Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: August 2014

The Roaring Girl: How the RSC failed to convince me that Moll Cutpurse was a Victorian drag king

I went to see the RSC’s The Roaring Girl, directed by Jo Davies, recently – and was rather unimpressed by its assertion that this Jacobean play – and petty criminal heroine – was more about Victorian gender-bending than the society in which it was originally set.

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse

Moll Cutpurse was a 17th century pickpocket, an infamous member of the London underworld, a woman who revelled in her reputation, swearing, smoking a pipe, and being the subject of plays even within her own lifetime.

She undoubtedly challenged gender conventions of the time, and was punished for it, being charged with dressing indecently in 1611 and having to do penance a year later for ‘evil living’. She accepted mens’ bets to dress as a man, acted as a pimp, and was infamous for her actions.

Yet she was also seen as rather a glamorous creature. She performed in public to eager audiences, and the fact that plays were written about her suggests that the public wanted to hear and see more of her.

She has become a larger than life figure, mythologised to the extent that it is no longer known what is real and what is fiction. But she remains very much of her time – a Jacobean woman who lived life on her own terms.

One of the most famous plays written about Moll is Dekker and Middleston’s The Roaring Girl, written in the first decade of the 17th century, while Moll was still in her 20s. The title derives from the ‘roaring boy’, a contemporary slang term for men who partied, fought, and carried out petty crimes.

Moll is depicted as an object of horror to the older characters, but is also depicted with sympathy – it is assumed that because she is unconventional, she must be a whore; Moll puts the character of Laxton, who attempts to pay her for sex, in his place about this.

She also admits to Sebastian that she is uninterested in sex and has no intention of marrying. She also later states her aim of protecting the innocent from crime due to her insight into the criminal class.

Moll is clearly seen as a morally superior woman to the more socially acceptable Prudence Gallipot, the apothecary’s wife, who is carrying on an affair with Laxton, and who lies to her husband in order to get money for her lover.

To me, Moll and The Roaring Girl is of its time. It shows how 17th century women could defy gender stereotypes and be strong, independent women who challenged convention. She is no caricature, but a feisty individual who survives as she can.

Yet the RSC has decided otherwise. Their production of The Roaring Girl turns Moll into a fey cross-dresser, mimicking male behaviour – including the way she walks and sits – with a few nods to lesbianism.

But also, they’ve decided that Moll’s life in Jacobean England is just not sexy or relevant enough, and so have decided to make her a Victorian heroine, and a caricature of one at that.

This Roaring Girl is all about Victorian ideals of femininity and how Moll rejects those ideals, ripping off her boned bustle to reveal trousers, and strutting around the men in their bowler hats and plaid jackets. The programme stresses the Victorian context of their production, complete with a timeline of 19th century history.

But Moll is not Victorian, and Victorian society is not Jacobean society. Moll is not universal, she does not transcend the centuries. The reaction to her actions was not unmitigated horror, a fear of her making men look weak and insipid; she was a figure of interest, as shown by the plays written in her lifetime and the performances she put on.

Her offences were typical of her period, and carried out during a time when execution was a real threat to even petty thieves. By the 1890s – when this production is set – that fear had rescinded due to Victorian sensibilities over the effectiveness of hanging (where executions were carried out far less, particularly if you were female, and in Britain, held in private post-1868).

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny

And Moll was no camp cross-dresser. She disguised herself for bets, or to gain some purpose, and she was not unique in pre-Victorian times – look at the likes of Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the 18th century, for example.

She was not surrounded by meek women carrying parasols (as she is in the RSC production). She was a complex character, a petty criminal, an extrovert – not a pariah or an object of derision but of interest and excitement.

She showed how Jacobean society included a variety of people, and how women could be surprisingly modern.

Perhaps the problem lies more in how Jacobean society is perceived today. Victorians are more sexy, more immediate to audiences.

We relate to them more, because they are more recent, because we have photographs showing what they looked like, diaries and books in abundance from those living in the era. Our knowledge of the 17th century requires more help, more research – it is more shadowy.

And yet, perhaps the RSC recognised that its depiction of Moll as a Victorian lady challenging stereotypes of the submissive woman was difficult to justify, and hence its odd inclusion of rock music, breakdancing, characters playing electric guitars and rapping.

I particularly objected to the rapping – for the characters stated that they were actually ‘canting’. Canting was the slang used by thieves, such as the word ‘frummagemm’d’ to denote being hanged. I recognised that the director was trying to show how different sections of society develop a type of communication that gives them a sense of identity – but rap?! In a Victorian setting?

