Expanded Text Version – Crimes Through Time

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And the Punishments that Came with Them

Scolding: being quarrelsome and argumentative, or a public nuisance.

Ancient China
Under the Tang code, scolding one’s parent or grandparent was punishable by death. If a son or daughter made an accusation of treason against his or her parent, and the claim was true, then the accuser would still be beaten as a scold.

Elizabethan England
In a punishment reserved specifically for women, gossips and scolds were sometimes fitted with a brank, or “scold’s bridle”. This was an of iron cage that fit over the head of the accused, with a flat tab of iron that thrust into the mouth over the criminal’s tongue to prevent speech.

Colonial America
The ducking stool was another method of punishment for scolding women, as well as dishonest brewers and bakers, or even for quarrelsome couples. The stool could be swung out over a body of water, and then the culprit would be ducked a number of times according to the sentence.

Modern United States
Although there are no longer any regulations related to the specific crime of “scolding”, many states have laws restricting public profanity, excessive noise, and disorderly conduct, which are usually charged as a misdemeanor.



Public Intoxication: the public display of drunkenness.

Aztec Empire
Unless it was on the last five days of the calendar year, known as the “Days of the Dead”, or if the person was elderly, public intoxication was punished by having one’s head shaved and house destroyed

Elizabethan England
An offender would be publicly humiliated, usually in the stocks, or, more rarely, be forced to wear a barrel with holes for the arms and head known as the Drunkard’s Cloak as he was led through the town.

Modern Iran
A young man was hanged in Iran in the first case of anyone receiving capital punishment for public intoxication. Under Iran’s religious laws, Muslims are forbidden from taking any intoxicant. The standard sentence is 100 lashes, but a third conviction results in the death penalty.

Modern United States
Missouri is an especially lenient state in that it has legalized public intoxication. It also has no statewide prohibition on drinking in public; yet it is specifically illegal to sit on any street curb in St. Louis, Missouri, and drink beer from a bucket.


Witchcraft: the apparent use of harmful supernatural powers.

Ancient Jewish Culture
Exodus and Leviticus, which are two books of the Bible that are a part of the “Law of Moses”, urge the stoning of witches, where people would pelt rocks at the accused until they died.

Babylonian Empire
The Code of Hammurabi called for the victim of a witch’s spell to jump into a river; if he was drowned, the wrongly accused person was to be given their house. If he remained unharmed, the accused had to give the victim their own house.

Medieval Denmark
Christian IV of Denmark strictly enforced an earlier law of burning at stake all those accused of witchcraft, even for an act as small as fortunetelling. Over seventy people were burned in Scotland in 1590, because they were blamed for the bad weather on the voyage of James I of England to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark.

Colonial America
In the summer of 1692, nineteen people were hanged in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts, having been accused of witchcraft in the famous Salem trials. Hundreds of other people were imprisoned for months under the same charges, and 81-year-old Giles Corey was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. His final words were said to be, “More weight!”

Modern Malawi
86 people in Malawi, mostly elderly women, have been sent to jail for at least six years with hard labor on the accusation of practicing witchcraft, although it is not even a crime under Malawian law. Witchcraft remains a punishable offense in several other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon.

Modern United States
Witchcraft is no longer recognized as a crime in the U.S., so accusations cannot be prosecuted.


Adultery: infidelity to one’s spouse.

Ancient China
During the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese husbands who committed adultery against their wives were punished by being made eunichs. Women who committed adultery were punished only by confinement.

Ancient India
The Laws of Manu of ancient India said: “if a wife, proud of the greatness of her relatives or [her own] excellence, violates the duty which she owes to her lord, the king shall cause her to be devoured by dogs in a place frequented by many.” Men were not punished for adultery.

Byzantine Empire
The Ecloga of Leo III law code specified that a married man who committed adultery must be flogged with twelve lashes and pay a fine, while an unmarried man would be flogged with six lashes.

