In 1862 there was a moral panic about street robbery. I’ve covered it elsewhere on this blog and it has been well-documented in the work of Jennifer Davis. The so-called garroting panic began July of that year when a member of Parliament (Sir Hugh Pilkington) was attacked in the street in London. In modern language Sir Hugh was ‘mugged’: thieves used a choke hold from behind to disable him, then rifled his pockets for valuables and left him gasping for air as they ran off.
Within days and over the next few weeks the newspapers carried reports of similar attacks in the capital and across the country. It was as if a generation of criminals had been inspired by the events of the 17 July and had taken to the streets to garrote each and every suitable victim they could find.
Of course, this was not what was happening at all. Rather it seems that the press were exaggerating the extent of the problem (whilst moralizing on the state of the nation and pointing fingers at those they held responsible) and seeing hitherto fairly ordinary robberies as garroting. The effect was fairly dramatic however; within weeks the public was on edge and started to report otherwise minor incidents as potential attacks. Newspapers carried adverts for anti-garrote technology such as studded metal collars and this was, in turn, parodied in Punch which showed groups of Londoners marching through the streets and armed to the teeth like some band of medieval questing knights.
All histories tell us that the panic only lasted for a few weeks or months before fading away. This is the nature of moral panics – they burn brightly while the media and public is interested, but die fairly quickly once the novelty has worn off. But in December 1862 it seems the residual panic was still newsworthy as this case from the Westminster Police court shows.
On 3 December Michael Murray had been collecting the entrance money at a ‘teetotallers’ entertainment’ in Chelsea. Just before he reached his home in Simmond Street he was jumped by four men who used ‘most serious violence’ and robbed him of the takings (18s) and his pocket watch. The case before Mr Paynter was all about whom was responsible and who could be put on trial. In the end he determined that James Hurley would face a trial at Old Bailey for the robbery, the case against the (unnamed) others involved was ongoing.
Hurley, whose lengthy criminal record was read out in court, was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. A decade or so earlier he would have been transported and the decline of this option was one of the causal factors behind the panic about street robbery in the early 1860s.
Hurley was followed into the dock at Westminster by Daniel Turnham and Henry Welham where they were charged with a garrote attack on William Toy, and old cavalryman who had served with the 9th Lancers. He was attacked on his way home and choked from behind and hit on the hand with a metal object. The two men ripped his waistcoat pocket to get at the 17sand 6dhe was carrying in it. The police were quickly on the scene and set off in pursuit, catching the Welham who was already wanted for another robbery some days before. Turnham was picked up soon afterwards. Mr Paynter remanded then in custody so a case could be built against them. They don’t appear in the Old Bailey records so perhaps on this occasion they got lucky, many others did not.
There were real consequences to this media constructed crime panic. The police arrested many more ordinary people for street crime than they had in previous years, redefining simple thefts and assaults as ‘highway robberies’. The courts played their part too, handing down much stiffer penalties for those the police brought before them. Parliament passed the Security Against Violence Act the following year (1863), which reintroduced whipping for some violent offences (although it was rarely used). In 1864 the Penal Servitude Act meant that second offenders were hit with five year minimum sentences as Parliament determined to be ‘tough on crime’ (if not on the causes of it).
[from The Standard, Monday, 15 December, 1862]