But just as it makes no sense to include breakdancing randomly into a Victorian setting, it also makes no sense to put Moll into such a setting, either.

I can’t do better than to quote the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who described the moden touches as making a ‘mockery’ of the production’s already ‘unnecessary Victorian setting’ and the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings who pointed out that the relocation to the late Victorian era was ‘to no great advantage’.

I was relieved that critics had felt the same way as I; it is not necessary to shoehorn events from earlier into the Victorian era.

Not everything is timeless, and sometimes it’s OK to say that women – criminal women, cross-dressing women, or just, say, WOMEN in general – in the 17th century were complex, interesting, and fascinating, and don’t need to be turned into Victorians to make them so.

For my review of Arden of Faversham, another of the RSC’s crime-related productions in its Roaring Girl season, click here.

"Me cut baby's head off": murder most horrid in Edwardian Cornwall

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress,_Plate_8_(Orig,_unfinished)The second of my posts from Cornwall.

Sometimes it is clear that an individual cannot be held responsible for their actions, however, inexplicable that action is. This might even be the case with murder.

A horrific murder took place in St Ives in 1907. A baby was found decapitated in a tray of water in the town, and suspicion fell on a local ‘idiot’ boy, Thomas Polmear.

Polmeor, described by The Times as a ‘demented lad’, was taken to the police station, where he confessed to the crime. His confession made explicit his learning difficulties:

“Me put baby in tray of water. Me washed baby’s legs. Me cut baby’s head off. Baby kicked cradle and cried. Baby teasy old thing. Won’t do it anymore, policeman.” [1]

Polmear clearly failed to realise how decapitating the child would be seen by others. In his mind, he was simply playing with it, and responding to the baby’s ‘teasing’. He thought that simply promising not to ‘do it anymore’ would be enough to enable him to leave the police station.

The defendant appears to have been Thomas Paynter Polmear, who would have been 13 at the time of the crime, which fits with the description of him as a ‘lad’.

He was born in the first quarter of 1894, baptised at St Ives on 19 May 1894 and in the 1901 census he is listed as living in Back Road, St Ives, the son of Peter, a mariner. Although the 1901 census makes no reference to him being ‘demented’, the 1911 census is more explicit.

Thomas Polmear's entry in the 1911 census, from Ancestry

Thomas Polmear’s entry in the 1911 census, from Ancestry

This shows that Thomas was sent to an asylum after admitting killing the unnamed baby. The newspapers do not appear to have covered the case apart from the one reference above; if the offence had reached the Cornwall Assizes, he would have been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, under the terms of the 1883 Trial of Lunatics Act.

If he HAD been found guilty, he could have been given the death sentence despite his age –  it was not until the following year, 1908, that the Children’s Act was passed, setting out that only those over the age of 16 could be executed.

In 1911, he is listed as a patient of the Cornwall County Lunatic Asylum on Whiteheath Road in Bodmin, and in the infirmity field of the census it is recorded that he was ‘imbecile from birth’.

Thomas died in 1938, aged 41. His death was registered in Bodmin, so it is likely that he spent the rest of his life in the lunatic asylum.

1: The Times, 6 April 1907

The Whipped Boys of St Ives

The first of two posts to mark my recent holiday in Cornwall…and neither of them is related to smuggling!

St Ives

St Ives

In 1842, two boys, James Stevens, aged 12, and 16-year-old William Quick, appeared in court before J King Letherbridge, accused of stealing a copper funnel.

The boys were from the coastal town of St Ives, and the funnel was used as a ship’s chimney. They had stolen it from a ship called the Agnes, which had been laid up for the winter in the town’s harbour.

The copper would have been valuable, but it had been an opportunistic crime, the boys seeing the funnel on the ship’s deck, nobody being around, and so taking it.

James Stevens' and William Quick's criminal record - from Ancestry

James Stevens’ and William Quick’s criminal record – from Ancestry

Newspaper reports were conflicted over what had happened to the funnel – stating both that it had been found in the possession of the boys, and that they had also sold it in two parts to two local marine store dealers.

But the two boys quickly confessed to the theft, and the jury equally quickly found them guilty. They were given one week’s imprisonment and ordered to be privately whipped.

This whipping would have been done with a birch; the whipping of boys for larceny was a common punishment, and could at this time be ordered by a magistrate at petty sessions.

But Quick and Stevens could have counted themselves lucky. Others younger than them were receiving harsher punishments at around the same time. Just three years later, an eight year old boy was whipped in addition to serving a month in jail for stealing boxes in St Pancras, London.

