lived was just part of the culture and society. For example, American sailors and soldiers, along with black slaves, of course, were flogged by their officers for minor misdemeanors.

So if we can’t understand their way of life, we at least should cut them some slack instead of condemning them, whether they were slave owners or someone who sold beer at executions. If you were alive then, it’s likely you would have been out there on hanging day also, drinking and partying , stumbling toward home only after all the poor condemned were dead.