On July 4th, 1885 Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T. Stead issued a “frank warning” to his readers. Due to public inattention, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill—an item of legislation drafted to suppress child prostitution and raise the age of consent in the United Kingdom from thirteen to sixteen—was once again languishing in the House of Commons. This could not be allowed to stand. The Gazette would be taking swift, decisive action to open the eyes of the public to the enormity of the crisis at hand, but it was not going to be pretty. “We have no desire to inflict upon unwilling eyes the ghastly story of the criminal developments of modern vice,” he wrote, “Therefore we say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”
What followed was the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; a shocking, four-part exposé of child sex trafficking that sent London spiraling into moral panic. In spite of boycotts, harassment and threats of prosecution for obscenity, the Northumberland Street offices of the Gazette were literally besieged by eager newsboys and hungry runners desperate to obtain valuable new copies of the controversial paper. Meanwhile, Stead openly dared the authorities to press charges against him, threatening to subpoena almost half the Legislature to prove his allegations if such a case were brought to trial. The fiery reformer would not be silenced.
The report of a “secret commission,” the Maiden Tribute derived its title from the tribute that conquered Athens is said to have paid to King Minos: seven maidens and seven youths who were made to wander the Labyrinth of Daedalus, where they would inevitably encounter the deadly Minotaur. Truly, it was a terrible price to pay, and yet modern London was willingly offering up multitudes of its own maidens to meet their doom in the maze of brotheldom. “The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable,” Stead wrote, “and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.”
Strangers with Candy
The Maiden Tribute was not generally concerned with the regular lives of child prostitutes, as one might expect, but specifically with “maids,” and how they were being led to “fall.” The Victorians made a fetish of female innocence that inspired men like Stead to gallantry, and others to lechery. While men have always sought encounters with virgins, it was a real fixation among the Victorians, who contracted specifically for doctor-certified “virgo intacta,” paying a premium roughly equivalent to the yearly wages of a soldier, farm laborer, or middle-range servant. Stead describes one gentleman, known throughout London’s sex trafficking underworld, who boasted of having “ruined” 3,000 women during his lifetime.
To keep the London Minotaur fed was the job of innumerable brothel-keepers, decoy girls, confidence tricksters and “procuresses” who inveigled young maids into prostitution, either for their own business needs, or in order to obtain a commission. Their repertoire included the ordinary forms of manipulation long associated with pimps and madams—small favors, flattery, seduction—but sometimes incorporated more elaborate forms of subterfuge, such as disguise. One brothel-keeper Stead interviewed dressed as a parson on his forays into the country, where he would court young maids, whisking them away to London with promises of big city scenes and excitement:
I bring her up, take her here and there, giving her plenty to eat and drink—especially drink. I take her to the theatre, and then I contrive it so that she loses her last train. By this time she is very tired, a little dazed with the drink and excitement, and very frightened at being left in town with no friends. I offer her nice lodgings for the night: she goes to bed in my house, and then the affair is managed. My client gets his maid, I get my £10 or £20 commission, and in the morning the girl, who has lost her character, and dare not go home, in all probability will do as the others do, and become one of my “marks”—that is, she will make her living in the streets, to the advantage of my house.
Stead describes another ruse in which new arrivals from Ireland were lured into brothels by a figure posing as a kindly nun, whose Mother Superior had conveniently sent her out to help poor Catholic girls find good lodgings.
In addition to preying upon newcomers, a brothel could also attract girls from abroad by advertising through an employment agency for an apparently reputable situation in London. By whatever means, it was the object of the house to draw in girls who were far from their families and without resources of their own. Once situated, she could be inveigled into prostitution through any combination of sticks and carrots. The carrots were money, alcohol, and what was represented as exciting, carefree lifestyle. The sticks were rapidly accumulating rents, against which her scant belongings might be held as security. The threat of being arrested for debt, or of being turned, destitute, on to the streets of a foreign city, was far more intimidation than an average teenage year-old girl would be prepared to resist—and even if she did, it might not make a difference.
