Crime in History: a Historical Investigation-Coining

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  • Topic: 18th century, Coin, Counterfeit
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Assignment 1: Crime in History: A Historical Investigation
Gaskill (2000, p. 127) states that ‘historians of crime have tended to see coining in two ways: first, as an offence which the authorities treated with the utmost seriousness; secondly, as something which the population at large regarded as no crime at all.’ This was the opinion of coining in the late 18th Century and throughout much of the 19th Century. Emsley, Hitchcock and Shoemaker (consulted 2010) defines coining offences as ‘a number of offences in which coin or paper money (the King's currency) was counterfeited or interfered with, or in which individuals used or possessed forged or diminished currency’. Emsley, Hitchcock and Shoemaker goes further to state that coining offences can include: ‘coining (counterfeiting coins)’, ‘possessing moulds for the manufacture of coins’, ‘manufacturing counterfeit paper money, banknotes or bills of exchange’ and ‘possessing counterfeit money or putting it in into circulation ("uttering")’. Furthermore, ‘The statute farther enacts, that to . . . colour, gild, or case over any coin resembling the current coin . . . shall be construed high treason.’ (Jacob, 1811, p.495). Coining and forgery became extremely common towards the end of 19th Century: ‘Whereas forgery and coining comprised less than 5% of all trials during the eighteenth century, by 1850 this figure had risen to over 20%, and remained between 10% and 20% of court business until the early twentieth century.’ (Emsley, Hitchcock and Shoemaker, consulted 2010). Furthermore, coining tended to be a neighbourhood-based crime; and ‘Neighbourhoods existed where households sustained by coining were well known to each other’ (Gaskill, 2000, p. 139). Coin clipping was the act of shaving or trimming coins (which in the 19th Century were usually made from gold or silver and were easily trimmed) to the point where the coin was still recognisable, but weighed significantly less. When the coiner had collected enough shavings, these could be melted down to create a brand new coin; and then this process would be repeated. There were alternative methods, however, to reach this goal – for instance, some coiners would put a number of coins into a bag and shake them together until the coins were worn down and shavings were produced from the coins hitting against each other. This is why, as early as ‘In 1662, therefore, England began using machines to give coins milled edges . . . which make it easier to spot clipped coins’ (Lynch, 2007). McLynn (1989, p. 165) furthers this, however, by stating that ‘Actually to clip a coin, however, involved no more than cutting a thin sliver of gold from the edge of a guinea, restoring the milling with a file, then returning the diminished coin into circulation’. This emphasises, therefore, that even after the introduction of giving coins a ridged edge, coiners still managed to reproduce counterfeit coins. Gaskill (2000, p. 127) states that ‘As treason, coining was deemed to merit the most severe punishment the state could inflict; drawing, hanging and quartering for men; burning at the stake for women.’ This can be supported by the argument that:

‘Burning at the stake in public was used in England & Wales to punish heresy for both sexes and for women convicted of High Treason or Petty Treason. Men who were convicted of high treason were hanged, drawn and quartered but this was not deemed acceptable for women as it would have involved nudity. High Treason included such offences as counterfeiting money and "coining" (the clipping of coins for pieces of silver and gold which were melted down to produce counterfeit coins), possession of coining equipment and colouring base metal coins (to pass them off as of higher value).’ (Clark, 1995) This clearly emphasises how severe coining offences were considered to be. The main reason as to why coining was considered to be treason (and why counterfeiting is still considered as treason today) is because...
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