The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The “Poor-Whores Petition” and The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668

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You can’t read as much about prostitution as I do without coming across mention of the Shrove Tuesday Riots. They’re little more than a footnote now, but for years they were the terror of every working girl in greater London. Apprentices turned up in droves to participate in the “sport” of whore-bashing, which EJ Burford assures us was an ancient tradition.

Wait, what?

The Riots

For many years* in London, it was an annual tradition for the local apprentices to attack prostitutes and forcibly tear down brothels on Shrove Tuesday. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many years, as these riots were so commonplace they were rarely mentioned unless the property damage was particularly notable.

The Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668 were notable for a few reasons. They lasted for several days, involved thousands of people, and the damage was so extensive that eight apprentices were actually hanged for it. When two of Elizabeth Cresswell’s brothels were destroyed, she sponsored a satirical pamphlet beseeching Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s then-mistress, to intercede on their behalf to protect them and their property from future attacks.

Samuel Pepys describes it in his diary entry from March 25th, 1668:

The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall.

The official reason for the riots was a general displeasure at the decadence of the Charles II’s court and disapproval at the immorality of London as a whole.

But was that it? Let’s take a closer look.

Apprentices

By 1660, it is estimated that there were 20,000 apprentices working in London. The whole city only had about 105,000 people at this point. Boys were apprenticed around age eleven, and would remain that way until about age twenty-four. During this thirteen-year period—almost half of the average lifespan—they worked without pay under masters obliged to monitor their behavior and see to their moral instruction as well as their vocational training. They were frequently beaten and relied on their masters for all of their basic necessities, including food, clothing, and shelter. They were forbidden from fornication, marriage, visiting taverns, or displaying immoral behavior such as violence or drunkenness.

In spite of the outrageously strict guidelines they had to agree to, London’s apprentices were notoriously rowdy. It’s not difficult to see why. One fifth of London’s total population and almost half of its men were essentially indentured servants forced to endure beatings and work long hours with no pay, little rest, and no accepted outlet for their energy short of attending church once a week. They were energetic, hormonal, and their systematic repression was so well established and legislated that it was an unquestioned aspect of society. Indeed, London’s commerce was largely dependent on the free labor provided by these boys in the name of training them in what amounted to one of history’s longest, most thankless internships.

However, guidelines are written not because everyone follows them, but because people don’t. London’s apprentices were not the models of sober, moral industry they were meant to be.

According to Peter Ackroyd, apprentices were known for heavy drinking, overindulgence, laziness, and starting fights with servants, foreigners, prostitutes, and random passersby. Additionally, they frequently rioted after football matches they attended in Cheapside (yes, really), proving once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to the annual Shrove Tuesday Riots during which apprentices assaulted prostitutes, looted, and physically pulled down brothels, they rioted over food shortages, out of drunkenness, or because of xenophobia. During the May Day riots of 1517, apprentices, artisans, and children looted the houses of foreigners in the city. In June of 1595 alone, apprentices rioted twelve times against the Lord Mayor over inflated food prices.

Apprentices were overworked, underfed, often abused, and rarely paid. Not only were they not allowed to visit prostitutes, but they couldn’t afford them. When business suffered, they were the first to be sacked, so they did not even have the security of a steady job. With no money to spend and no way to vent their frustrations, it’s no wonder they were so prone to fighting and crime. Many apprentices were executed at Tyburn for crimes from petty theft to even murder.

1280px-William_Hogarth_-_Industry_and_Idleness,_Plate_9;_The_Idle_'Prentice_betrayed_and_taken_in_a_Night-Cellar_with_his_Accomplice

In this plate from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, we can see an apprentice has turned to highway robbery and is betrayed to the law by a prostitute

Prostitutes

Of London’s 105,000 people, an estimated 3,600 were female prostitutes working from their own premises. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider the female population was only about 50,000 people, and a large number of them were children. The average person didn’t live to see their forties, and the vast majority of people in London were under thirty. This figure also does not include streetwalkers, casual prostitutes, or those operating primarily in the alleys and parks, of which there were many. It would not be an outrageous estimate to suggest that as many as thirty percent London’s women were employed as prostitutes in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Even with this generous estimate, apprentices would have outnumbered them at least two- or three-to-one.

