Sheep Stealers

by Rich Krisciunas

In 1741, sheep stealing became a capital crime, punishable by death in England and Wales. Members of Parliament, who belonged to the aristocracy, were concerned with thefts of their property and passed several laws that they thought would deter thieves. In 1688, 50 crimes were punishable by death. By 1815, the number of capital offenses on the statute books rose to over 200 including thefts of horses, cattle, deer, and property worth over 12 shillings. These laws were known as The Bloody Code.

It is unlikely that the death penalty was much of a deterrent. Faced with knowledge that a guilty verdict would send the accused to the gallows, judges, and juries, frequently, circumvented the legal system and spared defendants with not guilty verdicts. Victims of theft sometimes chose to refuse to prosecute knowing that the thief would be sentenced to death. Sheep thieves were routinely spared the death penalty by judges who sentenced them, instead, to Transportation to the penal colonies of America, Canada, and Australia.

In 1832, Member of Parliament William Ewart spoke in favor of a bill repealing the death penalty in cases involving sheep, cattle, and horses, saying, “It appeared that, in the year 1831, there were sentenced to death for sheep-stealing in England and Wales, 162 persons — executed one; sentenced to death for horse-stealing, 125 — executed none; sentenced to death for larceny in a dwelling-house, 100 — executed none.” After the bill’s passage, the death penalty for over 130 crimes was abolished and by 1861 the number of capital crimes were reduced to four; murder, treason, piracy, and arson in royal shipyards.

At the time of Dr. James Hardcastle’s narrative in 1908, the average punishment imposed by judges for sheep theft was imprisonment for two to six months.


Rich Krisciunas has practiced criminal law for 48 years. He retired as the Chief of the Trial Division for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and was an adjunct Trial Practice professor for 40 years at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is a member of ASH, Ribston-Pippins, Amateur Mendicant Society, Crew of the Barque Lone Star, and several other societies including the Legion of Zoom.