Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Crime, Punishment and Your Ancestors" by Kathleen Trevena at SDGS Yesterday

Kathleen Roe Trevena was the guest speaker at the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting on Saturday. Her second talk was "Crime, Punishment and Your Ancestors." The description of her talks and her CV are here.

In this talk, Kathleen described how crime and punishment has evolved from colonial times to the 20th century. She focused most of the talk on colonial times, and discussed English common law, differences in colonial law with English law, and noted that most 17th century crimes were deviations from the social order - slander, blasphemy, gossipping and fornication. The goal of punishment was to shame the offender into leading a better life, and either re-integrate the offender into the community or drive him out. Punishment included stocks, pillory, whipping, wearing letters or papers, the ducking stool (worse than waterboarding!), branding or maiming, fines, and public confession.

Kathleen said that constables policed colonial towns to keep the peace, but did not investigate crimes. Counties had a sheriff to investigate crimes and enforce the law. In trials, the victim acted as the prosecutor and the defendant was forbidden an attorney. The judge was usually the local justice of the peace and the juries were men from the town.

In the 1800's, the number of property crimes and crimes punishable by death greatly increased, but corporal punishment declined. English criminals were often transported to other English colonies - especially Maryland and Virginia up to 1775, and then to Australia after 1786. She mentioned the Old Bailey web site for case summaries - see for information on more than 100,000 trials. Are your ancestors mentioned?

In the 19th century, the legal system became professional, prison became the only kind of punishment for serious crimes, and the community was seen as the source of bad influences on behavior, rather than as the source of good values.

Sources for records about ancestral brushes with the legal system of their times include court records, town records, journals, and newspapers that describe crimes and court cases. Your ancestor may have been a constable, jailer, sheriff, judge, plaintiff or defendant in a trial, served on a grand or trial jury, a witness at a trial or given a deposition for a law suit.

This was an interesting and helpful presentation that encouraged the listeners to study more about the life and times of our ancestors and to determine if they were touched by crime, punishment or the legal system in the localities where they lived.

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