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Judicial History - Crime and punishment

Breaking a law is a crime. Laws change as cultural values change, so, for instance, witchcraft in one society is a crime while in another society it is tolerated as a personal religious belief. Societies, like individuals, define crimes differently, but most agree that theft, murder, and treason are crimes. Societies differ on whether heresy or bigamy is a crime. Sometimes what is defined as a crime creates such local opposition that a revolt occurs, such as American colonial opposition to quartering British troops in their homes, which along with other complaints escalated into armed conflict and resulted in the Revolutionary War. Thereafter, it was no longer a crime to refuse to house and feed troops.

Historical pictures show punishment may be in the form of public humiliation, such as time in the stocks or pillory or wearing the letter A to signify adultery, as in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, The Scarlet Letter. Public dunking in water was another demeaning consequence of socially unacceptable behavior. Exile has long been used to get rid of unwanted persons, today called deportation. For example, heretics in Puritan Massachusetts were often banished, as seen in historical illustrations.

More serious crimes merit imprisonment or worse. Like exile, prisons, as seen in historical pictures, isolate criminals from the rest of society. Prison may be a local jail, a regional penitentiary, or a temporary place to secure a prisoner, such as the brig on a ship. In medieval times the castle's keep was used as a prison. In siege warfare, inhabitants of a castle, or even an entire town, could imprisoned to force surrender. Historical pictures show mental patients were often imprisoned before asylums were built to set apart mentally ill people from the general population.

The ultimate way to remove lawbreakers from society is by putting them to death. Execution has taken many forms, shown in historical pictures, including beheading and hanging. Public executions often drew huge audiences. Torture was sometimes added to the death penalty, such as being burned at the stake or abandoned in the desert to die of thirst and animal attack. Sometimes torture was used to determine guilt or innocence, such as use of the torture wheel and other devices during the Inquisition, when the level of pain one could endure was assumed to put the prisoner's fate in the hands of God.

Military crimes such as treason are typically punished by military means, from stripping an officer of his rank to execution by firing squad. Historical pictures of military prison camps feature disease, starvation, and cruelty to captured enemy soldiers or other prisoners of war. Political prisoners have also suffered harsh fates, such as working in the Siberian mining camps in tsarist Russia. Piracy, mutiny, and other crimes at sea must be handled on the spot, without the usual system of justice. Land travelers, another group far from law enforcement, have been subjected to robbery by highwaymen, train robbers, and other outlaws. In special situations, private guards have been hired to provide protection, such as stagecoach guards and Pinkerton men. In historical pictures, important people have also had personal bodyguards, notably palace guards to protect kings and other sovereigns.

Various forms of police, historical pictures show, have been used to enforce the laws. In addition to local constables, law enforcers have included sheriffs on the frontier, clergy to enforce religious conformity, citizens' militias of organized local residents, and military or quasi-military police such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When formal law enforcement is lacking, vigilantes may take over, usually resulting in mob violence. In this category, the Ku Klux Klan murdered and threatened free African-Americans after the abolition of slavery. Lawlessness in the wild west resulted in gunfights, arson, destruction of property, and harrassment of civilians, particularly helpless immigrants. Prejudice against so-called outsiders has long been a source of violence that has been difficult to prosecute due to local citizen support for, or fear of, the lawbreakers.


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