Colonial America
In 1639, Mrs. Mary Mendame of Duxbury was convicted of “uncleanness” with an Indian named Tinsin, and was sentenced to be whipped on a cart through the town streets and to wear a badge with the letters “AD”. If she was ever found without the badge, the letters would be branded onto her forehead.

Modern Somalia
In 2008, a thirteen-year-girl was buried up to her neck in a Somalian football stadium and stoned to death in front of over 1,000 spectators. She had allegedly pled guilty to adultery, but it was later discovered that the girl had in fact reported being raped by three men.

Modern United States
In the United States, adultery laws vary from state to state. In states where adultery is still prosecutable (although rarely acted upon), penalties vary from a life sentence in Michigan, to a fine of $10 in Maryland. In the US Military, adultery is a potential court-martial offense.


Poaching: the illegal acquisition of wild animals, usually by hunting.

Medieval England
After William the Conqueror decreed that hanging should only be used in times of war, he ordered that criminals should instead be castrated and have their eyes put out. His successor William II re-introduced hanging, but only for those who had poached the royal deer.

Tudor England
An Act of Henry VII’s made poaching punishable by death if it was done at night or if the poachers wore hoods or masks; but if it was done in the daytime and without a disguise, it was only punishable by fine or imprisonment.

Colonial Australia
After new lands were discovered, courts in England were allowed to transport convicts to hard labor and barren locales in America or Australia. In 1837, Thomas Moon and Henry Worley were found guilty of stealing two chickens and six eggs, for which they were sentenced to deportation to Australia for 7 years.

Modern China
Chinese courts sentenced a man to 12 years of prison and a fine of 580,00 yuan after he killed a rare Indochinese tiger. The rewards for tiger poaching are high in China, due to the demand in traditional Chinese medicines for tiger pelts, bones, and organs. Parts are used for such diverse prescriptions as tiger’s nose to cure epilepsy, or tiger whiskers for headaches.

Modern United States
A man was caught smuggling lobsters out of a Marine Conservation Area in California for the fourth time: he was cited after game wardens noticed “odd bulges” in his pants. His sentence called for 13 days of work service, a three-year suspension of all fishing in state ocean waters, and a $500 fine.


Theft: taking someone else’s property without their consent.

Roman Empire
According to the statesman Cicero, if a theft was done by night, the owner was allowed to kill the thief. But if it was done by day, the owner must instead, “call out so that someone may hear and come up.”

Aztec Empire
Theft was considered a serious crime for the Aztecs; theft from merchants or from a temple, theft of weaponry, and theft of more than 20 ears of corn resulted in death.

Ancient India
For theft, the Laws of Manu recommended: “the king should have any thieves caught in connection with its disappearance executed (trampled to death) by an elephant.”

Elizabethan England
For a first offense, a petty thief could sometimes escape punishment by way of a loophole in the law called “benefit of the clergy”. By this law, if a person could read (or memorize, as was often the case with the mostly-illiterate population of the time) Psalm 51 from the Bible, his sentence would be reduced.

Colonial America
When a Virginian servant named Samuel Powell stole a pair of breeches (pants), he was sentenced to “sitt in the stocks on the next Sabboth day…with a pair of breeches about his necke.”

China
Minor theft was usually punished by a public whipping through the streets of the local community; but another option was to receive a caning in the presence of the sentencing judge.

Modern United States
Grand theft is punishable by up to a year in jail or prison, while petty theft is usually punishable by a fine or up to six months in jail. In rare cases, other sentences might be given: In Bedford, Pennsylvania, a mother and daughter stole two Wal-Mart gift cards from a child on her birthday. In exchange for no prison time, the women agreed to hold up shame signs admitting their crimes outside the courthouse.


Piracy: the unsanctioned act of thievery or violence against another party at sea.

Roman Empire
On a voyage across the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cicilian pirates and held prisoner. When the men decided on a ransom of twenty gold talents, Caesar is said to have insisted that he was worth at least fifty. After the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he raised a fleet to capture the pirates and had them crucified.

