Goodreads Review: Crime and Punishment in Early Maryland by Raphael Semmes

Five star review, originally posted here on October 6, 2017.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book, which I picked up on a whim at the gift shop while visiting historic St Mary’s City. The formula is pretty straightforward; the entire book is a continuous list of examples of court cases in colonial Maryland, grouped into chapters based on themes. So I could see someone finding it tedious or redundant, but to me it just made it a very quick low-pressure read that could be zipped through easier than most books (for all my love at reading, I am very slow at it).

It’s worth noting that this book was written in the 1920’s. I was partially worried that this might make the book difficult to read or relate to, but this turned out not to be true. On the contrary, Semmes interjected pithy commentaries that had me chuckling and rolling my eyes as if laughing with a good friend (though there were a few notable exceptions of dated colloquialisms, like referring to a Jewish doctor as a “Jew doctor”).

But if there was one thing lacking due to the time period of the book, it was the topic of slavery. There is a LOT of talk about “the servant class”, and it took a while (basically until we reach the chapter on “Punishing Servants”) until we understand that “servant” refers to white (usually indentured) servants. Semmes does not provide many dates for context, which left me wondering whether maybe the book only references a time period before slaves arrived in Maryland, but then eventually we hear one reference to a slave who was involved in a crime, and near the very end a single reference to a “negro.” So, apparently there WERE slaves and black people, we just never bother talking about them. Unless there’s some historic context of which I am unaware, this is a big gaping hole in a book that otherwise seems to take pains to cover an entire society.

This issue notwithstanding, the most valuable aspect of this book, as is the case with most history books, was to compare our current state with that of history, and to analyze our similarities and differences. How have we progressed or regressed as a society? There’s some crazy stuff they did back then that thankfully we have moved on from, like believing that if a murderer touches his victim’s dead body it will begin to bleed (unsurprisingly, not a lot of murder convictions in early Maryland! But in most ways we haven’t really moved on at all, even going so far as to sliding backwards (ahem, ludicrously long prison sentences for petty crimes, ahem, taking away socialized medicine, ahem). the most obvious example of how little we’ve really changed is in the way our criminal justice system addresses class divisions. Rich people were punished by paying a (tobacco) fine, while poor people who didn’t own any tobacco got physically hurt. The majority of crime was pinned on “the servant class”, and the only people who ever got imprisoned were runaway servants who were trying to flee their lives of being constantly shit on by powerful classes. Folks who could afford an education could more easily get out of trouble (demonstrating that you can read gave you a one-time get-out-of-jail-free card, I shit you not). And so forth.

I have two degrees in criminal justice and focused a chunk of my studies on the history of criminal punishment, so not much here really surprised me. But the one thing that did jump out at me were the striking similarities between the treatment of “servant class” victims in the book with the treatment of sexual assault victims today. Basically, servants were damned either way in decided whether to report abuse by their bosses. Sometimes if you reported your “boss”, your boss would get punished, or you’d get taken away and reassigned to a less-abusive boss, or they’d be required to do right by you, etc. But you were just as likely to get put on trial yourself. Either you deserved the harsh treatment and were asking for it by not doing your job. Or you’d get tried for assault if God forbid you defended yourself. And running away from the abuse not only was a punishable offense, but could also result in punishment for a neighbor that takes you in when you arrive at their doorstep half-dead. I read this chapter thinking “Holy hell, how could society ever have been so barbaric?” but then, of course, I thought of everything I know about our modern day treatment of sexual assault victims, and I’m like “Oh. Right. People suck.”


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