Apprentices were badly behaved and prostitutes were frequently blamed for it. In his Industry and Idleness series, Hogarth uses a prostitute as shorthand for the apprentice’s depravity (above). Prostitutes were to be resisted at all costs: when apprentices assaulted the women, it was accepted, if not seen as completely justified. By tacitly encouraging vice with their very presence, what else could poor, impressionable boys do but resist with violent force?

When apprentice Thomas Savage was hanged at Tyburn in 1668 for murdering a fellow servant, he used his “last dying confession” to lay his fall from grace at the feet of a lewd woman:

“The first sin…was Sabbath breaking, thereby I got acquaintance with bad company, and so went to the alehouse and to the bawdy house: there I was perswaded to rob my master and also murder this poor innocent creature, for which I come to this shameful end.”

That escalated quickly.

While it’s not impossible to believe a woman could have persuaded Savage to rob his master, there’s no motive to wish her would-be paramour a murderer. It’s far more likely the unnamed woman was a convenient excuse. Prostitutes were seen as particularly toxic to apprentices and servants—a kind of gateway drug into all manner of immorality—so accusations of any misdeeds on their part would have gone unquestioned.

The_Whores'_Petition_(1668)The Poor-Whores Petition

It’s not difficult to see why London’s prostitutes were not overfond of apprentices. After the Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1668—a particularly bad year—Elizabeth Cresswell took action. She was a successful madam, and while her brothels had survived both the Great Plague and the Great Fire two years before, they were destroyed by apprentices that year. Cresswell co-sponsored a pamphlet addressed to Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemaine, asking her to intercede on their behalf as the highest-ranking whore in the country. I have transcribed it here:

The Poor-Whores Petition.
To the most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of CASTLEMAINE, & c.
The Humble Petition of the Undone Company of poor distressed Whores, Bawds, Pimps, and Panders, & c.

Humbly showeth,

That Your Petitioners having been for a long time connived at, and countenanced in the practice of our Venerial pleasures (a Trade wherein your Ladyship hath great Experience, and for your diligence therein, have arrived to high and Eminent Advancement for these last years), But now, We, through the Rage and Malice of a Company of London-Apprentices, and other malicious and very bad persons, being mechanic, rude and ill-bred Boys, have sustained the loss of our habitations, Trades and Employments; And many of us, that have had foul play in the Court and Sports of Venus, being full of Ulcers, but were in a hopeful way of Recovery, have our Cures retarded through this Barbarous and Un-Venus-like Usage, and all of us exposed to very hard (shifts), being made uncapable of giving that Entertainment, as the Honour and Dignity of such persons as frequented our Houses doth call for, as your Ladyship y your won practice hath experimented the knowledge of.

We therefore being moved by the imminent danger now impending, and the great sense of our present suffering, do implore your Honour to improve your Interest, which (all know) is great, That some speedy relief may be afforded us, to prevent Our Utter Ruine and Undoing. And that such a sure Course may be taken with the Ringleaders and Abetters of these evil disposed persons, that a stop may be put unto them before they come to your Honours Pallace, and bring contempt upon your worshipping of Venus, the great Goddess whom we all adore.

Wherefore in our Devotion (your Honour being eminently concerned with us) We humbly judge it meet, that you procure the French, Irish, and English Hectors, being our approved Friends, to be our Guard, Aid, and Protectors, and to free us from these ill home bread slaves, that threaten your destruction as well as ours, that so your Ladyship may escape our present Calamity, Else we know not how soon it may be your Honours Own Case: for should your Eminency but once fall into these Rough hands, you may expect no more Favour then they have shewn unto us poor Inferior Whores.

Will your Eminency therefore be pleased to consider how highly it concerns You to restore us to our former practice with Honour, Freedom, and Safety For which we shall oblige ourselves by as many Oaths as you please, To Contribute to Your Ladyship, (as our Sisters do at Rome & Venice to his Holiness the Pope) that we may have your petition to the Exercise of all our Venerial pleasures. And we shall endeavor, as our bounden duty, the promoting of your Great Name, and the preservation of your Honour, Safety and Interest, with the hazard of our Lives, Fortunes, and HONESTY.

Needless to say, Lady Castlemaine did not take this well.

In case you skimmed it, there was some top-notch seventeenth century shade in that petition. Yes, London’s whores had suffered violence and the destruction of their property at the hands of several thousand frustrated apprentices with more testosterone than sense, but the petition was firmly tongue-in-cheek. It was a satire, and possibly written by Cresswell’s lover, Sir Thomas Player, an anti-Catholic MP who detested Lady Castlemaine.

