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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.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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