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15 Historic Terms for Crime and Punishment, Defined

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getty images

What does it mean if one “pleads the belly” so as to avoid “gibbeting,” perhaps as a punishment for “petty treason,” all the while hoping to just be sentenced to “transportation”? These were terms used daily in courtrooms throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, each one representing a fascinating and often disturbing piece of history. Here are 15 terms of historic crime and punishments defined. 

1. Pillory

To be pilloried was to be placed in stocks for the purpose of public humiliation. Criminals found guilty of lesser crimes, such as non-fatal arson, fraud, or rioting were made to stand with their head and arms locked in place for a suitable amount of time, usually three days. Their crime was often written on paper above them, and public abuse was not discouraged. It was miserably uncomfortable and humiliating, but one of the few historic punishments not intended to be fatal or disfiguring.

2. Plead the Belly

In centuries past, most sexually active women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. When a woman was sentenced to death, many would “plead the belly” or claim that she was pregnant. Early pregnancy was near impossible to prove. Some laws stated that the fetus must be “quickened,” or demonstrating detectable movement, to warrant a stay of execution. Courts determined pregnancy by gathering a “jury of matrons” to inspect the accused. They would examine her and decide whether or not she was with child. Governments would not kill a pregnant woman; her sentence would be postponed until after she gave birth. A pregnancy would often buy enough time for a woman to have her case further examined, and it was often that her sentence was commuted during her “confinement.” 

3. Gibbeting

Gibbeting was, up until the late 1700s, a method of execution also referred to as “hanging in chains.” It was the act of suspending a criminal from a scaffolding, his body encased in a steel cage. His death would come about through slow dehydration, and his suffering would be used as a public deterrent. It was also common to put the already executed bodies of criminals in chains for the same purpose. 

4. Drawn and Quartered 

From 1283 until 1867, when a man was found guilty of treason—for anything from counterfeiting money to trying to convert someone to Catholicism—he was sentenced to be executed and was drawn and quartered. (Women found guilty of treason, however, were usually burned at the stake.) The “drawn” part of the punishment is debated by historians. It could have meant the part where the prisoner was drawn (dragged) behind a horse to the place of execution, or the part where, after being hanged by the neck but cut down before death, he was “drawn” to the butcher’s block. Or it might have meant the part where his entrails were drawn from his still-live body. Various interpretations also involve heart removal, emasculation, and beheading. But the quartering part is agreed upon. It refers to chopping the remains into four pieces (quarters), often with the help of four strong horses all pulling in opposite directions. That would allow lawmakers to display deterrents in four different locations. A 1533 rendering of the entire horrible event, which in this case is Henry VIII punishing Catholic monks, can be seen here

5. Barratry

Barratry may be a very old word, but it’s a particularly obnoxious crime still in practice today. It was defined in old law books as a “vexatious stirring up of quarrels or bringing of lawsuits.” Or frivolous lawsuits, brought forth to either intimidate or avenge an opponent, or simply to get money. 

6. Petty Treason

At its simplest, treason is the crime of ceasing to honor a superior force to which you have, even inadvertently, sworn your allegiance. Today, that mostly means governments. But 200 years ago, there were many more superior/inferior relationships. Petty Treason was the killing of a master by a servant, a religious superior by an underling, or a husband by his wife. The latter case was the one that showed up most in the records of The Old Bailey. The most common execution for petty traitors was death by burning.   

7. Run the Gauntlope

You've heard this term using its modern corruption, gauntlet. Gauntlope comes from the Swedish words for lane (gata) and running (lopp). The punishment was thoroughly described in the 1805 Principles and Practice of Naval and Military Courts Martial: The entire crew formed two opposing lines, one on each side of the ship (so technically there would be two gauntlopes to run). Each man was given “a small twisted cord of spun yarn called a knittle, having two or three knots upon it.” The offender was then stripped to the waist and made to march, not run, the gauntlope, walking in either Ordinary (75 steps a minute) or Quick (108 steps a minute) time while his crewmates whipped him with their knittles. To assure he moved slow enough to be thoroughly lashed, the ship’s Master at Arms walked backward in front of him, sword to his chest, and ship’s Corporal followed behind, sword also drawn. The offender walked around the ship, entering both gauntlopes at least once but no more than three times. The practice of running the gauntlope was abolished as a naval disciplinary action in 1806.

8. Highway Robbery

In the 16th and 17th centuries, poor people didn’t travel much. If you saw a carriage on one of the King’s rutted, muddy highways, or even a rider on a fine horse, you could assume there was some money riding along with him. Highwaymen (which Robin Hood could be classified as) were romanticized even in their own time, since they rode horses (unlike common footpad thieves) and confronted their prey openly. Plus they were more likely to be stealing from the rich (Robin Hood again). In truth, most highwaymen were just as cowardly and indiscriminate as any thief, and they most certainly didn’t share their stashes with the likes of Friar Tuck. 