He wasn’t the only one, it so happens. Castlemaine was Catholic in a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England, with many suspecting Charles II of being Catholic himself. Castlemaine was known to be Charles’ mistress, but her elevated status as a married countess did not make her less of a whore in the eyes of London’s working girls. You may have noticed a few digs in there about Catholicism and the Pope—these were not idle comments, but pointed sedition. The concern expressed that the apprentices might be coming for her next is not only an insult to Castlemaine, but to Whitehall as a whole—the biggest, most debauched brothel of them all.

Interestingly enough, the official reason for the apprentices’ rioting was anger over the decadence of Charles’ court and London in general; the petition does not refute this, but drives it home by addressing it to the king’s mistress. If we accept that the riots were political protest as opposed to natural frustration boiling over and that the petition was moral criticism rather than just an elaborate burn on Lady Castlemaine, it would seem the apprentices and the whores were in agreement with each other with regards to the shortcomings of the court.

Although Lady Castlemaine did not intercede on behalf of London’s prostitutes as requested, the damage was such that eight apprentices were executed for rioting. Rioting was akin to treason at this point, and the penalty was likewise severe, if infrequently carried out.

While these riots are a thing of the past, Shrove Tuesday is not the only Spring holiday that has resulted in exuberant violence and sexual assault. You consider Mardi Gras and now Holi in India, which has made the news this week for the extremes one school in Delhi has gone to to keep their female students from being groped and it makes you wonder if maybe sexual repression is not the healthiest policy.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography.
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Burford, E. J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100 – 1675
Pepys, Samuel. Diary entry for March 25th, 1668.
Picard, Liza. Restoration London.

Notes

The header image is not from this riot. It illustrates sailors rioting in a brothel some years later in The Strand. Madam Damaris Page, coincidentally co-sponsor of The Poor-Whores Petition, was said to have press ganged dock workers visiting her brothel into the navy, which made her understandably unpopular. 

*At least throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

london_bridge_1616_by_claes_van_visscher

London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

lancelotfan

The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

seduction

“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

“The Lays of Ancient Rome”: Pompeian Pornography and the Museum Secretum

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Priapus as Mercury. Pompeii

On August 24, 79AD, the day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the god of fire, Hell came to the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius erupted and a searing pyroclastic cloud scorched, choked, and buried the prosperous provincial Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under thousands of tons of blistering ash and boiling mud. The thermal energy released dwarfed that of the atomic bombings of Japan, and to the witnesses and victims it must have felt like the apocalypse. ‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men,’ wrote Pliny the Younger, ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’ (Hutchinson: 1931, 495).

Entombed and oddly preserved at the moment of their destruction, the ruins lay undisturbed for over 1,600 years, while above them the Roman Empire fell, the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards fought for control of the region, the early-Christian Church became established, the Kingdom of Sicily rose, the Black Death decimated Europe, the Reformation came, and Florence, Milan, and Venice became the cultural hubs of the Renaissance. Then one day in 1709, a peasant in the small town of Resina came across some interestingly coloured marble and alabaster while digging a well…

Initial excavations in search of more of the valuable gallo antico yellow marble during the Austrian occupation of Southern Italy were inconclusive and abandoned after a couple of years. Almost thirty years later, when the region was once more under Spanish control, the army engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre was overseeing the building of a new summer palace for King Charles of the Two Sicilies when he discovered – or more correctly rediscovered – the remains of Herculaneum. With permission and a modest grant from Charles of Bourbon, who saw the potential for the discovery and display of Roman artefacts as a symbol of the continuing cultural significance of Naples, Alcubierre began the first serious excavation of the site. His workmen soon unearthed the amphitheatre of Herculaneum, and over the next eight years provided a steady stream of remarkably well-preserved artefacts for the new Museo Borbonico in Naples.

By 1745, however, the stream had begun to run dry. Archaeologists and engineers therefore turned their attention to ‘Cività Hill,’ a few miles south-east of the Herculaneum dig. ‘Cività’ means ‘City,’ and under the hill, where local legend suggested a lost city lie, possibly the small seaside town of Stabiae (also obliterated by Vesuvius), Alcubierre found the much larger port of Pompeii. The going was much easier as the city had been buried by ash rather than the mud that had set like concrete over Herculaneum, and the first intact fresco was found in 1748, in what appeared to be a dining room in a house that also contained a skeleton clasping Julio-Claudian and Flavian coins, with all that implies for the unfortunate occupant’s priorities during the cataclysm.

