cover image The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

Peter Linebaugh. Verso, $20 (492pp) ISBN 978-1-85984-638-4

In 18th-century Britain, most victims of capital punishment were hanged for property crimes--some as petty as the pilfering of spoons. A brutal and benighted age, we like to think, but to the author of this epic social history (originally published in 1991, it's now in its second edition), the gallows were an indispensable tool in inculcating the primary lesson--""Respect Private Property""--of a modern capitalist economy. Historian Linebaugh, co-author of The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, explores how the disruption of a traditional economy of regulated guilds and agricultural commons by a capitalism built on cash wages and competitive markets worked itself out as crime and punishment. Customary forms of payment-in-kind, in which workers took part of the wood they sawed, the silk they wove, or the cargo their ship ferried as wages, were criminalized as theft of the owner's property; capitalists developed new methods of workplace control to circumvent workers' attempts to appropriate the fruits of their labor; and romantic criminal figures like the highwayman expressed working-class resentment at the economic transformations that forced them to steal to live. Linebaugh draws on diverse sources, including judicial archives, family budgets, dietary customs and the writings of Locke and Milton to paint both micro-historical character studies of condemned souls and a panorama of class struggle in proto-industrial Britain. The results are as teeming--and sometimes as confusing--as the London street itself, and the broad Marxian abstractions Linebaugh invokes do not always clarify things. Still, this is a rich and thought-provoking portrait of a time when""class warfare"" was an all-too-violent reality. Illustrations.