The idyllic view of Hyde Park (by Count Girolamo Pieri Nerli), which was very far from the reality for Sophia Freestone in 1865.
Not surprisingly there was considerable outrage in early June this year when the news broke that a group of youths had attacked two women on a London bus. The women were targeted for being gay and abused when they refused to kiss for the entertainment of the youths, several of whom were soon in custody. The assault which can viewed as both homophobic and misogynistic occasioned social media posts along the lines of ‘what have we become’ and ‘what sort of society are we living in?’
Not for the first time however I think that we can be too quick to compare our own society unfavorably with that of the past. The attack on Melania Geymonat and her partner Chris was disgusting but sadly not that unexpected nor was it without historical precedent.
154 years ago, in June 1865, in a period of relative stability and low crime levels, John Nally was prosecuted for an similarly disgusting assault on a woman in Hyde park.
Sophia Freestone was minding her own business sitting on a bench in the park when Nally and three other lads came up behind her and tipped her onto the grass. That might have been a prank – unpleasant certainly, but possibly attributable to youthful excess. What happened next escalated this assault well beyond the boundaries of any sense of common decency.
As the other held the unemployed servant down John Nally forced open her jaws and ‘thrust a quantity of sheep’s dung into her mouth’. Then he and his friends ran off, delighted with their exertions.
Fortunately for Sophia, someone saw what happened and went in search of a park constable. PC Lippett (no.31) chased after the boys and managed to catch Nally. He dragged him back and Sophia identified him as her abuser. In court at Marlborough Street the lad tried to excuse himself as merely an onlooker and blamed his confederates but Mr Mansfield wasn’t in the mood to believe him.
It was a shocking, cowardly attack and by fining him a huge sum (£5) that he knew he would not be able to pay, the magistrate ensured that justice of a sort was done as Nally was sent to prison for two months with hard labour.
Both this attack, perpetrated as it was on a vulnerable and random innocent, and that on the two women recently have in common the fact that some people think that it is acceptable to use violence towards others for their own self gratification. I don’t know why society produces people who are so morally bereft that they can imagine and then carry out such horrific assaults on people that have never done them any harm whatsoever.
I would agree that certain forms of hate crime are on the rise, and that some nasty people have been emboldened by recent political events but that doesn’t take away the fact that our society has produced cowardly (and usually) male bullies for centuries.
I am not an advocate of prison as a useful means of correcting behaviour but in the case of John Nally and in that of the persons responsible for the homophobic attack on those Ms Geymonat I think it is entirely appropriate and I hope the law takes its course.
[from The Morning Post Thursday, June 22, 1865]
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