Saturday, March 28, 2015

In the wrong place at the wrong time?

Dick Turpin was convicted of robbery but had also been guilty of a string of murders (Wikicommons)

In each generation from 1500 to 1750, between 1 and 2% of all English men were executed either by court order or extra-judicially (at the scene of the crime or while in prison). This was the height of a moral crusade by Church and State to punish the wicked so that the good may live in peace.

Meanwhile, the homicide rate fell ten-fold. Were the two trends related? In a recent paper, Henry Harpending and I argued that a little over half of the homicide decline could be explained by the high execution rate, and its steady removal of violent males from the gene pool. The rest could be partly explained by Clark-Unz selection—violent males lost out reproductively because they were increasingly marginalized in society and on the marriage market. Finally, this decline was also due to a strengthening of controls on male violence: judicial punishment (policing, penitentiaries); quasi-judicial punishment (in schools, at church, and in workplaces); and stigmatization of personal violence in popular culture.

These controls drove the decline in the homicide rate, but they also tended over time to hardwire the new behavior pattern, by hindering the ability of violent males to survive and reproduce. The last half-century has seen a dramatic relaxation of these controls but only a modest rise in the homicide rate among young men of native English origin.

The above argument has been criticized on two grounds:

1. Executed offenders were not the worst of the worst. They were often people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

2. Executed offenders may have had children who survived to adulthood.

This week's column will address the first criticism. Did execution remove the most violent men? Or did it randomly remove individuals from, say, the most violent third?

Many genetic factors influence our propensity for personal violence: impulse control; violence ideation; pleasure from inflicting pain; etc. Regardless of how strong or weak these factors may be, the propensity itself should be normally distributed within the male population—it should follow a bell curve. If we move right or left from the population mean, the number of men should initially decline very little, with the result that over two-thirds of the men can be found within one standard deviation of the mean.

We really have to go one standard deviation to the right before the men begin to seem abnormally violent, but the remaining right-hand “tail” leaves us only 16% of the male population. What if we’re looking for a man who’s at least twice as violent as the normal two-thirds? He’s in the far right 1%. In a single gene pool, violent men stand out not just because they are noticeably abnormal but also because they are much less common.

Identifying the most violent men. But how?

Were these men the ones that the English justice system executed between 1500 and 1750? Murder is violence taken to its logical extreme, yet most murder cases went unsolved in early modern England. The crime was difficult to prove for want of witnesses, either because none wished to come forward or because they had likewise been murdered. There were no police, no forensic laboratories, and much less of the investigative infrastructure that we have today. If you committed a one-time murder, your chances of not getting caught were good.

The criminal justice system in the eighteenth century [...] therefore operated on a rationale very different from that of a modern state, with its professional police forces, social services and a fully bureaucratised law-enforcement system. In the early eighteenth century at least, the enforcement of law and order depended largely on unpaid amateur officials, the justices of the peace and the parish constables and other local officers. (Sharpe, 2010, p. 92)

This is not to say that the justice system gave murder a lower priority. Rather, with the limited resources available, judges and juries engaged in "profiling." They scrutinized not only the offence but also the accused—his character and demeanor, his behavior during the crime and in the courtroom, and his previous offences. Juries could be lenient in cases of first-time offences for theft, but this leniency disappeared if the accused had a criminal history.

The justice system thus looked for signs that the accused had already committed worse crimes or would go on to do so. Ironically, our current system is the one that tends to catch people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., inexperienced one-time murderers.

Hanged for robbery but guilty of murder

This may be seen in a book, published in London in 1735, that told the life stories of 198 executed criminals. Of the 198, only 34 (17%) had been sentenced to death for murder. A much larger number, 111 (56%), were charged with robbery, being described as highwaymen, footpads, robbers, and street robbers. Finally, another 37 (19%) were executed simply for theft (Hayward, 2012; see note). Robbery was punished more severely than simple theft because it threatened both life and property, especially if the victim failed to cooperate sufficiently or seemed to recognize the robber.