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Fresco, House of the Centenary, Pompeii

Classical Graeco-Roman culture had always been the foundation of art and learning in Europe, a model for ‘Civilization,’ with obvious parallels in particular drawn between the might of the Roman Empire in the past and the British in the present, the global superpower that would dominate the 19th century. Never had the modern world had such a direct window to the ancient as the one afforded by these excavations, but despite what scholars thought they knew about the glory of Rome, they were not at all ready for what they found in the ashes. There were sculptures, ceramics and frescoes depicting Roman deities, natural, mythical and historical scenes, and celebrating sporting prowess; there was even political graffiti carved into walls, and plenty of those clean, white marble statues so beloved by classicists, symbolising purity of body and spirit through aesthetic perfection. So far, so good; nothing Thomas Babington Macaulay wouldn’t have included in his epic poem ‘Pompeii’ or the Lays of Ancient Rome. But there was also something else, and a lot of it; and by 1758 rumours began to circulate in antiquarian circles concerning apparently ‘lascivious’ frescoes being discovered beneath the ruins.

Up until the cities of Vesuvius were excavated, Roman artefacts existed as cultural diaspora, the result often of quite random finds, and subject to millennia of subtle Christian censorship and academic classification. This meant in practice that those clean marble statues became the mark of antiquity, while anything more raunchy or challenging was lost among the acceptable works of art, or possibly even quietly destroyed. But Herculaneum and, especially, Pompeii afforded a different opportunity for historical study. By being effectively frozen in time, the descendants of Rome finally saw how their ancestors really lived, and they lived in a world surrounded by dirty pictures.

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Relief found over a door in Pompeii

Explicit sexual imagery was everywhere, in public and private spaces, and across social classes; clearly, anyone could unproblematically own and view this material. Unsurprisingly, there were ‘lascivious’ pieces in brothels; but there were also paintings depicting couples making love in a variety of positions in the homes of artisans, merchants and politicians, in the quarters of their servants and their slaves, as well as the public baths, while erect phalluses were carved into paving stones and doorways as symbols of potent protection (right), and beautifully rendered statues of deities cavorting with both animals and human beings were proud centrepieces of any fashionable piazza. Discovered in its original context, whether an individual piece was intended to titillate, amuse, or ward off the evil eye, it was apparent that this was not untypical, and that erotic art must have been common throughout the empire and an everyday part of Roman life.

A particularly impressive and representative example was unearthed at the Villa dei Papiri, a country house about halfway up the slope of the volcano, believed to have been built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The villa is named for its library, which contained nearly 2000 papyrus scrolls, charred but preserved, making it the most complete and intact classical library ever discovered. The villa was also notable for its owner’s large collection of statuary, which included an intact and intricately carved marble, about six inches tall, of the god Pan on his knees penetrating a she-goat (below). ‘It is impossible not to admire the expression of sensuous passion and intense enjoyment depicted on the Satyr’s features,’ wrote the French antiquarian Cesar Famin in his privately published catalogue Musee royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statyues Erotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication (1816), adding, ‘and even on the countenance of the strange object of his passion.’ He goes on to cite Herodotus, Virgil and Plutarch to demonstrate that ‘The crime of bestiality was not rare among the ancients’ (Fanin: 1871, 22).

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Pan copulating with a goat. Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum.

And the shocking revelations did not stop there. Diggers also found ornate drinking bowl masks fashioned like mouths but with a penis instead of a tongue, several bronze tintinnabulums – a kind of hanging chime depicting a winged phallus with little bells attached to it (below right) – a terracotta lamp in the shape of a particularly well-endowed faun, icons of Priapus, fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit, gardens and male genitalia, usually depicted with a large and permanent erection (hence the term ‘priapism’), and a two-foot tall painted phallus on a limestone plinth in the garden. The Catholic archaeologists were nonplussed. In their culture, sex was the ultimate taboo, with the phallus and representations thereof completely hidden from view, let alone graven images doing it in public. Their instinct was to hide it up. King Charles himself therefore placed the statue of Pan and the goat under the supervision of the royal sculptor, Joseph Canart, with strict injunction that no one should be allowed to see it.

