A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

An ‘indescribable jabber’ at Marlborough Street

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It would seem that even the radical press in the nineteenth century were not above a little bit of casual racism. We might have expected The Charter, as a newspaper founded to represent Chartist views in London, to be more inclusive (to use a modern term) in portray of foreigners in the capital. Instead it seems to have replicated exactly the sort of representation of ‘others’ as all its less ‘radical’ rivals did.

Perhaps this was deliberate; in appearing to be as ‘normal’ as every other organ The Charter could position itself as a legitimate weekly newspaper covering all aspect of daily life but with a clear political purpose – that of promoting the People’s Charter and its call for universal manhood suffrage and five other demands. The Morning Star (the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party) does much the same thing today, providing its readership with a left of centre version of the news plus sport and entertainment.

So, let us return to the pages of the paper in October 1839, when it was at the height of its popularity. It reported the London Police Courts in much the same way as all the other newspapers did, and, as I suggested above, wasn’t shy of poking fun at foreign visitors to the capital. Two men appeared before the sitting justice (Mr Long) at Marlborough Street, one Prussian (Dirk Singer) and other Swedish (Tjebbes Raynor). Both men were tailors and they had come to blows after exchanging insults.

This was all fairly common material for the reportage of the summary courts; assault was a daily occurrence and most cases were settled or dismissed with just a few being sent on to the Sessions for a jury trial and some being dealt with by fines or even a short period of imprisonment. Unless an assault involved weapons or actual bodily harm it was unlikely to trouble the magistrates for very long.

Singer accused Raynor of putting ‘him in bodily fear, á-la-mode-Anglais‘ (which I take to mean with his fists). The case was conducted in weak English which the paper rendered in dialect for maximum comic effect. The essence of the case was that Singer has supposedly insulted Raynor by calling him ‘a Jew’.

To add to the European melting pot the main witness for the prosecution was Swiss. He explained what happened:

‘dey bote had much loud words. Dis-a man they call my fren a “Jew,” ven he am nevare dos von Jew’.

‘And I suppose this epithet was considered as a sort of affront?’ enquired the magistrate.

‘Vet mosh, Sare; zo my fren call upon him back as von verdomd “scheinhalt,” dat is der hedgehog ; and den dey stock upon each other’.

Earlier Singer had complained that the Swedish tailor had punched him in the face: ‘he made his fist for his box’ he said, ‘and knock upon my nose very not much’.

On can imagine the scene in court: a collection of angry and argumentative tailors dressed in their work clothes, with bristling beards and moustaches, and a cacophony of European accents being raised together. All of this was being conducted in a form of English which Mr Long struggled to understand. On top of this the case was clearly one which involved fault on both sides; insults had flown back and forth and both men had hit each others. It was hard for anyone to determine who was to blame and so, in the end, Mr Long declared that he ‘couldn’t make out who is in the wrong’ and dismissed the warrant against Raynor.

No one was satisfied with this outcome and the paper reported (with a last comic flourish) that the ‘foreigners set up an indescribable jabber, and were ushered into the passage’. Sadly even humorous stories like this were not enough to keep The Charter commercially viable. It launched in 1838 and reached a circulation of about 5-6,000 before folding in 1840. In London competition for readers was fierce and only a handful of papers continued to dominate the newsstands and survive into the 20th century.

[from The Charter, Sunday, October 27, 1839]

A swindling ‘fellow with mustachios’

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Henry Seplater, described as a ‘tall young fellow, with mustachios, ..having all the appearance of a foreign swindler’, was brought before the magistrate at Lambeth.The charge was obtaining watches (8 in total) from a manufacturer in Holborn.

Lucien Marchard was a watchmaker who had a business at 1-2 Red Lion Street in central London. On the 12 October 1852 Seplater had entered his shop and declared that he was acting for a Mr Cooke who wished to buy some watches.

The watchmaker then allowed him take away 8 time pieces, one of gold and the others silver. He said he would return on the next with the money for those his client wished to keep and return those he had no use for.

The following day he was back – not with money, but with three of the silver watches which he exchanged for ‘three of a better description’. Then he vanished and Marchard heard nothing from him for several days. After some time the watchmaker received a note from the young man saying that he was being prosecuted at the Court of Exchequer for selling watches without a license. The only way he could ensure that Marchard got his money was if he was prepared to wait for two months.

Marchard was not convinced and obtained a summons against Seplater. On arrest several duplicates (pawn tickets) were found on him relating to the watches and other items. He was presented at Lambeth for the justice to consider the case. The magistrate, Mr Elliott chose not to accept the defence’s argument that this was simply a matter of ‘credit and account’, to him it seemed to have more to do with larceny and fraud.

Seplater was remanded in custody for further examination and the reporter suggested that other ‘cases of swindling’ were expected ‘to be brought against him’.

[from The Morning Post,  Saturday, November 13, 1852]