17th century

Criminality and Animal Cruelty in 18th-Century England

I am currently in the final stages of editing a book chapter I have written for Prof. Alexander Kaufman’s and Penny Vlagopoulos’s forthcoming work entitled Food and Feasting in Post-1700 Outlaw Narratives (2018). My own contribution focuses upon butchers who turned to highway robbery in the eighteenth century. While the feedback I received from the editors was generally positive (I’ve never yet managed to produce the ‘perfect’ work which can be published ‘as is’ – maybe one day!), the editors felt I had let myself get side-tracked in the essay by veering a little too much into views of animal cruelty and its connection to criminality in the eighteenth century. Thus, I present here my book chapter off-cut as I saw no reason to discard it altogether.

During the eighteenth century, moralists assumed that the seeds of a person’s criminal inclinations could be discerned through their treatment of animals. Their reasoning was that, if a person could torture and harm a defenceless creature when they were young, then this could potentially translate into homicidal tendencies when they were older. Throughout the period, then, a number of contemporary literary and artistic works drew attention to this idea.

One of the first examples of a youthful rogue torturing an animal is found in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665). This was a fictional biography of a criminal called Meriton Latroon which drew upon contemporary accounts of highwaymen and thieves for inspiration. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, tells the reader the following situation that occurred in his youth:

Thus happen’d, my father kept commonly many turkeys; one among the rest could not endure a fight with a red coat, which I usually wore. But that which most of all exasperated my budding passion, was, his assaulting my bread and butter, and instead thereof, sometimes my hands; which caused my bloomy revenge to use this stratagem: I enticed him with a piece of custard (which I temptingly shewed him), not without some suspition of danger which fear suggested, might attend my treachery, and so led me to the orchard gate, which was made to shut with a pulley; he reaching in his head after me, I immediately clapt fast the gate, and so surprized my mortal foe: Then did I use that little strength I had, to beat his brains out with my cat-stick; which being done, I deplum’d his tayl, sticking those feathers in my bonnet, as the insulting trophies of my first and latest conquest. Such then was my pride, as I nothing but gazed up at them; which so tryed the weakness of mine eyes and so strain’d the optick nerves, that they ran a tilt at one another, as if they contended to share with me in my victory.[1]

Meriton takes pleasure in his cruelty: he finds the turkey annoying, and resolves to rid himself of this “mortal foe”; he does not, however, humanely dispatch the poor animal but smashes his head in the gate, and the fact that he strains his optic nerve reveals that he whips himself up into a frenzy while beating the poor thing.

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Perhaps the most memorable association between animal cruelty and criminality from the eighteenth century, however, is found in William Hogarth’s series of images entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751).[i] The first in the series, The First Stage of Cruelty, depicts a group of children and bystanders enjoying the sight of a dog mauling a cat. Elsewhere in the illustration, two cats are hanged by their tales from a street sign, and two other adolescents are sticking an arrow into a dog’s rectum, while a poor bird is being blinded by with a red hot poker in her eye by two other youths. The inscription underneath the image laments the bloodthirstiness of London’s youth:

While various scenes of sportive woe

The infant race employ,

And tortur’d victims bleeding shew

The tyrant in the boy.

Behold! A Youth of gentler heart,

To spare the creature’s pain

O take, he cries – take all my tart,

But tears and tart are vain.

Learn from this fair example – You

Whom savage sports delight,

How cruelty disgusts the view

While pity charms the sight.[ii]

In order to cement the relationship between animal cruelty and criminality, Hogarth depicts a street artist drawing the instigator of this horrid event, young Tom Nero, being hanged on the gallows. Throughout the succeeding illustrations, Nero progresses through life committing various cruel acts until finally, he murders somebody. He is executed for this act, and in the final instalment, The Reward of Cruelty, his body is laid upon the surgeon’s table being dissected.[iii] Perhaps to avenge the cruel treatment of his fellow canines in the earlier image, a dog can be seen eating Nero’s heart that has fallen to the ground.

Not long after Hogarth published his series of prints, a highwayman named William Harrow (d. 1763) was executed at Tyburn. His biography, as recorded in Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals (1765), points out that he took great delight in cockfighting.[iv] Another biography published in The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) similarly emphasises this fact.[v] Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin’s New Newgate Calendar (1825) focuses in greater detail on the acts of animal cruelty that Harrow committed while he was a youth:

This malefactor may be said to have galloped to his fate over the beaten road. He commenced his career in idleness, the parent [of] vice; then he became dexterous at throwing cocks, and cock-fighting. These cruel and infamous acquirements lead to robberies, adultery, and every other deadly sin. Such is the general course of highwaymen; and their goal – the gallows.[vi]

A footnote which Knapp and Baldwin include here is most interesting:

Kind treatment of animals, made for man’s use, is a sign of a humane and excellent disposition; so cruelty and barbarity to them, shews a wicked and diabolical temper. Do not these creatures, when they are bruised and wounded, shew an equal sense of pain with ourselves? Are not their shrieks and mournful cries, as so many, calls upon their tormentors for pity? And do not their dying pangs, and the painful convulsions of their tortured bodies, cause uneasiness in every human spectator?[vii]

By Knapp and Baldwin’s time, of course, attitudes towards animal cruelty were changing. The episode of animal cruelty was stated rather matter-of-factly by Richard Head in the seventeenth century, and not necessarily condemned. It was later lamented by Hogarth in the 1750s, although he did not offer any solution to the problem of youthful animal cruelty other than to warn them that they would end up at the gallows.

Nevertheless, some groups did take action during this century. As a result of campaigns by evangelicals during the late eighteenth century, a variety of blood sports had actually been outlawed by the nineteenth century and laws were eventually passed which aimed to put a stop to animal cruelty. In the same year that the aforementioned Knapp and Baldwin published their Newgate Calendar, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded (later the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA).


References

[1]      Richard Head, The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (London: H. Marsh, 1665), pp. 16-17.

[i]       For further information on animal cruelty and barbarism in Hogarth’s images see James A. Steintrager, ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 42: 1 (2001), 59-82.

[ii]      William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty: The First Stage of Cruelty (London: [n. pub.], 1751).

[iii]     The Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that condemned felons’ bodies had to be given over to medical science.

[iv]     Anon. Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals Who Have Been Convicted at the Assizes, 2 Vols. (London: W. Nicoll, 1765), 2: 349.

[v]      Anon., The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 Vols (London: A. Hogg, 1774), 4: 245.

[vi]     Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar; Being Interesting Memoirs of Notorious Characters, Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages on The Laws of England During the Seventeenth Century, Brought Down to Present Times, 5 Vols. (London: J. & J. Cundee, [n. d.]), 3: 151.

[vii]     Ibid.

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