In England, executions peaked between 1500 and 1750 at 1 to 2% of all men of each generation. Were there genetic consequences? Were propensities for violence being removed from the gene pool? Did the English population become kinder and gentler? Such is the argument I made in a recent paper with Henry Harpending.
In this column, I will address a second criticism made against this argument: Many executed criminals already had children, so execution came too late in their lives to change the makeup of the next generation.
Hayward (2013) provides a sample of 198 criminals who were executed in the early 1700s. Of this total, only 32 (16%) had children at the time of execution, and 12 of them had one child each. Their reproductive success breaks down as follows:
Family size — # executed criminals (out of 198)
1 child – 12
2 children – 3
3 children – 3
3-4 children – 1
5 children – 3
9 children – 1
“children” – 9
Although the above figures include illegitimate children, some executed criminals may have had offspring that they were unaware of or didn’t wish to acknowledge. So we may be underestimating their reproductive success. But what were the chances of such children surviving to adulthood and reproducing? In pre-1840 England, 30% of all children were dead by the age of 15; in pre-1800 London, only 42% of all boys reached the age of 25 (Clark and Cummins, 2009). Chances of survival were undoubtedly even lower for children raised by single parents.
Here and there, we find references to high infantile mortality among the progeny of executed criminals. The coiner John Johnson regretted “the heavy misfortune he had brought upon himself and family, two of his children dying during the time of his imprisonment, and his wife and third child coming upon the parish.” Prospects seemed better for childless widows, as noted in the life story of the thief Robert Perkins: “He said he died with less reluctance because his ruin involved nobody but himself, he leaving no children behind him, and his wife being young enough to get a living honestly” (Hayward, 2013).
Reproductive success was also curbed by marital instability. The footpad Joseph Ward was married for all of two days:
The very next morning after their wedding, Madam prevailed on him to slip on an old coat and take a walk by the house which she had shown him for her uncle’s. He was no sooner out of doors, but she gave the sign to some of her accomplices, who in a quarter of an hour’s time helped her to strip the lodging not only of all which belonged to Ward, but of some things of value that belonged to the people of the house. (Hayward, 2013)
In these life stories, the word “wife” is often qualified: “lived as wife,” “whom he called his wife,” “who passed for his wife,” “he at that time owned for his wife,” etc. Overall, only 40% of the executed criminals had been married: 38% of the men and 80% of the women.
The age composition of the executed criminals suggests another reason for their low reproductive success. More than half were put to death before the age of 30. Since the mean age of first marriage for English men at that time was 27 (Wikipedia, 2015b), it’s likely that most of these criminals were still trying to amass enough resources to get married and start a family.
Ages — # executed criminals (out of 198)
10 – 19 years – 18
20 – 29 years – 88
30 – 39 years – 41
40 – 49 years – 20
50 – 59 years – 6
60 – 69 years – 0
70 + years – 1
Many criminals may have planned to steal enough money to give up crime and lead a straight life. Such plans came to nought for the thief John Little:
[…] the money which they amass by such unrighteous dealings never thrives with them; that though they thieve continually, they are, notwithstanding that, always in want, pressed on every side with fears and dangers, and never at liberty from the uneasy apprehensions of having incurred the displeasure of God, as well as run themselves into the punishments inflicted by the law. To these general terrors there was added, to Little, the distracting fears of a discovery from the rash and impetuous tempers of his associates, who were continually defrauding one another in their shares of the booty, and then quarrelling, fighting, threatening, and what not, till Little sometimes at the expense of his own allotment, reconciled and put them in humour. (Hayward, 2013)
Nonetheless, it is possible that others would have saved up a “nest egg,” started a family, and moved on to a respectable life. Dick Turpin, for instance, was able to abandon highway robbery and pose as a horse trader. His ruse ultimately failed because he continued to run afoul of the law (Wikipedia, 2015a). The extent of this life strategy is difficult to measure because the existing information almost wholly concerns those criminals who were caught and executed.
Clearly, some of the executed criminals had already reproduced, but the overall reproductive success was very low, and probably lower still if we adjust for infantile mortality. Instead of arguing that executions had little impact on the gene pool because too many of the executed had already reproduced, one could argue the opposite: the genetic impact was inconsequential because so few would have reproduced anyway, even if allowed to live out their lives.
Reproductive success was highly variable in the criminal underclass. Many would have had few children with or without being sent to the gallows. But some would have done much better. At the age of 26, the highwayman William Miller already had two children by two wives, and many other women gravitated around him, even as he prepared for death: “Yet in the midst of these tokens of penitence and contrition several women came still about him.” At the age of 25, the murderer Captain Stanley had fathered three or four children by one woman and was looking for a new wife. One might also wonder about some of the executed teenagers. At the age of 19, the footpad Richard Whittingham was already married, though still childless, and the thief William Bourne likewise at the age of 18.
In an earlier England, such young men would have done well reproductively, as leaders of warrior bands. But that England no longer existed, and criminal gangs offered the only outlet for engaging in plunder, violence, and debauchery with other young men.
Clark, G. and N. Cummins. (2009). Disease and Development: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Urbanization, Mortality, and Fertility in Malthusian England, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 99,2, 242-247
Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243. http://www.epjournal.net/articles/western-europe-state-formation-and-genetic-pacification/
Hayward, A.L. (2013). Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals – who Have Been Condemned and Executed for Murder, the Highway, Housebreaking, Street Robberies, Coining Or Other Offences, Routledge.
Wikipedia. (2015a). Dick Turpin
Wikipedia (2015b). Western European Marriage Pattern