Medieval Europe
The Vikings were Norsemen who pirated and explored Europe widely in the Medieval period. Although they usually overwhelmed the coastal villagers they chose to raid, 51 Danish Vikings were captured, executed by beheading, and buried in a mass grave in Dorset around 1080 AD.

Korea
In the 13th century, Japanese pirates called Wokou began invasions of East Asia that would continue for 300 years. Under diplomatic pressure from the Goryeo dynasty of Korea, the Japanese made an effort to keep its pirates under control: the shogunate had ninety suspected pirates decapitated in front of a Goryeo envoy.

North Africa
Dutchman Simon de Dancer, an Islamic convert and Barbary Pirate, commanded a squadron in the service of Algiers, capturing over 40 ships in a two-year period. After he had retired from a successful career in piracy, he was lured out of hiding in France, and immediately seized and beheaded for his past attacks on Muslim shipping.

Colonial America
Captain William Kidd started out as a privateer (a raider under the protection of his government) from New York, but was declared a pirate after attacking ships from nations other than those he had been ordered to pursue. Both Kidd and his wife were imprisoned, he in conditions so poor that he was driven insane. After being found guilty on charges of murder and five counts of piracy, Kidd was hanged in London, and his body was gibbetted (hung in an iron cage) for 3 years afterwards.

Modern United States
Five Somali men were charged with the first piracy conviction in the US in nearly 200 years after attacking a U¬¬S Navy ship that they somehow mistook for a merchant ship. They were each sentenced Monday to life plus 80 years in prison.


Treason: an act of betrayal of one’s nation or sovereign.

Ancient Egypt
After the assassination of Pharaoh Teti by his own bodyguards, they were executed. The noses and feet of their grave statues were hacked off and their inscriptions were erased to ensure their being forever lost and crippled in the afterlife.

Roman Empire
Under Emperor Nero’s rule, traitors were whipped to death or buried alive.

Byzantine Empire
Byzantines enthusiastically employed bodily mutilation as a punishment for many wrongdoings; in 637 a man had his nose, hands and one leg amputated for conspiring to overthrow the emperor Heraclius.

China
Slow slicing, or “Língchí”, was a gruesome method of killing where the victim was slowly cut into pieces until death. The number of cuts was set out in the law according to the nature of the crime; for treason, the number reached 1,000. Regulations were given to cut in a specified order, usually ending with the heart.

Aztec Empire
Traitors were executed; they also lost their property, had their land destroyed, and their children sold into slavery.

Elizabethan England
In a punishment reserved for males, the traitor was hanged, taken down before he was dead, dragged face downward through the streets behind a horse, and then “quartered”, or hacked into four pieces. The body parts were then displayed in a public place.

Modern United States
At the least, traitors are to be imprisoned for no less than 5 years, fined no less than $10,000, and are no longer allowed to hold any office in the nation. At the most, they are given the death sentence.


Murder: intentionally killing another person without the sanction of the law.

Roman Empire
Someone convicted of patricide (killing your father) would immediately be blindfolded as “unworthy of the light”. He was then be sewed up in a sack, and thrown into the sea. Later, a serpent was added in the sack, and still later, an ape, a dog and a rooster.

Medieval England
Anyone who committed murder on an English ship would be tied to their victim’s body and thrown into the sea to drown. In Portsmouth at that time male murderers were burned but female murderers were tied to a post in the harbor and left to drown when the tide came in.

Incan Empire
Murderers were pushed off a cliff, but then so were people who were judged to be “lazy” in doing their mandatory public service

Aztec Empire
The punishment for murder was death, by various methods including hanging, drowning, stoning, strangulation, disembowelment, and cutting out the heart. However, families of victims could intervene in the execution of a sentence; the murderer’s death sentence would then be removed and he would become a slave of the victim’s family.

Modern Kenya
Up until July 2010, all Kenyans convicted of murder were given a mandatory death sentence.

Modern United States
Federal punishment for murder in the first degree is either death, nearly always by lethal injection, or life imprisonment. In 2010, there were 46 executions; 44 by lethal injection, one by electric chair, and one by firing squad.