Punishments for Breaking Laws in a Tale of Two Cities

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About this sample


Words: 2100 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Apr 29, 2022

Words: 2100|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Apr 29, 2022

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, in Britain and France, the punishments for breaking laws were very extreme. Laws were unjust due to the fact that they were made by cruel, out-of-touch, royals, and aristocrats. Author Charles Dickens lived in the 19th century but perfectly describes what life in the 18th century in Britain and France was like, in his book a tale of two cities.

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Georgian Britain was a harsh time with unjust laws, execution, and irrational punishment. By the 1800s there were two hundred crimes punishable by death. Laws were also not well enforced because there were usually only two constables per community. The constables were unpaid and could only work in their spare time. If a person was accused of a crime or caught, they would go to court. However, the court system was very unfair judges and constables were easily bribed because they did not get paid, as they were volunteers (White). “If you were accused of a felony (murder, rape, arson, or theft) you were not allowed defense counsel in court until 1730 and were very unlikely to have it even after then, and if you were found guilty, your offense was likely to be severe whatever your crime”(“Criminal”).

Throughout Europe, corporal punishment was an extreme way to punish people. The punishments included; being put in stocks, flogging, and banishment.

One way unjust laws fit into 18th-century literature would be in the book A Tale Of Two Cities. Dickens writes about lawlessness and chaos. In the book, the revolution is very ironic in the way they are fighting for justice but then go around killing everyone even the innocent. In Dickens's book A Tale of Two Cities, he calls the court, “Hall of Blood”.

Another irrational punishment in the 18th century would be a Debtor's prison. Debtor's prisons were, “institutions in which people who couldn’t pay their debts were incarcerated. For centuries, these jails formed a key part of the British prison system” (“In a nutshell”). Most people were not able to get out of Debtor's prison unless they could pay off their debt or their family could pay it off for them. It was very hard for families or people in debt. They would already have no money and on top of having no money, they would have to pay to be in prison. Some couldn’t afford food so they would starve to death in prison. It was mostly males that would end up in Debtor's prison, but if the wives or children could not support themselves they too would have to go (“In a nutshell”). Charles Dickens’s father John Dickens was sent to debtors prison in 1824. Charles had to quit school and work at a factory, at the age of only twelve to support his family.

Debtor's prison was not the only harsh prison. People who ended up in prison suffered mental torture worse than death. One famous prison was also a palace named the Tower of London. The Tower of London housed high-class criminals. The Tower of London was also unique because it was also a literal zoo up until 1834. Along with second-degree debtors, from the middle ages to the Renaissance, those charged with misdemeanors were thrown in jail. Another famous prison was La Force. La Force was a prison during the French revolution where debtors and civil offenders were held. Before La Force became a prison in 1780, it was a hotel. Another very prominent prison was the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison and a huge fortress that housed people of all criminal backgrounds. The Bastille was a symbol of power (“Bastille”). Prison could be argued as a worse fate than execution.

In the book, Dr. Manette was in the Bastille for about eighteen years because he knew too much about the Evrémonde brothers. Dr. Manette told Lucy, “There was a time in my imprisonment when my desire for vengeance was unbearable”. While in prison Dr. Manette secretly wrote a letter with soot and blood. He wrote it while he was in his right mind and wrote, “I know from terrible warnings I have noted in myself that my reason will not long remain unimpaired…” He was right, he lost his sanity until Lucy saved him. Prison and the confinement caused him to go mad. In the book, Charles denounced his family name, but the revolutionaries still wanted him dead. Charles was taken to prison and court twice in Paris. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

“In 1759 the gentleman's magazine estimated that one in four prisoners died in jail each year, amounting to some 5,000 fatalities”. Prisons were privately owned, so profit was more important than what happened to prisoners. Prisoners were often chained together to save money by not needing wardens, and they were charged board fees. Inmates were treated like animals and often died from, disease, violence, or starvation. A common fatal disease was called gaol (jail) fever.

A man named John Howard devoted his life to improving the prison system. John was a prisoner of the French and had gained skills to persuade authorities. John published a groundbreaking book called The State of Prisons, in 1774.

The legal system was so horrible that it became known as the ‘bloody code’. The ‘bloody code’ was a term for the English legal system from the 17th century to the 19th century. The term came about because so many crimes were punishable by death. Even minor offenses were death sentences. Wealthy, merciless men made the laws. They made the laws to protect themselves and their wealth. They thought that if they punished so many crimes by death that people would not commit the crimes. The authorities also wanted to frighten people into obeying the laws, so they made the executions public, to serve as examples (“What”). Although only the English legal system was known as the ‘bloody code’ the French legal system was very similar.

Dickens’s book A Tale Of Two Cities portrays well the aristocrats and high class. They are cruel and have no mercy. They are very out of touch with the commoners or poor. The revolutionists had enough and were tired of being treated like animals. Before they were about to kill Foulon, One revolutionist said, “Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass when I had no bread to give him!” Then another woman chimed in and says, “Foulon told my baby it might suck grass when these breasts were dry with want”. Old Foulon in the book could be compared to Marie Antoinette who said: “Let them eat cake.” Marie was also killed during the revolution.

