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15 Historic Terms for Crime and Punishment, Defined

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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.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.


In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.


Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.


The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]


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