Are the courts today lenient with criminals? This isn’t an appropriate forum to discuss this question, but I will say that in 18th and 19th century Nova Scotia, minor criminals were treated harshly, much more than harshly. Historical records indicate offences, which today usually result in house arrest and a slap on the wrist, once were crimes calling for capital punishment.
This was pointed out when Ivan Smith sent me a government website listing all the known executions in Nova Scotia between 1749 and 1820. “This morning, while poking into some dusty corners of the Internet,” wrote the creator of the Nova Scotia History Index, “I stumbled on a purported list of all known executions in Nova Scotia since 1749. There might be something of interest.”
Indeed, there was. Logging onto the website, I discovered that as well as being a dusty corner of the web – “dusty” meaning rarely visited – it was also a grisly, shocking site. From the executions listed and the reasons why the hangings were carried out, it was obvious life throughout the period mentioned was harsh, and the punishment for relatively minor crimes harsher. Misdemeanours, from theft to murder, were punished severely by the courts with no mercy shown; apparently theft, burglary and murder were lumped together as serious crimes.
Take the case of the man who was hanged in Halifax in 1785. His crime, if you can believe it, was listed simply as “theft.” What he stole was a bag of potatoes! Similar fates were dealt out to seven men hanged in Halifax between 1752 and 1765. And get this: All were guilty of burglary.
Four of these men, who were sailors, had conspired to break into the home of one Adam Prester of Dartmouth; they stole “20 pounds worth of gold and silver and some linen.” By today’s standards this obviously isn’t a capitol offense but keep in mind Halifax was a British port at the time and it was dominated by the military; which could explain the harshness of the penalty. The burglary occurred in April, 1865, and the culprits were quickly caught and hanged the following May.
Three of the seven hanged for burglary were soldiers, again perhaps explaining why they were dealt with so harshly, Halifax being a military town. No details on their crimes are given but my guess is the culprits were dealt with summarily.
Then there’s the interesting case of one John Oliver Tibo, who when hankering for a feed of cabbage in the summer of 1911 decided to steal rather than buy them. This led to his being hanged for murder. Tibo was caught when Edward McGregor came upon him cleaning the cabbage. In the notes it’s explained that Tibo “killed Edward McGregor with an ax while cleaning stolen cabbage.”
Even more interesting is the case of Jenkin Ratford, who in 1807 was hanged in Halifax for the multiple offences of “desertion, mutiny and contempt.” Ratford became a footnote in events leading up to the War of 1812. He was a crewman on the American frigate Chesapeake when it was intercepted by a British warship, the frigate Leopard, on June 22, 1807.
Ratford, a deserter from the Royal Navy, was one of four sailors taken from the Chesapeake and tried in Halifax for desertion. While he was enjoying his freedom in an American port, Ratford had brazenly paraded around under an American flag as part of an enlistment party; hence the additional charge of contempt.
At the time, the British Navy insisted it had the right to board any American ship and remove deserters. This was one of many minor irritants that led to war in 1812. Poor old Ratford was one of the victims of an ongoing feud between America and Great Britain and he paid the price in Halifax.