People sentenced to death prior to the guillotine were either hanged or beheaded. The first man ever beheaded in Britain was the Earl of Northumberland in 1076. Britain was quick to favor ax beheadings for the high class over hangings.

Hanging was common but more complicated than it would seem. Instant death was extremely rare. If the rope is not the correct length the death will go wrong. If the rope is too long the person will be decapitated, and if the rope is too short the person will be strangled to death, which can be a long excruciatingly painful time (“Death”).

The science to hanging someone wasn’t always there. Before the Anglo-Saxon period, men would throw the noose over a tree branch and then hoist their victim off the ground, and they would be strangled to death. A different approach started in the Anglo-Saxon period; they would have the person climb a broken or turned out a ladder, so the person would lose their footing and be hanged. However, the fall was too short so most often the person would be strangled. In the late 16th century, the Triple Three at Tyburn was created. It had three cross beams so that twenty-four people could be hanged at a time. In the 17th century, a cart replaced the ladder. The convicts or accused would ride in the cart and then a hangman would tie them up while they were still in the cart, and finally, the cart would drive away, and they would be left hanging there. Many people felt bad for the prisoners and people being hanged because they were mostly strangled to death, which can be long and extremely painful. Around the 18th century, a doctor suggested that the knot of the noose be on the right or left side under the ear, in order to quicken the death. Around the same time, it became a law that prisoners were to have their faces covered before the hanging.

Another method of hanging is where victims would stand on a platform with a drop door. The door would be opened and they would be hanged. Not much science was applied until experiments of a long drop were being done. They realized if the fall was too long the people being hanged heads were severed. Once the process was more scientific, the whole thing became much faster and could be done in as little as eight seconds (Farrington 153).

Death by hanging became very common in the 18th century, especially in Britain. The number of capital offenses increased to its highest levels. You could be punished by death for even minor offenses such as, cutting down a tree or shrub or appearing on the highway with a dirty face. Many juries and judges thought that the punishment was extreme and tried to find them ‘not guilty’.

In the book, a man named Gabelle is hanged above the fountain for killing the Marquis.

Death by the Guillotine was another form of execution. The ‘guillotine’ is named after Dr. Joseph Guillotin. However Joseph didn’t invent the Guillotine, he did, however, introduce the idea to France because he thought all people sentenced to death should be beheaded. He did not like that the poor were hanged or tortured to death. The earliest guillotine mechanisms were used by the Romans and Persians. Then in Ireland in 1307. The guillotine was introduced to France right in time for the French Revolution.

The French Revolution started in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. Radical revolutionaries had control and they not only wanted all royals and aristocrats dead but anyone who stood in their way. The executioners’ job was passed down from generation to generation. The Sanson family held that position from 1688 to 1889. During the revolution, Charles-Henri Sanson was the executioner. Charles-Henri didn’t particularly like his job, because he sympathized with the condemned especially women. At his most killed at a time, he guillotined 300 men and women in three days. The conditions were horrible; Charles-Henri’s son slipped on the blood, fell, and suffered fatal injuries. Not many people sympathized with those sentenced to death like Charles-Henri Sanson. In A Tale of Two Cities, the executioner’s name is Samson which is very close to the real executioner’s name Sanson. Also in the book the revolutionists got excited when someone was to die.

Famous author Charles Dickens witnessed an execution by the guillotine in Rome in 1845. Dickens was absolutely disgusted. He was especially stunned by the crowd's carelessness about the whole thing.

In Dickens's book A Tale of Two Cities, the guillotine and how far the revolutionaries were willing to go, is perfectly illustrated. With Defarges leading the charge, they were willing to kill anyone in their way. Madame Defarge wanted every last Evrémonde dead even Lucy and little Lucy, who were innocent. When Ernest expressed how killing Charles should be enough, Madame Defarge replied, “Tell the wind and fire where to stop but don’t tell me”. Many of the revolutionaries in the story made jokes about the guillotine. Jacque 3 aka the wood-sawyer tormented Lucy saying, “See my say! I call it my Little Guillotine...And off his head comes! I call myself the Samson of the firewood guillotine… And off her head comes! Now, comes a child...And off its head comes”. Many characters joke about the number of victims, and compare getting guillotined to getting a ‘close shave’. In the book Carton was guillotined.

Dickens incorporated many other elements; such as making a character named Jerry a grave robber. There were many surgeons from the 18th and 19th centuries that would pay body snatchers to bring them the body parts for research and practice. Some bodies were claimed before the person was even dead.

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Throughout history, specifically in the 1700s and 1800s, the law-breaking punishments were extreme and unjust or just plain lawless. Dickens wrote a book that can transport you to the French Revolution, and show what life was like. He included many aspects such as the rude aristocrats, hanging, and the guillotine.   

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Punishments For Breaking Laws In A Tale Of Two Cities. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“Punishments For Breaking Laws In A Tale Of Two Cities.” GradesFixer, 29 Apr. 2022,
Punishments For Breaking Laws In A Tale Of Two Cities. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
Punishments For Breaking Laws In A Tale Of Two Cities [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Apr 29 [cited 2024 Feb 25]. Available from:
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