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The History of Murder Podcast
The legal history podcast that looks at the development and history of the crime of murder in the common law.
Aug 7, 2022
Today we begin to talk about a very special kind of homicide: infanticide. Infanticide, or the killing of newborn children, is a surprisingly large topic in the history of murder, and we're going to cover it over the course of two episodes. This topic has a colourful history because Parliament, judges and juries aren't sure what to make of it. If a woman kills her child, is it murder? In some respects, it sounds like murder; after all, it's one person killing another. But in other respects, it doesn't really resemble the classic murder cases we've seen so far. A mother who kills her child out of desperation doesn't seem to be committing the same crime as someone who stabs his rival to death over some trivial insult. In today's episode, we'll look at the 1624 law called An act to prevent the destroying and murthering of bastard children. We'll see Parliament attempt to crack down on "lewd women" who kill their "bastard children" and get away with it. Then, we'll see that this law has some serious flaws (namely, that it lumps together innocent and guilty women and tells courts to execute the lot of them). Finally, we'll see how judges and juries think that that's a bit extreme, how they walk it back, and how they redefine infanticide going forward. We'll wrap up by considering the strange relationship between courts and legislators. If you like the episode, please help us out by reviewing it on your podcast app! As always, check out the website for sources and more details at historyofmurderpodcast.com.
May 27, 2022
Witchcraft - Bonus episode
This week's episode is a bonus episode on the history of witchcraft in English law. We give murder a rest in this episode and focus exclusively on the rise and fall of witchcraft in England in the 17th century instead. The episode starts by looking at King James I's weird personal relationship with witch-hunting. We then see how his son, Charles I, was a bit skeptical about the whole thing, and how he fostered skepticism towards witch-hunting until his career was cut short (so to speak) and civil war broke out. We then turn to the story of the so-called Witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins, and his colleague, John Stearne, who were responsible for the executions of over one-hundred alleged witches during the English Civil War. Finally, we'll see that after the war, judges began to reject the idea that witchcraft could be proved in court, and how witchcraft prosecutions died out before witchcraft beliefs did. Don't worry if you are missing the history of homicide - we'll be back with an episode on infanticide next time.
Nov 24, 2021
Today's episode is on one of the best topics in the history of the law - witchcraft! We start this episode by looking at the first famous witchcraft trial (and pamphlet) in England, the case of Mother Waterhouse. Mother Waterhouse's case gives us some clues as to why witches and witchcraft-accusers tended to be women. One reason is that witchcraft cases tended to revolve around neighborly disputes, household problems and children. Because of this, we'll see the witch portrayed as the "anti-housewife" and the "anti-mother." Then, we'll look at how witchcraft was prosecuted in the courts. How can you prove that someone is a witch? Many types of evidence are brought before the courts, including children having fits, some extremely doubtful testimony, and the witch's mark. Over time, the evidence becomes too doutbful to trust and witchcraft becomes impossible to prove by the late-seventeenth century. Finally, we'll bring it all back to the history of murder. How does witchcraft match up against other "feminine" crimes we've seen so far? And yes, it's true that witchcraft isn't classically considered a type of homicide. But how could I resist?
Nov 17, 2021
The Trial of Catherine Hayes
Today's episode of the History of Murder Podcast focuses on the trial and execution of Catherine Hayes. Catherine Hayes was convicted of murdering her husband in 1726 and was sentenced to be burned at the stake for this crime. The facts in this case are just as fascinating now as they were in 1726. Spoiler alert: we'll see a pickled head, allegations of adultery and incest, and a horrifying botched execution. We'll then try to avoid being historical voyeurs--only interested in cases for their scandal and dramatic value--by focusing on what this case tells us about women who killed their husbands in the history of murder. We'll see how contemporaries thought this crime was unnatural and motivated by lust and lewdness - much like other crimes committed by women. We'll also see once again that the common law seems to have had no way to take into account a woman's abusive situation in determining her guilt when it comes to petty treason. Check out a drawing of Catherine Hayes and her two co-accused murdering Mr. Hayes at historyofmurderpodcast.com and follow us @murderhistorian on Twitter. Please be sure to subscribe and comment if you like the episode!
Nov 10, 2021
Today's episode looks at women in the history of murder. First, we'll see how the law of murder applied differently to women than it did to men. One big difference is the fact that women weren't eligible to plead benefit of clergy until 1691, which meant they were (essentially) unable to be convicted of manslaughter. This is a drag for women who kill others through negligence and who are then executed for it. On the flip side, women could "plead the belly," meaning that they could have their date of execution postponed if they were pregnant. Then, we'll look at early-modern ideas of female violence. While women were stereotypically associated with sneaky killing and poison, we'll see some women were totally willing to beat the crap out of people in the public "very much with their fists." Finally, we'll look at the notion that it was a form of treason, and not just murder, when a wife killed her husband. This crime, called petty treason, carried with it the horrific punishment of burning women alive. As always, check out the website for more details at historyofmurderpodcast.com
Oct 27, 2021
Felony Murder and Constructive Malice
Today we take a whirlwind tour through the controversial topic of felony murder. In today's episode, we ask whether it is murder when someone kills someone else unintentionally but during the course of a serious crime (or a felony). Normally killing has to be intentional to qualify as murder - but does the criminal context change this rule? For instance, is it murder when a robber accidentally shoots a cashier during an armed robbery? What about when a kidnapper smothers someone by accident while kidnapping them? Some modern common-law jurisdictions are deeply divided on this topic, and we'll see why after looking at felony murder's chaotic history. We'll see early-modern common law superstars butt heads over obscure examples (is it murder when you go poaching but your arrow goes astray and kills a boy lurking in a nearby bush?). We'll also see how an early-eighteenth century attempt to clear things up just muddles it even more and ultimately gives us the term "felony murder." We'll ask what's so constructive about malice anyways. And finally, we'll see how theory and practice never quite seem to match up in this bizarre area of the law. Got any comments on felony murder? Think I didn't come down hard enough on the doctrine, or conversely, that I was too critical of it? Send me your thoughts at historyofmurderpocast.com or @murderhistorian on Twitter!
