Monday, July 18, 2011

The Hue and Cry, and the evil Consequences of Tumultuous Assemblies

Here is the etymology and some history about the "Hue and Cry," one of many pre-modern institutions that was carried across the colonial Atlantic and became part of Rhode Island's pre-industrial culture, an era where the common folk were expected literally to help police their own communities (thanks going to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words for that brilliant explanation).

Beginning in 1728 constables were designated the local Rhode Island officials responsible for raising the "Hue and Cry" and leading the chase after robbers "caught in the act." Raising the Hue and Cry not only might lead to the apprehension of the criminal, but it also indemnified the town for the money and property stolen. As long as the constables had made an effort, the town was off the hook for the resident's loss.

Watching the apprehension of a robber under the Hue and Cry would probably look to us more like a mob or a riot. Bear in mind this was an era long before professional police forces or even uniforms existed, any casual observer unacquainted with the participants involved would have been hard put to even identify the constables in charge from the rest of the posse.

There was plenty of incentive to evade capture. Robbers "lawfully convicted" (no vigilante justice under the statute) were punished with the "Pains of Death." By the 1767 revision of laws the list of officials that could raise the Hue and Cry also included county sheriffs, their deputies and town sergeants.

"Tumultuous" is another term not used often today in the legal sense; today law enforcement would probably use the word disorderly instead. In 1798, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed An Act to prevent Routs, Riots and tumultuous Assemblies, and the evil Consequences thereof. Constables (and town sergeants) were among those empowered to organize against riotous and unruly crowds, defined by law as "12 or more men armed with weapons or any number of people 30 or more tumultuously assembled" (with whatever behavior tumultuous was, being left up to the discretion of the officers, apparently). Constables could order such a crowd "to disperse and seize anyone that does not" and if any rioters were killed in the ensuing melee, "said Justices, Sheriffs, Town Sergeants, Constables, and their assistants shall be held guiltless." [RI Laws 1798: 582]

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Somewhere near obsession...

Somewhere near obsession...