Padded Rooms and Underground Cells
Not everyone considered this to be much of a problem. When Stead voiced his concerns about lack of consent in the child sex trade to one “well-known member of Parliament,” the MoP laughed him off, saying:
I doubt the unwillingness of these virgins. That you can contract for maids at so much a head is true enough. I myself am quite ready to supply you with 100 maids at £25 each, but they will all know very well what they are about. There are plenty of people among us entirely devoid of moral scruples on the score of chastity, whose daughters are kept straight until they are sixteen or seventeen, not because they love virtue, but solely because their virginity is a realizable asset, with which they are taught they should never part except for value received. These are the girls who can be had at so much a head; but it is nonsense to say it is rape; it is merely the delivery as per contract of the asset virginity in return for cash down. Of course there may be some cases in which the girl is really unwilling, but the regular supply comes from those who take a strictly businesslike view of the saleable value of their maidenhead.
Transactions like these might be arranged through brokers like Mesdames X and Z, who operated a procurement firm that Stead investigated. Their full-time business was to connect brothels and letches to shop-girls and servants who were willing to make a “one-time sale” for what usually amounted to less than £5—after fees. As we are about to see, what what was actually taking place was not quite so “businesslike” as what Stead’s parliamentarian had been imagining, but I nonetheless invite the reader to picture Miss X casually seated behind an office desk, filing her nails as she is asked…
“Do the maids ever repent and object to be seduced when the time comes?”
“Oh, yes,” said Miss X., “sometimes we have no end of trouble with the little fools. You see they often have no idea in the world as to what being seduced is. We do not take much trouble to explain, and it is enough for us if the girl willingly consents to see or to meet or to have a game with a rich gentleman. What meaning she attaches to seeing a gentleman it is not our business to inquire. All that we have to do is to bring her there and see that she does not make a fool of the gentleman when she gets there.”
“You always manage it though?” I inquired.
“Certainly,” she said. “If a girl makes too much trouble, she loses her maidenhead for nothing instead of losing it for money. The right way to deal with these silly girls is to convince them that now they have come they have got to be seduced, willing or unwilling, and that if they are unwilling, they will be first seduced and then turned into the streets without a penny. Even then they sometimes kick and scream and make no end of a row. You remember Janie,” she said, appealing to Miss Z.
“Don’t I just,” said that amiable lady. “You mean that girl we had to hold down?”
“Yes,” said Miss X. “We had fearful trouble with that girl. She wrapped herself up in the bed-curtains and screamed and fought and made such a rumpus, that I and my friend had to hold her down by main force in bed while she was being seduced.”
“Nonsense,” I said, “you did not really?”
“Didn’t we, though?” she replied. “I had to hold one shoulder and she held the other, and even then it was as much as we could do to keep her still. She was mortally terrified, and didn’t she scream and yell!”
“It gave me such a sickening,” said the junior partner, “that I was almost going to chuck up the business, but I got into it again.”
That maids changed their minds and had to be forcefully subdued seems to have been regarded as a routine part of doing business.
“I have never had a maid seduced in my house,” said one brothel-keeper, “unless she was willing. They are willing enough to come to my house to be seduced, but when the man comes they are never willing.”
In its most salacious passages, the Maiden Tribute hints at underground rooms, designed to stifle screams; of girls being strapped to their beds, and men who take pleasure from pain. Sensationalism it was, but the dilemma it confronted was it real. Once a girl of thirteen or older had given her consent, as by showing up to a brothel to “meet a gentleman,” a deal was a deal. In the eyes of the law, it did not matter how well she understood what she was getting into, or whether she had been deliberately lied to, pressured, or manipulated. Even simpering street perverts who lured children in backyards with sweetmeats had little to fear from the law, so long as they respected the age of consent. Here Stead quotes the chaplain at Clerkenwell, who describes one such case:
There is a monster now walking about who acts as clerk in a highly respectable establishment He is fifty years of age. For years it has been his villainous amusement to decoy and ruin children. A very short time ago sixteen cases were proved against him before a magistrate on the Surrey side of the river. The children were all fearfully injured, possibly for life. Fourteen of the girls were thirteen years old, and were therefore beyond the protected age, and it could not be proved that they were not consenting parties. The wife of the scoundrel told the officer who had the case in charge that it was her opinion that her husband ought to be burned. Yet by the English law we cannot touch this monster of depravity, or so much as inflict a small fine on him.
