Every day when I open the newspaper (or the newspaper’s website, as the case may be) I’m assaulted by stories of crime — abuse, murder, burglary. After my car was broken into a couple of months ago, those stories really began to hit home, and I now read the newspaper more often and with greater attention. Frankly, it depresses me to read about all of the horrible things that are happening in the world, but I rather feel like it’s my duty to be aware of them.
I also feel, though, that it’s important to know history and to have an understanding of where we have come from. History’s fascinating, both because of stories that make me think “wow, that explains a lot” and those that leave me wondering “what were they thinking?!?”
It’s the latter thought that crossed my mind most often while reading this article about the newly released England and Wales Historical Register, 1791 – 1892. Punishments were, to my modern mind, ridiculously harsh — can you imagine being sentenced to death for cutting down a tree? Or being deported to New Zealand for stealing table linens? There was often little difference between sentences for petty thievery and murder.
My fascination with crime and history combine to make me a lover of historical fiction, and perusing the Register got me thinking about all of the exciting and thought-provoking teen fiction titles set during the 18th and 19th century. Below are some examples — along with information about the crimes involved!
**Please note: Access to the England and Wales Historical Register requires registration, although they are offering a two-week free trial. To research your ancestry or find other historical information for free, check out one of our databases! Another great resource for information about historical crime is Victorian Crime and Punishment. All definitions in green below come from Dictionary.com.**
Body Snatching: The act or process of robbing a grave to obtain a cadaver for dissection.
Medical science made great strides in the 18th and 19th centuries, and scientists were always looking for bodies to dissect for studies of human anatomy. In Great Britain, the only bodies that could legally be used for dissection were those who had been condemned to “death and dissection” by the courts. While this was fine in the 18th century when so many people were executed for various crimes, in the 19th century the number of people condemned decreased dramatically — and so scientist had to find another source of bodies. Body snatching became commonplace. It was considered a lesser crime than larceny and was punishable by fine and imprisonment.
The Death Collector
What starts as an ordinary picket-pocketing incident in Victorian London unites three teens against a madman. Eddie is the pickpocket; George is an assistant at the British Museum; Elizabeth has a nose for trouble—and all of them are being hunted by Augustus Lorimore. Lorimore is a sinister factory owner, a villain bent on reanimating the dead, both humans and dinosaurs—and one of each is already terrorizing the streets of London. It’s up to Eddie, George, and Elizabeth to stop Lorimore’s monsters . . . or die trying.
London, 1830s. Twelve-year-old Victor, an orphan, knows that life is dangerous, and death by disease or accident is common. But to Mr. Tipple and Mr. Biggs, these are streets teeming with possibility, where a child, once dead, is a commodity, and a fresh subject can fetch as much as nine guineas. In this dark underworld, Victor must uncover the identity of the ghoulish murderer who is at the heart of London’s furtive trade in human corpses.
Highway Robbery: Robbery committed on a highway against travelers, as by a highwayman.
Most highwaymen committed their crimes from horseback and were considered a higher class of criminal than common footpads — in fact, they were sometimes refered to as “Gentlemen of the Road.” There’s a strong tradition of highwayman “robber heroes” (think Robin Hood), but most highwaymen were notorious villains. Highway robbery with violence was punishable by death, although many highwaymen were deported instead.
The Highwayman’s Footsteps
Inspired by “The Highwayman,” the famous poem by Alfred Noyes, this dramatic and moving historical adventure is set on the stark, ghostly moors that seem as menacing as the pursuing redcoats. A thrilling adventure featuring a feisty heroine, a rebellious young man, and a galloping, heart-clutching story.
In 1794 England, the rich and beautiful Sovay, disguised as a highwayman, acquires papers that could lead to her father’s arrest for treason, and soon her newly-awakened political consciousness leads her and a compatriot to France during the Revolution.
Infanticide: The act of killing an infant.
Despite severe punishments (usually execution), many unwanted infants were murdered or left for dead by their mothers. In some cases, however, women were executed for infanticide even if they miscarried or their child was stillborn.