Robbery is the taking away violently and feloniously the goods or money from the person of a man, putting him in fear [...]. Yea, where there is a gang of several persons, only one of which robs, they are all guilty as to the circumstance of putting in fear, wherever a person attacks another with circumstances of terror [...] And in respect of punishment, though judgment of death cannot be given in any larceny whatsoever, unless the goods taken exceed twelve pence in value, yet in robbery such judgment is given, let the value of the goods be ever so small. (Hayward, 2013, p. 27)

Sooner or later, a robber ended up killing. We see this in the life story of Dick Turpin, who was hanged for cattle theft, even though he had committed worse crimes:

The process of reconstruction may not tell us much about Turpin's personality, but it does give us the opportunity to put together a remarkable criminal biography, a tale of violent robberies, of murder, and, eventually, of the horse-thefts that led to his execution. (Sharpe, 2010, p. 8)

Allegations of murder came up in trials of robbers, but typically remained unproven because no witnesses could be produced. Nonetheless, the accused would sometimes confess to murder, either to clear his conscience or, in the wake of a death sentence, because he had nothing left to lose, like this man convicted for highway robbery: "This Reading had been concerned in abundance of robberies, and, as he himself owned, in some which were attended with murder" (Hayward, 2013, p. 91). A member of another gang, when caught, confessed to a long string of murders:

[...] he, without any equivocation, began to confess all the crimes of his life. He said that it was true they all of them deserved death, and he was content to suffer; he said, moreover, that in the course of his life he had murdered upwards of three-score with his own hands. He also carried the officers to an island in the river, which was the usual place of the execution of those innocents who fell into the hands of their gang [...] (Hayward,2013, p. 1014)

In most cases, however, the accused would deny involvement in murders even after being condemned to death:

There has been great suspicions that he murdered the old husband to this woman, who was found dead in a barn or outhouse not far from Hornsey; but Wigley, though he confessed an unlawful correspondence with the woman, yet constantly averred his innocency of that fact, and always asserted that though the old man's death was sudden, yet it was natural. (Hayward, 2013, pp. 92-93)

At the place of execution he behaved with great composure and said that as he had heard he was accused in the world of having robbed and murdered a woman in Hyde Park, he judged it proper to discharge his conscience by declaring that he knew nothing of the murder, but said nothing as to the robbery. (Hayward, 2013, p.96)

In the wrong place at the wrong time?

If we look at executed criminals, their profile is not that of unfortunates caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most were young men who had done their work in the company of likeminded young men. Those who operated alone were atypical, like this highwayman:

Though this malefactor had committed a multitude of robberies, yet he generally chose to go on such expeditions alone, having always great aversion for those confederacies in villainy which we call gangs, in which he always affirmed there was little safety, notwithstanding any oaths, by which they might bind themselves to secrecy. (Hayward, 2013, p. 93)

For most, long-term safety was a secondary concern. Their behavioral profile—fast life history, disregard for the future, desire to be with other young men and impress them with acts of bravado and violence—stood in contrast to the ascendant culture of early modern England. One example is this robber:

[...] when he returned to liberty he returned to his old practices. His companions were several young men of the same stamp with himself, who placed all their delight in the sensual and brutal pleasures of drinking, gaming, whoring and idling about, without betaking themselves to any business. Natt, who was a young fellow naturally sprightly and of good parts, from thence became very acceptable to these sort of people, and committed abundance of robberies in a very small space of time. The natural fire of his temper made him behave with great boldness on such occasions, and gave him no small reputation amongst the gang. [...] He particularly affected the company of Richard James, and with him robbed very much on the Oxford Road, whereon it was common for both these persons not only to take away the money from passengers, but also to treat them with great inhumanity [...] (Hayward, 2013, pp. 108-109)

This sort of description comes up repeatedly. Most condemned men struck observers as very atypical, and not merely among the worst third of society. In 1741, an observer described a hanging and the interactions between the condemned men and a crowd composed largely of their friends:

The criminals were five in number. I was much disappointed at the unconcern and carelessness that appeared in the faces of three of the unhappy wretches; the countenance of the other two were spread with that horror and despair which is not to be wondered at in men whose period of life is so near [...]

[...] the three thoughtless young men, who at first seemed not enough concerned, grew most shamefully wanton and daring, behaving themselves in a manner that would have been ridiculous in men in any circumstances whatever. They swore, laughed, and talked obscenely, and wished their wicked companions good luck with as much assurance as if their employment had been the most lawful.

