Law Enforcement in Historical Mysteries...What to do?
It’s a fascinating subject, and for this blog, I’d like to talk about law enforcement, although it will be in sort of generalized terms to avoid the high eye-glaze coefficient that this topic can engender. Law enforcement hasn’t always been as formalized as it is today.
It wasn’t until 1829, that Sir Robert (Bobby) Peel’s leadership established the modern British police force through an Act of English Parliament. It even specified the use of the word “police.” For those who have heard the term “peelers” or “bobbies” for British police, this is also the origin for those terms. The Bow Street runners were charged with keeping the King’s (or Queen’s) peace, just like bobbies do today.
At first, this mostly consisted of The Bow Street Patrols (Bow Street runners); Police Office constables under the control of the Magistrates; and the Marine police (river police). These groups were later melded into the Metropolitan Police Force in 1839 for the City of London.
But if the police force didn’t exist before 1829, how were laws enforced and criminals caught?
Initially, sheriffs, reeves and groups of men acting as juries provided law enforcement. Most of us have heard of sheriffs from Robin Hood movies. They basically kept order and maintained the King’s interests locally. From 1500 onward, private watchmen, thief-takers, etc. performed law enforcement activities. Watchmen were often funded by private individuals or organization and rewarded for catching criminals.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, there were parish constables and the Justice of the Peace. The constable was appointed to serve for a period of one year. He wasn’t paid and he worked in co-operation with the Justice of the peace to maintain order. In larger towns, there were guilds that became known as The Watch who were paid to patrol the streets at night. By 1663 in London, the night watchmen became the first paid law enforcement officers.
A gradual shift to government control over law enforcement really got underway in 1737. King George II initiated a scheme to pay London and Middlesex watchmen, using taxes as funding. Then in 1749, Henry Fielding’s famous Bow Street Runners were organized. They were essentially professional constables and by 1828 were the largest privately financed police force covering 45 parishes within a ten-mile radius of London.
In the early years of the 19th century, if a person wanted a constable to help him or her apprehend the perpetrator of a crime he had to pay the expenses of the investigation. Any English citizen could prosecute a crime and the prosecutor was often the victim of the crime. He had to file charges with the magistrate, present evidence to the grand jury and provide evidence. In the 18th century, rewards for the conviction of criminals ensured that citizens had incentive to prosecute, but they also led to abuses where people were accused of crimes they didn’t commit simply to collect the reward.
There was a particularly famous case of a thief-taker in 1720 who epitomized the corruption that led to Sir Robert Peel’s reforms. In London in 1720, Jonathan Wild had a gang of thieves under his control. When they stole, he’d often arrange to return the property and hand over someone, sometimes even a member of his gang who displeased him, and collect the reward. His shenanigans came to an end though when his perfidy was discovered and he was hung in 1725.
But thief-takers remained tainted with corruption. In 1754, there was another scandal similar to Wild’s where Stephen MacDaniel was caught prosecuting innocent men in order to collect the rewards. Again, this was another incentive to eliminate the system of rewards from victims hoping to regain their stolen property or gain justice. A salaried police force, i.e. Sir Robert Peel’s bobbies, seemed like the answer to cut the dependence upon rewards and their corrupting effect.
The Vital Principle and A Rose Before Dying. I'll be talking more about law enforcement, forensics, and other such fascinating topics in future blogs (assuming I don't get a lot of comments like: "What the HECK are you THINKING?")