The Black List: Public Shaming of the “Lewd and Scandalous” in 18th-Century London

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
July 11 2014 12:40 PM

The Black List: Public Shaming of the “Lewd and Scandalous” in 18th-Century London

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This “Black List,” printed in London in 1706, advertised a catalog of 830 “Lewd and Scandalous Persons” who had been prosecuted in the past year for crimes like prostitution, pick-pocketing, and keeping a “disorderly house.” The key at the bottom of the page attaches a crime to an initial; some offenders have numbers next to their initials, indicating repeat offenses.

Societies for Reformation of Manners, like the one that published this Black List, were organizations that took it upon themselves to prosecute people who engaged in vices like prostitution and drinking. In their history of these reformation societies, historians Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard, and Robert Shoemaker write that the groups, “led by prominent politicians and religious leaders,” were inspired by the recent return of the monarchy to Protestant rulers William and Mary. 

Advertisement

“England, it was argued, had narrowly averted the catastrophe of a Catholic monarch,” they write, “and it was imperative to clean up public life before God imposed even more draconian punishments on the nation.”

Since there wasn’t police manpower available to do the fine-grained work of trapping such low-level offenders, reformers paid professional “informers,” who caught offenders red-handed and brought them to court, pressing charges. This informal policing was done on a large scale. The group that published this broadside boasted that it had overseen the prosecution of 7,995 total offenders, the names of which could be found on 10 previous annual lists.

Historian Joel Bernard writes that such attempts eventually faced significant opposition. Critics pointed out that the blacklists were loaded with poor people, while the vices of the socially advantaged escaped prosecution. (Daniel Defoe called the vice laws of the time “Cobweb Laws, in which the small Flies are catch’d, and the great ones break through.”)

Informers, Hitchcock, Howard, and Shoemaker write, began to face physical danger from those they sought to arrest. Eventually the courts raised standards of evidence, all of which largely put an end to the reformation societies’ crusades in the middle of the 18th century. 

Click on the image to reach a zoomable version, or visit the Black List's page on Harvard's digital archives. I first saw this image on Harvard's Houghton Library's Tumblr.

BlackList

Harvard University, Houghton Library.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?