Ohio History Journal

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The criminal codes of colonial America were based on those

of England, but in the New World where the social structure and

traditions were less binding, these codes were modified by re-

ducing the number of capital crimes. In England, during the

eighteenth century, over two hundred felonies were capital, while

in the North American colonies the average number was about

twelve. With the publication in 1764 of the Essay on Crimes and

Punishments by the Italian reformer, Beccaria, the movement for

the abolition of the death penalty really got under way. Blackstone

in his Commentaries repeated many of Beccaria's arguments and

in this way a large part of the legal profession in America came

to hold liberal views regarding criminal law. Some, like Thomas

Jefferson and John Adams, read Beccaria carefully, for as early

as 1773 an English edition was printed in New York.

Before the American Revolution the usual method of punish-

ing criminals was by death, mutilation and fine; imprisonment

was uncommon because there were no prison systems, only in-

secure county jails. Largely owing to the influence of the Society

of Friends, Pennsylvania in 1790 became the first state to estab-

lish a modern prison system. In a short time New York followed

the lead set by Pennsylvania and other states did likewise. As

for Ohio, construction was begun on a state penitentiary in 1813

and the building was completed two years later. The establish-

ment of the state prison now made it possible to substitute im-

prisonment for crimes which formerly had been punished by

death and corporal punishment.

The first criminal code of the Northwest Territory, the Ma-

rietta code of 1788, listed only five capital crimes: treason, murder,

and arson, burglary, and robbery resulting in death.1 In 1799,


1 Salmon P. Chase, ed., The Statutes of Ohio and of the Northwestern Territory

Adopted or Enacted from  1788 to 1833 Inclusive (Cincinnati, 1833-35), 1, 97-8.