At the place of execution the scene grew still more shocking, and the clergyman who attended was more the subject of ridicule than of their serious attention. The Psalm was sung amidst the curses and quarrelling of hundreds of the most abandoned and profligate of mankind, upon them (so stupid are they to any sense of decency) all the preparation of the unhappy wretches seems to serve only for subject of a barbarous kind of mirth, altogether inconsistent with humanity. And as soon as the poor creatures were half dead, I was much surprised to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness as to occasion several warm rencounters and broken heads. These, I was told, were the friends of the persons executed, or such as, for the sake of tumult, chose to appear so; as well as some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at [...] The face of every one spoke a kind of mirth, as if the spectacle they beheld had afforded pleasure instead of pain, which I am wholly unable to account for. (Hayward, 2013, pp. 8-10)

The situation in early modern England was akin to a low-grade war, and it was not for nothing that its justice system seems to us so barbaric. The judges and juries were dealing with barbarians: gangs of young men who led a predatory lifestyle that made life miserable for people who ventured beyond the safety of their own homes.


We are still left with the original question: Were these criminals the most violent 1 to 2% or a random sample of a much larger proportion? In general, they behaved quite unlike most people, especially if they belonged to gangs, which seem to have been responsible for most homicides. It is hard to see how such people could correspond even to the most violent 16%—a range of individuals that begins one standard deviation to the right of the mean, at which point behavior just begins to seem "abnormal."

In all likelihood, execution removed individuals who were more than one standard deviation to the right of the mean, with a strong skew toward people more than two standard deviations to the right—in other words, something less than the most violent 16% with a strong skew toward the most violent 1%.

These assumptions differ from those of our model, which assumes that execution removed the most violent 1 to 2%. On the other hand, our model also assumes that each executed criminal would, in the absence of execution, have killed only one person over a normal lifetime. Clearly, many people among the executed were already serial murderers, not so much among the convicted murderers as among the convicted robbers. It is difficult to say whether the two sources of error would balance each other out, since we need more information on (1) just how abnormal the executed were in terms of behavior and (2) how many people they would have otherwise killed over a normal lifetime.

Executed criminals were probably a heterogeneous group. A quarter of them (mostly the thieves) would have likely killed 0 to 1 people on average if allowed to live out their lives. Another quarter may have averaged 1 to 2 murders. Finally, the remaining half may have had an ever higher score. Within this last group, we can be sure that a hard core of individuals would have each gone on to kill dozens of people, if they had not already done so.


The other executed criminals were identified as 8 housebreakers, 7 forgers, 4 pirates, 2 incendiaries, 1 threatening letter writer, 1 ravisher, 1 thief-taker, and 1 releaser of prisoners. Wherever a single individual was charged with more than one crime, I classified him or her under the most serious offence, i.e., murder took precedence over robbery, and robbery took precedence over theft.

Of the 198 executed criminals, 10 were women. The book actually tells the life stories of 201 criminals, but three of them were not executed. I excluded the life stories in the appendix (7 murderers and 4 thieves) because they came from a much earlier time period and may have been less representative.


Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243.   

Hayward, A.L. (2013[1735]). Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals - who Have Been Condemned and Executed for Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining Or Other Offences, Routledge.

Sharpe, J. (2010). Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, Profile Books. 


JayMan said...

Good to see this up.

Sean said...

From 1500 to 1750 was the height of the death penalty and yes they would be removal of the most violent. However, before the period under consideration, in medieval times there were a lot of homicides but surprisingly few accused of homicide were convicted at their trial according to this. Intriguingly, "most slayings in medieval England started as quarrels among farmers in the field" according to this. The apparent reduction in violence by ordinary peasants (the vast majority of the population) without many of them being hanged does not seem to establish that hanging the feckless, robbing and most violent 1-2% was the key factor in the reduction of violence. The law being available to settle disputes may be a important factor. As I said a few weeks ago given a situation where murder was objectively necessary (such as no effective courts to settle disputes, and some bloke in the village taking the bread from your children's mouths by appropriating your land or livestock) the men with the most self control might well be the ones to kill. I don't think you can assume that the killing is always a mark of being vicious.

Peter Frost said...


Good to see you here too!


I agree. Most murder cases went unsolved, and this was true well beyond medieval times. Most cases of multiple homicide were closely linked to robbery, with homicide being a means to an end, a way to extract money and other valued goods from other people.

The selection pressure was not acting against violence per se, but rather against violence to advance personal ends. Even today, most people are willing to inflict a surprising degree of violence if it seems to be condoned by a higher authority (see the Milgram experiment).

The word "vicious" doesn't capture what's at issue. I'm not talking about a willingness to engage in random violence. Literally speaking, random violence would cause the most harm to one's own family (and even to oneself). I'm talking about violence as an instrument to advance personal interest. In short, increased self-restraint and impulse control are undoubtedly involved in the reduction of personal violence, but I would give more weight to other factors.