Give Me Not Poverty, Lest I Steal
Backscheider, Paula R
The Eighteenth Century, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007
“The Judges sat Grave and Mute, gave me an easy [meaning ‘indifferent’] Hearing, and Pronounc’d the Sentence of Death,” Moll Flanders recounts. Convicted of one of the 200 offenses punishable by death, in her case stealing £46 of silk cloth—919 shillings more than the one shilling threshold for felony theft—Daniel Defoe’s heroine had tried to mitigate her sentence with a speech that “mov’d others to Tears that heard [her].” This confrontation between a legal subject and the human messiness of motives, emotions, and especially mental impairment is the subject of Dana Rabin’s Identity, Crime, and Legal Responsibility in Eighteenth-Century England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Rabin explains that the legal system was equipped to deal with “a coherent and cohesive self,” a punishable body, and with total, unmistakable, “perfect” insanity, not with pitiable human beings who insisted that temporary states of mind resulting from starvation, pain, passion, and suffering explained (and excused) their crimes, especially in the age of sensibility.