A Brief History of Crime

Crime has been around almost as long as there have been human beings on the planet. Maybe longer, if those dinosaurs were stealing from each other. Most early empires had judges, so there was crime. In the Old Testament, Cain slew Abel, and the 10 Commandments include no killing or stealing. And those are the ones I’ll focus on here.

It’s nothing new. And it doesn’t really change. We’re a venal lot, aren’t we?

The nature of crime might change with technology – computer fraud and what have you – but at its heart it’s not different from the first Neanderthal who hit another over the head with a rock to take his share of meat.

Discover plants and you can add in poison. Tip someone into a river and they either learn to swim very quickly or drown. He just slipped. It was an accident!

Of course, along with crime came detection. Observation first. Brainpower and putting two and two together. Then the sophistication of seeing a knife wound and a bloody knife someone carried in a sheath. Matching blade to cut. The scent of a poison (hmm, that smells like almonds).

Punishments were harsh. Not just an eyes for an eye. In Egypt you could be buried out in the desert. In Rome you could be throw off a high rock or sealed in a bag with vicious animals and dropped in the river. Of course, if you could afford a good lawyer and enough witnesses to testify to your character and tear your opponent’s apart, you could walk free. Nice to see some things don’t change. Money and influence helped. Of course.

Not much changed in the Middle Ages. Plenty of betrayals, of course, but that’s not really crime, is it? Just faithlessness and looking to back a winner. But always the usual murders and thefts, not to mention the droit de siegneur of landlords and the roll over everything attitude of the rich.

After a short breath of hope during the godly society of the Puritans – when crime statistics probably didn’t fall at all (just think of those Salem witch accusations, for instance) – it was back to the same old same old, and stayed that way until pre-Victorian times.

In an era of rampant capitalism and industrialisation, where the gulf between rich and poor grew, those without money stole to feed their families. The reaction? Greatly increase the number of capital crimes to over 200. Transport offenders, first to America and after they kicked out the British, Australia. Those weren’t the laws of justice, but of fear (and there’s a return to it today, but that’s another story).

The detection of crime, though, hadn’t moved on too much, apart from Sherlock Holmes, who solved everything. Unfortunately, he was fictional. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century and the arrival of Sir Bernard Spilsbury that forensic science began to take shape, and using fingerprints became accepted.

Yet, at the core, crime doesn’t change. It’s something that’s a part of humanity. It always will be. But crime through the ages and its solution fascinate us. Try Peter Doherty for Ancient Egypt, Lindsay Davis and Stephen Saylor for Rome. The Middles Ages? Candace Robb, Ellis Peters and Michael Jecks will tell you all you need to know. Tudors? C.J Sansome. Georgian era? Well, there’s a series of books about the Constable of Leeds by a guy called Chris Nickson. Victorian? Wilkie Collins, dickens, Conan Doyle, Anne Perry. And that Nickson chap has one set in 1890 coming out later this year. 20th century? Everyone in the world, it seems

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