J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

William York: ten-year-old murderer

Yesterday I mentioned a 1965 study by B.E.F. Knell that expressed doubt about the reported hanging of a seven-year-old child in 1708, sometimes cited as an example of the strictness of the eighteenth-century British legal system.

The main focus of that study was the early 1800s. Knell surveyed all the death sentences handed down for children under age fourteen by a well documented court in London. (None of those children was convicted of murder.) In every case—over 100 in all—the initial death sentence was eventually changed to transportation, imprisonment, and/or whipping. No child criminal was actually put to death.

That pattern matches a case related in William Oldnall Russell’s 1824 A Treatise on Crimes and Misdemeanors. In 1748, at age ten, William York was jailed for killing a five-year-old girl named Susan Mayhew. They both lived in the workhouse at Eyke. (The town’s Church of All Saints shown above, courtesy of Roger Miller via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license.)

Authorities reported of William: “All he alleged was that the child fouled the bed in which they lay together, that she was sulky, and that he did not like her.” His arrest made The Gentleman’s Magazine, which stated that “Judge Hales order’d a boy of the same age to be hang’d, who burnt a child in a cradle.” In fact, Sir Matthew Hale had determined the boy in that arson case was “above fourteen and near fifteen years of age” before sending him to the gallows—and that was back in the mid-1600s.

The Newgate Calendar later reprinted that early report on the killing, dwelling on the grisly details and even illustrating them in some editions. But it left out the details of the eventual legal outcome.

The court convicted William, and under British law that required the death penalty. The judges in Bury St. Edmunds even agreed that not handing down that sentence might encourage other ten-year-olds to kill little girls they disliked and found sulky. Nevertheless, those judges put off the execution by one order after another until 1757. At age eighteen or nineteen, William York received a royal pardon and went into the Royal Navy. (There was a war on, after all.)

The judicial system’s way of dealing with William York in the mid-1700s thus matches what Knell found in that survey of London cases from the early 1800s. Though British law allowed for a ten-year-old to be convicted of murder and sentenced to die, officials weren’t ready to follow through on that penalty.

The disparity between what the law says and how society actually applies it was also part of this week’s Supreme Court decision. The main dissent, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that a majority of American states allow for juveniles to be condemned to life in prison for crimes less than murder. The majority opinion from Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that very few states actually do so. So which is the better indicator of what society considers “cruel and unusual”—what we say we can do, or what we usually do?

TOMORROW: Connecticut executes a twelve-year-old in 1786.

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