Joseph Jesnoski was one of thousands of Polish immigrants living in London in the 1800s. The fact that Joseph seemed to speak good English (or at least to understand) it suggests he was part of the well-established Jewish community that existed well before the huge waves of immigration that followed after 1880. Tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews fled the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century to escape persecution and forcible conscription in the Tsar’s army.
The Ashkenazim were restricted to one part of Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, which covers the modern countries of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Many Jews left their villages as refugees and economic migrants hoping to make a better life in England and the USA. A quick scan of the genealogy site Ancestry reveals Jesnoskis serving in the Union army during the American Civil War and living in Montana in the 1870s; so at least some of Joseph’s extended family traveled a very long way from the Shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.
For Joseph however, life in London was hard, and even harder for his poor wife. Jesnoski was, like so many of his fellow migrants, a boot maker by trade. In the nineteenth century cobblers and shoemakers had a fearsome reputation for independence, radical politics and – less positively – domestic violence. Anna Clark’s study of working-class relationship revealed the commonality of spousal violence that formed part of the ‘struggle for the breeches’ in the long nineteenth century.
The Police Courts of London (and elsewhere) were dealing with accusations of wife beating and abuse on a daily basis, but in many cases the magistrates were unable to do much more than broker settlements between man and wife, given that the consequences of sending an abusive husband to prison were often catastrophic for the family economy. Many wives were seemingly prepared to accept a considerable amount of ‘unacceptable’ behavior before they resorted to the law and even then most were prepared to forgive their partner’s often drink inspired abuse.
Some on the other hand were looking for a working-class version of divorce. Divorce was beyond almost every woman in Victoria society; it was hard to prove grounds against your spouse and prohibitively expensive. The best a working-class wife could hope for was a separation ordered by a magistrate with a maintenance order to help keep herself and her children housed and fed. The alternative if one had no support network, was often the workhouse, and no one went inside those walls if they could help it.
So Mrs Jesnoski took her husband to Marlborough Street Police Court in April 1862 because she probably ‘wanted rid of the burden of him’, as Mr Selfe (the magistrate) put it. She charged him with ‘threatening to cut her throat and his own afterwards’, and added that he had ‘beaten her and her children black and blue , and struck her in the eye’.
She also handed the justice a certificate from Thomas Young, a government medical officer at the Polish Emigration Society (which looked after the interests of Poles in Britain and the US). This stated that her husband had been admitted to the St Giles Workhouse as a lunatic who was ‘dangerous to others’ but that he had been discharged because the workhouse master there did not believe he ‘was sufficiently insane’ to be detained.
Mr Selfe was not sure that his police court was the proper place for him either, but he was loath to lock him up unnecessarily. A police constable testified that Jesnoski had often been seen behaving strangely – ‘dancing and kicking about’ in the early hours of the morning – and added that the other tenants in his lodging house were scared of him. Mrs Jesnoski told the magistrate that her husband had not worked for months and was ‘spiteful and dangerous’.
Still the magistrate was unconvinced or unsympathetic. ‘It is a very strong measure to deprive a man of his liberty because he is a little queer’, he said, and instead ordered him to be bailed for £10 (a large amount in 1862) but warned him that any repetition of his violent behavior would not be tolerated. If he ‘behaves unruly again’ Selfe concluded, ‘he will go to prison for three months’.
Given the high levels of spousal abuse in Victorian society and the number of homicides that occurred in domestic settings I hope that Mrs Jesnoski was not let down by the inaction of the Marlborough Street court and the reticence of Mr Selfe to apply the law.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 28, 1861]