The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.
So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.
As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example. But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.
One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).
However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.
Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.
This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.
Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.
‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.
William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.
He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.
The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]