June 26, 2008

Of pickpockets and prostitutes.

8th July 1774 saw two women convicted of picking the pocket of a Londoner, John White, at the Old Bailey. The account of what happened is fascinating, partly because of what it does not say, as much as for what it does tell us.

Hannah Ramsey , and Sarah Mackdonald , of the Parish of St. Brides , were indicted for privately stealing 6 Guineas, from the Person of John White , the 26th of June last. The Prosecutor depos'd, That be going along Fleet Street about Eleven a-Clock at Night, met with the Prisoners, who ask'd him to go with them to one of their Lodgings, but he refusing to do that, they carried him down into an Alley, and there being talking with them, Mackdonald was before him, and Ramsey either behind or on one Side of him, and that he perceived the Hand of Ramsey near his Pocket, and saw her take it away, that he thereupon put his Hand in his Pocket, and his Money was gone, and that he was sure that he had his Money but just before, that he charg'd her with taking it, and got them secur'd, and sent them to the Compter, but the Constable did not search them. The Watchman depos'd, That Ramsey denied that she had any Money, but half a Crown, which the Prosecutor gave her to lie with them. The Jury found Hannah Ramsey guilty of the Indictment. Death . But found Sarah Mackdonald guilty of Felony only, but not of privately taking from the Person . Transportation .

There are a number of things, apart from the severity of the punishment for a trivial offence, which stand out to me about the record of the trial. The first is the flimsiness of the machinery of justice- constables in Hanoverian London were not neccessarily efficient- they were not trained, they had no central organisation and as in this case, they could prove almost useless. Any police officer today on catching a criminal would search them- for this constable a search was too much work.

Secondly there is the fascinating question of what happened. White's story was believed. But there are two stories here. The story of the women is that they were prostitutes and that the 'prosecutor' (ie White) gave them money to sleep with him and then charged them before the court with theft. We have no idea what happened- I have no idea who White was or who these women were. If White were a powerful man with good connections he might well have obtained a conviction in this manner against a couple of prostitutes to save his reputation or even after a dispute about money. There is of course a third option which is that White was a troublesome client for one prostitute, the other turned up, they fled White and ultimately he prosecuted. We don't know- its equally possible that the prostitution story was invented. What it does tell us is the prostitution story was not an unliely one- that a single man on Fleet Street in 1774 might be searching for sex. Equally it demonstrates that contemporaries saw prostitution and theft as close partners- the idea that often it is the most poor and desperate women who go into prostitution receives some support.

Without knowing more, we cannot speculate more- but this strikes me as a fascinating case that could reveal much detail about the sexual and class structures of 18th Century London- not to mention about the way that the criminal justice system worked then.

2 comments:

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Tiberius, I'm building you a time machine.

Gracchi said...

I'm looking forward to the trip James!