As I quoted yesterday, in 1989 Justice Antonin Scalia noted that British common law at the time of the U.S. Constitution allowed for the execution of children as young as age eight under particular circumstances. (Justice Clarence Thomas just pulled that down to age seven through careless quoting.) However, actual examples of such punishments are exceedingly rare.
Legal reference guides like the 1800 edition of The History of the Pleas of the Crown and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England noted that an eight- or nine-year-old named John Dean was hanged for burning barns—but that was in 1629. Boston hadn’t even been founded yet.
Closer to the time of the Constitution is a case from King’s Lynn, England. William Richards’s The History of Lynn, published in London in 1812, reported:
In 1708, according to one of our MS. accounts of that time, two children were hanged here for felony, one eleven, and the other but seven years of age; which if true, must indicate very early and shocking depravity in the sufferers, as well as unusual and excessive rigour on the part of the magistrates in the infliction of capital punishment.A footnote adds:
The circumstance is thus stated in the MS.—“1708—Michael Hamond and his Sister, both children—one seven and the other eleven, were hanged for felony on the gallows out of South Gates [shown above].” What the particular crime was does not appear.Richards mentioned the same incident in a timeline at the back of his book. It clearly struck him hard, and he even characterized the judges’ strictness as “unusual,” a word also used in the Eighth Amendment.
William White’s History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk, published in 1836, briefly mentions the execution of “Michael Hammond, and his sister,” at King’s Lynn in 1708. This book says nothing about their ages, and it’s unclear whether White got his information from Richards’s book or from an independent source.
Notably, Benjamin Mackerell’s 1738 History and Antiquities of the Flourishing Corporation of King’s-Lynn doesn’t mention any notable event thirty years before, though it does record the executions of other people before and after 1708. In addition, if either Hamond child was only seven, that death sentence would have set a precedent in English common law, but no eighteenth-century legal scholars appear to have noted it.
In a 1965 study of British justice, B. E. F. Knell stated that there was no evidence beyond Richards’s quotation to confirm that the Hamond children had actually been hanged—or even tried.
TOMORROW: A ten-year-old murderer from 1748.