Did the boys’ whipping stop them from committing crimes? Well, there is no further entry for William Quick in the criminal registers, so he may have gone on to live a blameless life after his initial offence.

But four years after the funnel theft, James Stevens, now 18, was convicted of house-breaking. His previous record was held against him, and he was transported to Australia for seven years.

Source: The Cornwall Royal Gazette, 18 March 1842 and criminal registers on Ancestry.co.uk

On this day fifty years ago, the last hangings in the UK took place. To mark this anniversary, here’s Criminal Historian’s list of key dates in the history of execution in Britain.

William Calcraft, from Irregular Shed's Flickr page

William Calcraft, from Irregular Shed’s Flickr page

4 April 1829: Shoemaker William Calcraft, aged 29, was sworn in as Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex following the death of John Foxton.

He had previously been employed by Foxton to whip young offenders.

He was paid a guinea a week, plus an extra guinea for each execution he carried out.

His first execution was prior to his swearing in – he hanged Thomas Lister and George Wingfield on 27 March 1829.

He retired in 1874, and died five years later.

Marie Manning

Marie Manning

13 November 1849: Frederick and Marie Manning became the first married couple since 1700 to be hanged together. Convicted of killing Marie’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, in Bermondsey, south London, they were hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

2 April 1868: Frances Kidder, aged 25, was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain. She was executed at Maidstone Prison, and a crowd of 2,000, including her husband, watched her die.

Frances was convicted of drowning 11-year-old Louisa Kidder Staples – her husband’s illegitimate daughter – in a dyke near New Romney. There was some sympathy, though, towards her – her husband was said to be a cruel man who, while Frances was in custody, started a relationship with her 17-year-old sister.

Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison

26 May 1868: Fenian Michael Barrett became the last man to be executed in a public hanging.

He caused an “atrocious” explosion in Clerkenwell that killed seven people, and was hanged outside Newgate Prison.

The Daily News reported that he was hanged,

“in the presence of one of the smallest crowds that has for a long time assembled in front of the Old Bailey to witness a public execution”.

29 May 1868: The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act scrapped public executions.

The entrance to Maidstone Prison. © Oast House Archive

The entrance to Maidstone Prison. © Oast House Archive

13 August 1868: The first private hanging in the UK took place.

18-year-old Thomas Wells was hanged at Maidstone Prison for the murder by shooting of Mr Walsh, the master of Dover’s Priory Station, where Wells had been porter.

Wells had shot Walsh after the latter warned him about the danger of practicing with firearms – Wells’ practice being, according to the press, a “silly and mischievous habit”.

It was the first private hanging within prison walls, with a black flag raised outside the wall to signify that the hanging had been carried out.

25 May 1874: William Calcraft carried out his last hanging – of James Godwin (27), who had been convicted of killing his wife Louisa after an argument.

11 August 1875: The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act didn’t apply on Jersey – the last public hanging there took place seven years after the act was passed, and saw Joseph Le Brun executed.

Pierrepoint - not a fictional character...

Pierrepoint – not fictional…

26 September 1932: Yorkshire-born Albert Pierrepoint (27) was appointed as Assistant Executioner at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, although due to the relatively low number of hangings in Britain, the first execution he attended was in Dublin.

Within ten years, he was styling himself the Official Executioner of Britain – a job he had wanted since he was 11 years old. Both his father and uncle had worked as executioners.

Pierrepoint combined his executioner role with being a grocer and then pub landlord. He also became a macabre celebrity, telling his story to the press, despite the Home Office’s disapproval.

He retired in 1956 to Southport, where he died in 1992.

Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis

13 July 1955: Ruth Ellis (29) became the last woman to be hanged in Britain, after her conviction for the murder of her lover, David Blakely. She was arrested at the scene of the crime, after shooting him dead.

Ruth was hanged at Holloway Prison in north London.

6 May 1958: The last hanging in Wales was carried out, when Vivian Teed (24) was executed at Swansea after murdering 73-year-old postmaster William Williams with a hammer.

20 December 1961: Robert McGladdery (26) is hanged at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, following his murder of teenager Pearl Gamble after a dance. He becomes the last person to be hanged in Northern Ireland.

15 August 1963: The last hanging in Scotland took place, when Henry Burnett (21) was hanged at Aberdeen. He had been convicted of killing merchant seaman Thomas Guyan, his lover’s husband.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen

13 August 1964: It was on this date that two men, Gwynne Owen Evans (24) and Peter Allen (21), were executed – at the same time, but in different prisons – making them the last people to be executed in the UK.

