Penal reformers in the 1810s and 1820s condemned the English criminal law as a 'bloody code': a monolithic mass of draconian statutes inherited from a former, less civilized age. This overwhelmingly negative image underpinned the dramatic and unexpected repeal of the capital statutes in the 1830s and survived to define a whole era of criminal justice history. This article explores the conditions that enabled the reformers to establish such a powerful critique of the law in such a short space of time. It contends that a key to their success was their ability to exploit contemporary scandals to argue that the law had lost touch with public opinion. Forgery aroused more controversy than any other species of capital crime in the 1820s and became the focal point for opposition to the capital laws. By analysing how reformers used the scandal surrounding forgery to foster the notion that the law was a 'bloody code', this article presents a new perspective on the early nineteenth-century penal reform debate. © 2005 Cambridge University Press.