“Coram Boy” is a tale of two cities and a tale of two boys: Toby, saved from an African slave ship, and Aaron, the illegitimate heir to a great estate. It’s also a tale of fathers and sons: slave-trader, Otis, and his son Meshak; and landowner Sir William Ashbrook and the son he disinherits.
Newes from the Dead
Anne can’t move a muscle, can’t open her eyes, can’t scream. She lies immobile in the darkness, unsure if she’d dead, terrified she’s buried alive, haunted by her final memory—of being hanged. A maidservant falsely accused of infanticide in 1650 England and sent to the scaffold, Anne Green is trapped with her racing thoughts, her burning need to revisit the events—and the man—that led her to the gallows.
Larceny: The unlawful taking or removing of another’s personal property with the intent of permanently depriving the owner.
A common sentence for larceny was hard labour, the length dependent on the severity of the crime. Individuals who committed larceny also risked deportation or, in some occassions, execution.
Gideon the Cutpurse
1763.Gideon Seymour, cutpurse and gentleman, hides from the villainous Tar Man. Suddenly the sky peels away like fabric and from the gaping hole fall two curious-looking children. Peter Schock and Kate Dyer have fallen straight from the twenty-first century, thanks to an experiment with an antigravity machine. Before Gideon and the children have a chance to gather their wits, the Tar Man takes off with the machine — and Kate and Peter’s only chance of getting home. Soon Gideon, Kate, and Peter are swept into a journey through eighteenth-century London and form a bond that, they hope, will stand strong in the face of unfathomable treachery.
Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman
When a petty thief falls through a glass roof while fleeing from the police, it should have been the death of him. Instead, it marks the beginning of a whole new life. Soon he has become the most successful — and elusive — burglar in Victorian London, plotting daring raids and using London’s new sewer system to escape. He adopts a dual existence to fit his new lifestyle, taking on the roles of a respectable, wealthy gentleman named Montmorency and his corrupt servant, Scarper.
Smuggling: To import or export (goods) secretly, in violation of the law, especially without payment of legal duty.
In the 18th century, excise taxes for importing goods were very high and many merchants resorted to smuggling their goods. This was a lucritive endeavor both for the merchants and the seafarers and fishermen doing the smuggling — but not without a large price if caught!
The Printer’s Devil
After printing the “Wanted” posters for some of London’s most notorious inhabitants, a printer’s boy is entangled, by a genuine convict, in a series of mistaken identities and events leading back to the boy’s own mysterious past.
Young John is charmed by the Dragon, the schooner he is planning to sail to London and use for the honest wool trade. But a mysterious gentleman delivers an ominous warning to “steer clear of that ship,” because the ship was “christened with blood.” The ship looks clever and quick, and the crew seems to know how to man it, but with such a warning John is left to wonder how well he really knows what lies ahead. Will he heed the advice given by the mysterious man? Or will he brave the unknown on his own?
Treason: The offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign.
In the 18th and 19th centuries (and even into the 20th century) any protest or activism against the government could be considered treason, if you were attempting to overthrow the government or some part of it. For example, in the early 19th century a protest over food costs and supplies in Ely, Wales got out of control and turned into a riot. 300 fought, 80 were arrested, and five were hung for treason.
How the Hangman Lost His Heart
What’s a nice girl like Alice doing with a hangman called Dan Skinslicer? He likes a good clean killing and a hearty supper afterwards. She likes pretty dresses and riding a well-bred horse. But fate throws them together on a mission of mercy–to save Alice’s poor uncle Frank’s head and restore his dignity. Soon they find themselves on the run from every soldier in London. It could be their necks next!
The Ravenmaster’s Secret: Escape from the Tower of London
It’s 1735. Forrest Harper’s life inside the Tower of London consists of three ways to pass the time: chores, chores, and more chores. His only friends are the spirited ravens he tends with his father. So when vicious Scottish Rebels are captured, Forrest can’t wait to prove his courage by standing guard. If only Forrest’s prisoner hadn’t turned out to be a noble and daring girl named Maddy. And if only Maddy wasn’t about to be executed…
Enjoy reading about dastardly (and not-so-dastardly) deeds!
Teen Services Coordinator
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