They had been convicted of the murder of van driver John Alan West, known as Jack, who had been killed in Cumbria on 7 April. Evans and Allen, both of whom had previous criminal records, had intended to rob him. Although they blamed each other for West’s death, they were both found guilty of murder.

Evans was hanged at 8am at Strangeways Prison in Manchester. At the same time, Allen was executed at Liverpool.

9 November 1965: The death penalty for murder was suspended for five years, as a result of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act.

16 December 1969: The death penalty for murder was formally abolished, following a House of Commons vote.

A Letter from the Flagellator

1811_emblem_TheScourge_Boston_Oct3Letters to the editors of Victorian newspapers are often fascinating insights into the minds of our 19th century forebears. This one, from 1842, caught my attention – from the self-titled Flagellator (whose name should give you an immediate indication of his interests), he argued that frequent flogging was the way to deal with pretty much all offenders.

It’s also interesting as it sheds light on Victorian debates surrounding the execution of criminals. Here, for your delectation, is a letter from the Flagellator of Victorian England.

“Punishment of Flogging. To the editor of The Times. Sir: I most cordially agree with your article in this day’s Times relative to the punishment of flogging for various offences.

“It is true that there are many mawkish and morbid persons who cannot bear to hear, or see, or think, of punishments; but, as prevention of crime is the object of punishment, I should most strongly advocate frequent flogging during the period of imprisonment, which would check many crimes, and pickpocketing in particular.

“Indeed, though I should be sorry that hanging be abolished, yet, if the morbid and canting part of the world would not object, I should almost be inclined to stop hanging, provided even the convicted murderer should be kept to hard labour, and be flogged well once a month as long as he lied.

“This would effectually prevent all crimes, for men could not bear such constant inflictions. Till this is agreed on, hanging must be continued.” FLAGELLATOR, July 5.

From The Times, 7 July 1842

"Her Husband was in no way privy to it": Sarah and the theft of a scarlet cloak

hogarth1It was 21 May 1766, a Wednesday, and Sarah Mayes was tired. She and her husband, Arthur, had been travelling from Cheltenham to their home in Chipping Campden, in Gloucestershire, and they were exhausted.

They had only travelled around three miles, but on reaching Cleeve Hill, on the way to Winchcombe, they decided to stop for the night. They found a room at a local alehouse, the Rising Sun, and were soon asleep. On waking early the next morning, they gathered their things, and soon left, to walk the remainder of their journey home.

*

The Rising Sun today, by Ian S, from Geograph

The Rising Sun today, by Ian S, from Geograph

It was four days later when the innkeeper, Elisabeth Herbert, had reason to go into the room where Arthur and Sarah had slept. She kept a red cloak in a cupboard there, and needed it. But the cloak had vanished.

Elisabeth immediately suspected her guests, for no-one else had stayed in the room since. She called her son, glover Edward Herbert, and ordered him to go after them.

*

It is always surprising to find how easily people could find each other, if they needed to, in the 18th century. Despite a lack of good roads and transportation, if a magistrate raised a hue and cry, or a suspect had to be apprehended, it wasn’t that hard to find them.

For Cotswold communities were small, and communication was rather good. Any stranger in one of the towns or villages would be noticed, recognised as someone from out of town.

On asking around, Edward Herbert found the last man who had given Arthur and Sarah some work while they were trying to get back from Cheltenham. He knew their names; he knew that they lived in Campden.

Edward immediately went to a local magistrate, Benjamin Field, and obtained a search warrant. On Sarah’s home in Campden being found, and searched, the cloak too was found, and identified by Edward as being his mother’s.

*

On 28 May 1766, Sarah Mayes appeared before Benjamin Field to be examined as to the theft. She said,

“As we were getting up, I saw, in the room where I lay, a scarlet cloak hanging up: this (unknown to my husband) I took down, concealed, and carried away with me.”

Justice Field believed her confession – that, in a small room, where her husband was present and others were nearby, Sarah had been consumed by desire. Wanting, needing, coveting, that cloak, she had simply taken it.

Field noted, “the said Sarah Mayes confesses she herself took [it], and that her Husband was in no way privy to it.”

*

What happened to Sarah after this is unknown. The value of the cloak was not recorded, but given the efforts of the Herberts to retrieve it, it may have been a fairly decent item of sufficient value to make Sarah guilty of grand larceny – a capital offence.

One hopes, though, that tired Sarah, who coveted something bright one May morning, stole something old and worn, was forgiven by the victim, and allowed to return to her husband in Campden. What he thought of her impulsive action, though, also remains unknown.

Source: Gloucestershire Archives Depositions, Q/Sd/1766-1770, A8 and A9 

 

© 2017 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