Crime and punishment


From the noose to the electric tag

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Well into the 18th century, the gallows, impaled heads and bodies broken on the wheel were all common sights at public execution sites. Thieves were hanged. Women found guilty of infanticide were decapitated and their dismembered heads displayed in public. Murderers were broken on the wheel. Pacts with the Devil, incest, sodomy or other forms of unnatural forms of sexual intercourse were punishable by burning at the stake. Those to be executed for killing someone in an fight were to be given an honourable" death – execution by sword and a church burial.

Salvation at the stake
Executions were more than just a way for society to show its anger. In many cases, God commanded that crimes be punished by death. But God also wanted the church to work for the salvation of the condemned's soul, and executions became religious ceremonies complete with hymns and prayers and blessings. Before long, the joke was that no one was more certain to make it to heaven than the condemned, since the vicar granted absolution just before the axe fell.

In the 17th century, hundreds were burned at the stake for witchcraft after making confessions that were often coerced by torture. In the 18th century, the religious ceremony accompanying executions gave rise to a twisted new crime that saw suicidal people kill a child, because they expected salvation before they were killed. Attempts were made to discourage the crime by exacting painful punishments like breaking on the wheel and being pinched with red-hot tongs. But little helped and the state was forced to abandon capital punishment for this crime. The 19th century saw few executions, particularly of those found guilty of murder-robbery. The last common criminal execution took place in 1892. After World War II, 46 people convicted of treason were executed.

Branded thieves
Theft was an increasing problem in the 18th century, as was organised crime. Most thieves, however, kept their lives. Instead, their punishment was often public humiliation by whipping and a brand on their forehead. Punishments were administered at the stake or the pillory, which stood on town squares and at shire courts.

Chain gangs
As early as the latter part of the 16th century, King Christian IV requested that he be sent condemned thieves to serve as labour on his many construction projects. Forced labour, however, wasn't made an official form of punishment until the 18th century. New prisons were built in Copenhagen, Viborg, Odense, and in Stege on the island of Møn. The worst male criminals were held in Copenhagen's Stokhus, and – complete with military guards and linked by chains – could be hired out as labour by the citizens of the city. The idea was that their labour would help defray the cost of their incarceration. The work was gruelling, while the food, clothing and heating in the cells were meagre. In 1817, inmates in the Correctional House in Christianshavn in Copenhagen set the building on fire in protest against their miserable conditions.

A time for reflection
During the 19th century, the crown's philosophy was that prisoners should be shut away from bad influences and live in isolation so they could search their souls and listen to God's call. The prison in Horsens and the correctional facility in Vridsølille near Copenhagen were both built in the 1850s and contain only solitary cells. Prisoners were allowed outside only in individual yards and had no contact with other inmates. The method was outrageously expensive and probably led to more psychological problems than reformed criminals. Improvements later came in the form of libraries and associations working to help released convicts find their way back into society. Soon, total isolation as a form of punishment was abandoned.

Creating better citizens
Whether criminals can be rehabilitated has always been a hotly discussed topic. In the 19th century, the belief that inmates could be corrected influenced prison sentencing reforms. Short sentences were served in a gaol. Long sentences in a state prison. Dangerous criminals were held in isolation in special prisons. Modern correctional thinking added prisons for young people, open prisons, education for inmates and electronic tags that allow criminals to serve their sentence at home.

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