When it is the victim’s character that is really on trial, and that is what really matters in a male dominated courtroom

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Sometimes what might seem to be a fairly straightforward prosecution can reveal all sorts of other things, including contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Take this case as an example: in March 1895 George Brown was charged with stealing ‘a metal bracelet and brooch’ from Mollie Dashwood. The location of the theft and the behaviour of the victim both gave the accused (and the newspapers writing up the story) the opportunity to attack the woman’s character rather than treat her as someone who had been robbed.

Mollie (or Mrs Dashwood as she presented herself) told the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court that on the previous Saturday evening (23 March) she had suddenly felt faint so had dropped in to the Black Horse pub for ‘a drop of brandy’. It was there she met George Brown who was known to the landlord and described as his friend.

George was there with some chums and they invited Mollie to join them in a few drinks. George showed an interest in her bracelet and began to play with it on her arm; flirting with her is how we might see it. After a while he managed to persuade her to go into the billiard room with him, perhaps because it was quieter, and there he helped her off with her boa (her feather scarf that she would have worn as a sort of collar accessory). According to the barmaid at some point Mollie removed the bracelet and her brooch and asked her to look after them, but she refused.

Things were getting a little intimate and the landlord had noticed.  This was what was concentrated on in court as Mollie was cross-examined by the magistrate and the prisoner’s counsel. She was married and gave a (false) address in Catherine Street where she said she lived with her husband. Dashwood was her stage name: she was a former ‘serio-dancer’ who had ‘roved’ (i.e. travelled) a lot. This may have meant that Mollie performed on the stage at the music hall, dancing to popular songs like ‘Tar ra ra boon de ay!’ and showing rather more of herself than was always considered to be ‘respectable’. She had married in May 1883 at a Kensington registry office but she refused to share her husband’s name with the court (or indeed her real address) for ‘strong family reasons’. Maybe he didn’t really exist, the pair were estranged, or, more probably, he didn’t approve of her going out drinking.

It was all very mysterious and was made more salacious when William Temple, the landlord of the Black Horse, said he remembered Mollie calling at his house and borrowing sixpence. She had been a little the worse for drink and had told him ‘he was the only man in the world she loved’. This brought the courtroom out in shared laughter and might have undermined Mollie’s case had not the bracelet and brooch seemingly really been stolen. Where were they and who had them?

Whilst Mollie Dashwood’s reputation was being dragged through the mud in open court and all sorts of conclusions were being leapt to, it was also revealed that Brown had a previous conviction for theft and so the justice decided to send the case before a jury. Brown is hardly an unusual name and nor is George so perhaps it is no surprise that I have so far been unable to see if this case ever came to trial. Given the lack of any concrete evidence against Brown and the level of doubt created by Mollie Dashwood’s ‘unladylike’ behaviour (in entering a pub on her own and drinking with a group of men at the bar) I suspect a jury would have thrown it out anyway.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 28, 1895]

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