9. Chance Medley

The term “chance medley” is a strange usage of Old French and English words, translating to “random mix-up.” In old legal terms, the mix-up meant a squabble, one that escalated and resulted in a death. This offense was an early version of manslaughter—meaning that, yes, one person killed another, but it wasn’t with malice or planning. It was merely a fight that got out of control and was viewed with leniency in court. Interestingly, the law of chance-medley didn’t last long in the early United States. Americans were good at self-governing and tended to walk around armed, and thus everyone knew what fighting words could result in. It was best to keep a civil tongue. 

10. Non compos mentis

There have been many changes to how a person may plead “insanity” in a court of law. Non compos mentis (Latin for “not having control over your own mind”) was one of the earliest. A good example of it is this case, where a man snatched another man’s beaver hat off his head, dropped it and ran away. The prisoner appeared baffled and had no defense, but all who knew him testified that he was not of sound mind. Non compos mentis was replaced in English courts in 1800 with the verdict “Guilty but Insane.” This was because a verdict of non compos mentis was basically an acquittal, allowing the offender to keep offending. “Guilty but Insane” allowed the government to sequester the “Lunatick” at His Majesty’s Pleasure (keep him in the madhouse for the foreseeable future).

11. Branding

Branding was a relatively mild punishment. After the trial was finished, the guilty party was, immediately and in front of the court, burned on the thumb with an iron bearing the letter of their crime: T for theft, M for murder, F for felon. This was ostensibly so that if they ever tried to get away with it again, they would be known as a repeat offender and executed. Between 1699 and 1707, the branding punishment was moved from thumb to cheek, but this was considered too harsh and self-defeating because it made the offenders unemployable—and, therefore, more likely to commit another crime. 

12. Transportation

When you’re building the largest empire on earth, you’re going to find yourself with a lot of surplus land that needs English colonization. And most of your citizens aren’t lining up to leave their homes for the terrifying unforgiving wilds of the Americas and Australia. Meanwhile, the streets of London are choked with petty criminals, pickpockets and prostitutes. To control the undesirable population, there were 222 crimes that resulted in the death penalty in the mid-1700s, including stealing a rabbit. It was around this time a solution to both was implemented: Britain began “transporting” thousands of minor offenders to penal colonies, primarily in Australia.

First, the government sent just men to work the land, which made for a brutish environment. Then, female convicts were heavily transported, usually marrying an officer or freed convict as soon as possible, which basically made them free women. The desired effect was felt, and many people who had been forcibly moved to Australia made no attempt to return to England when their sentence was up, having created a better life than they had ever had in the London gutter. Transportation ended in 1868. Today, it's estimated that about 22 percent of Australians are descended from English convicts. 

13. Gaol

If you were to take the Latin for “cage” and send it down about a millennia or two of French and English, banging up against each other, you’d get jaiole from Old French and gayole from Anglo-Norman French and you’d fiddle around with the hard and soft g sounds until you had a word to describe a prison that is pronounced “Jale.” In the UK and Ireland, you might go on spelling it the old way for a while, but eventually, with a little encouragement from American English, we'd all agree to spell it like it sounds: Jail.   

14. Benefit of the Clergy

During his reign, Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Beckett butted heads over who should have the most authority over members of the clergy. Beckett didn’t believe the king could pass judgment on men sworn to be servants of God. This was one of the earliest sources of Benefit of Clergy: If a man of the cloth, anywhere on the religious hierarchy, should commit a capital crime, he could claim that as a man of God his sins were to be dealt with by his religious superiors (who never invoked the death penalty), not a secular court. The tradition, being changed and challenged many times, continued into the 19th century. At one point, anyone who could read a selected Bible passage was acquitted by benefit of the clergy. But if you couldn’t, obviously you were not under the clergy’s protection, as shown in this 1676 case:

… there were in all five persons that received Sentence of Death, three men and two women; two of the men for robbing upon the High way, and the other for having two Wives at once, who though he prayed the benefit of his Clergy, was not able to read when he came to the book, and suffered death.

Eventually, church and state came to agree that certain crimes—murder, rape, highway robbery, burglary, horse-stealing, pickpocketing, and theft from churches—could not be acquitted by a Bible verse. The practice itself was abolished from English courts in 1827.

15. Stand and Deliver

Stand and Deliver was the 18th century version of “Your money or your life.” It was a cry delivered by highwaymen robbers as they attacked a moving target. “Stand” meant come to a standstill, or stop. And deliver … that is revealed in a quote from the transcript of the 1720 trial of robber Robert Jackson.

The Prisoner clapt a Pistol to a Child's Head and said [to Andrews], G - d D - n you, stand and deliver your Money and Watch; and that he saw the Prisoner clap a Pistol to Andrews's Breast, and take his Watch; that he is sure the Prisoner is the same Person.

Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.


The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.


Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.


Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.


Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.


17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.


Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.


Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)


19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.


Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.


The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa

At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.


The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.


The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.


The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.


“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.


This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.


Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?


Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.


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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?


Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.


The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.


Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.


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“Bring both if possible.”


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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.


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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.


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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!


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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.


The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.


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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.


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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.


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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.


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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.


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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.


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