Oct 15, 2021
We all know (now) that if you kill someone intentionally, it's murder. But is it ever murder when someone kills someone else unintentionally? Today, we look at a whole range of unintentional killings and ask whether they're murder, manslaughter, or sheer accident. Is it murder if you mean to kill one person but end up unintentionally killing another? What is it when you mean to give someone a little push or slap and end up killing them by accident? What if you mean to hurt someone really badly but end up killing them instead? And what if you just do something really stupid and kill someone by mistake? Murder weapons vary widely in this episode. We'll see a man who tried to poison his wife with an apple, a blacksmith who killed his apprentice with a bar of iron, a roofer who killed a pedestrian with a shingle, and a provoked man who killed a woman with an unlucky broomstick throw. Warning: modern terms for what we're discussing today vary widely, particularly in the USA. Depending on the jurisdiction, you can find not only different degrees of murder, but also degrees of manslaughter, as well as terms like felony murder and depraved heart murder. Check out the website at historyofmurderpodcast.com for notes on sources. Follow us on Twitter @murderhistorian.
Oct 6, 2021
Bonus episode: Insults!
Today's bonus episode is on insults. It looks at which insults were considered to be the most provocative in the 17th century. We'll see that courts were willing to excuse men who flew into a homicidal rage upon having their noses tweaked, being jostled, having the wall taken from them, and being "filliped upon the forehead." We'll also see one of my favourite cases, which involves a leek, a Welshman, a scarecrow, and a hammer. Finally, we'll see these insults in action by looking at Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet. If you like the podcast, please be sure to subscribe on your podcast app and give us a review! You can follow us on Twitter at @murderhistorian and check out the website at http://www.historyofmurderpodcast.com/
Sep 29, 2021
Today's episode features a considerable amount of spontaneous stabbing. We start off with the famous case of Watts v Brains (1600), where the court has to deal with two major problems. First, is it OK to kill someone just because they make "a wry face" at you? Second, how do we prove malice aforethought (and therefore that someone committed murder) if one person kills another in the heat of the moment? We go on to see how the famous judge, Sir Edward Coke, decides to solve these problems by changing the rules of the game. From now on, he tells us, we can just presume that it's murder when one person kills another without provocation. This brings us on a whirlwind tour of the idea of provocation. Can you be provoked by verbal insults? Rude gestures? Slaps? The loss of a stranger's liberty? Adultery? What else? The answers may surprise you. As always, sources and pics on the website: http://www.historyofmurderpodcast.com/ . You can follow the show on Twitter at @Murderhistorian.
Sep 22, 2021
The Origins of the Word Murder: murdrum, morth, and malice aforethought (bonus episode)
In today's bonus episode, we look at the origins of the terms "murder" and "malice aforethought." We see that "murder" comes from a few sources, including murdrum and morth. In the end, murder becomes strongly associated with secret killing, killing with no witnesses, or killing somewhere remote. This association brings the concept of murder closer to the concepts of ambush and premeditated killing. Perhaps this explains why murder ends up being defined as killing with "malice aforethought," a term which also strongly implies ambush and premeditation. I gloss over a lot of scholarly debates in this episode. I hope the medieval historians out there will forgive me. For more sources on these debates, check out the post on our website at http://www.historyofmurderpodcast.com/
Sep 15, 2021
Medieval Murder and the Birth of Manslaughter
In today's episode, we look back at the history of murder law in medieval England. We'll see a major problem with it: there's only one punishment for all kinds of killing, and that punishment is death. Do we really want to punish everyone who kills someone else with death? Is it fair to punish everyone in the same way? Don't we want to punish the serial killer more than we want to punish the random person who killed someone during a bar fight? These problems give rise to the birth of manslaughter, but not before we take a detour through one of the weirdest concepts in the common law, benefit of clergy. Visit http://www.historyofmurderpodcast.com/ for pictures, sources, and to reach out to us in a comment or email.
Sep 9, 2021
What is murder? What is the common law? What is this podcast?
In this introduction episode, we ask all the important questions: what is murder and who cares about its history? Is it really murder when you cannibalize your shipmate in a moment of desperation? It is?? Also what is the common law? And what is this podcast all about?