Stead interviewed one police officer who was pretty glib about that fact that full-blown rapes were routinely taking place inside houses of ill-repute, but, he said, there was very little that could be done, for even if a patrolman overheard the screams:
“He has no right to interfere, even if he heard anything. Suppose that a constable had a right to force his way into any house where a woman screamed fearfully, policemen would be almost as regular attendants at childbed as doctors. Once a girl gets into such a house she is almost helpless, and may be ravished with comparative safety.”
Women’s screams just so commonplace in London that one could hardly be expected to investigate them all.
The Eliza Armstrong Incident
The centerpiece of the Maiden Tribute appeared at the end of its first installment. It was the harrowing story of a thirteen year-old girl called “Lily,” whose greedy, drunken parents sold her to an evil procuress for the paltry sum of £5. Attesting to the absolute veracity of the story in all its details, Stead described how the procuress first took Lily to a midwife to have her virginity certified; a painful, humiliating procedure that “extorted pity even from the hardened heart of the old abortionist,” who exclaimed “The poor little thing. She is so small, her pain will be extreme. I hope you will not be too cruel with her.” To dull the agony, Lily was given chloroform; an often-mishandled anesthetic that was easily fatal at the wrong dose. Then, she was then taken to a brothel on Regent Street, where…
notwithstanding her extreme youth, she was admitted without question. She was taken up stairs, undressed, and put to bed, the woman who bought her putting her to sleep. She was rather restless, but under the influence of chloroform she soon went over. Then the woman withdrew. All was quiet and still. A few moments later the door opened, and the purchaser entered the bedroom. He closed and locked the door. There was a brief silence. And then there rose a wild and piteous cry—not a loud shriek, but a helpless, startled scream like the bleat of a frightened lamb. And the child’s voice was heard crying, in accents of terror, “There’s a man in the room! Take me home; oh, take me home!”
Rival newspapers were later able to ascertain the true identity of this fiend. His name…was W.T. Stead. The procuress had been his agent, a reformed prostitute named Rebecca Jarrett, who had agreed to arrange the purchase so that Stead could demonstrate the ease with which real sex traffickers were doing the same thing. Lily, whose real name was Eliza Armstrong, had been placed with a Salvationist family in France.
Mrs. Armstrong insisted that she had only agreed to offer her daughter up for domestic service, not prostitution, and filed a complaint with the police. Stead and his accomplices soon found themselves on trial for abduction and indecent assault; he was convicted, and served three months in prison. Eliza Armstrong, for better or for worse, was returned to her family.
Though the ethics of Stead’s journalism was dubious at best, the backlash against him was largely political, and the trial itself turned largely on technical grounds. Stead had contracted with Eliza’s mother, not her father, and he had kept no receipt to prove Mrs. Armstrong’s complicity in the exchange. It was not so much the fact that Stead had purchased a thirteen year-old girl, whom he traumatized and shipped off to France, that offended the courts as much the fact that he had failed to do so according proper legal forms. It was Victorian hypocrisy at its finest.
The Maiden Tribute was sensationalism, but it was very well-calculated sensationalism that achieved its desired effect in the swift passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which raised the age of consent to sixteen, proscribed child abduction, and granted the police greater powers to search for kidnapped girls. Apart from the fact that the bill contained an unrelated provision that strengthened buggery laws, this was a good thing. As activism, the Maiden Tribute was a brilliant success.
As journalism, not so much. As the case of Eliza Armstrong illustrates, Stead was not merely reporting newsworthy events, he actively generating them. To what extent did the accounts in the Maiden Tribute represent the routine behavior of Stead’s subjects, and to what extent had they been prompted by the influence a perverse, but eager gentleman stranger, flashing a wad of ready cash? One is never entirely certain. Like most interesting books and literature, the Maiden Tribute is filled with ambiguities, and can be read on many levels. To the modern reader, its sensational depiction widespread child rape is so far beyond the pale as to be scarcely believable—but then, the true events of history so often are.
Stead, William T. The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. 1885.