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A tintinnabulum

As the art historian Walter Kendrick has argued, similar artefacts found elsewhere over the centuries had very probably ‘succumbed to the zealous progress of Christianity’ (Kendrick, 1996: 10); but the sheer volume of explicit material unearthed around Vesuvius presented excavators with a problem not so easily disposed of, although some Pompeii frescoes were subsequently vandalised by outraged diggers. (We know this because contemporary records include sketches of paintings that survived the volcano but have since been obliterated.) Experts and politicians knew that these artefacts were of priceless archaeological and cultural value, and, in any event, the word was out about their collective existence. They could not be destroyed, but neither could they be publicly exhibited.

The solution was concealment. Like Pan and the goat, the erotic artefacts of Pompeii and Herculaneum were hidden. At the suggestion of Francesco Gennaro Giuseppe, Duke of Calabria and later Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, over a hundred pieces were locked away in a special room in the Museo Borbonico known as the ‘Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni’ or ‘Cabinet of Obscene Objects.’ Access to these objects was limited to ‘persons of mature age and of proven morality’ (qtd in Tang: 1999, 29), which basically meant male scholars of notable social rank, who were deemed to be capable of rising above the baser instincts that exposure to these artefacts might provoke. A royal permit was required, and obviously women, children and members of the lower orders need not apply. What had begun as an Enlightenment project – the excavation of the ruins – had now become, in effect, proto-Victorian, and other ‘secret museums’ were established in Florence, Dresden and Madrid housing ‘obscene relics’ from not only Rome but also Egypt and Greece.

Thus was 19th century European culture reconciled with this erotic challenge from classical antiquity, a final invasion by the Imperium Rōmānum, unleashed from beyond the ashen grave of Vesuvius. And they needed this reconciliation, as Europe had fashioned itself in the Greco-Roman image. That this image was now demonstrably tarnished was potentially catastrophic to the collective sense of civilized identity. As historians such as Simon Goldhill, Lynda Nead and Walter Kendrick have persuasively argued, 19th century archaeologists and classicists overcame their dilemma by creating a new physical and cultural space, where both knowledge and morality were preserved, inventing the category of the ‘obscene object’ and then segregating it, with access both restricted and carefully monitored.

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Wall painting from a Pompeiian brothel

This was, in effect, a political act: the contents of the secret museums were part of classical culture, but not the part that we had inherited, and represented the dark decadence that had destroyed Rome and which the modern world must resist. Art, therefore, should only stimulate aesthetically and intellectually, never physically.

Nead, in fact, has made a strong case for the origin of the word ‘obscene’ as we understand it in the Latin term ob scena, which refers to the space off to the side of a stage (Tang: 1999, 29). While the presence of the material was not denied, museum authorities would act as if it did not exist, in exactly the same way that sex was central to the human condition yet never acknowledged in polite society. A new word was found to describe this material: pornography, from the Ancient Greek πορνογράφος ‎(pornográphos), which in turn was derived from πορνεία ‎(porneía, ‘fornication, prostitution’) and γράφω ‎(gráphō, ‘I depict’).

In 1865, the British Museum established its own Museum Secretum in order to house the erotic components of the private art collection of the antiquarian George Witt, whose bequest contained what amounted to an ‘all or nothing’ clause. Much of this material has now found its way into the main collections, but some of it is still kept under lock and key. My wife and I visited the Witt collection a few years back, while she was researching a paper, and there we saw, its access still restricted to scholars by prior appointment, a terracotta replica of the statue of Pan and the goat.

Works Cited

Fanin, Colonel. (1871). The Secret Erotic Paintings: Pictures and Descriptions of Classical Erotic Paintings, Bronzes and Statues. London.

Hutchinson, W.M.L. (ed). (1931). Letters of Pliny By Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. William Melmoth, (trans). London: William Heinemann.

Kendrick, Walter. (1996). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tang, Isabel. (1999). Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. London: Channel 4 Books.

Suggested Further Reading

Carver, Rachael. (2011). Pompeii, Pornography and Power. Norwich: University of the Arts.

Clarke, John R. (2007) Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. New York: Abrams.

— (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2006) Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2003) Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250. New York: Abrams.

— (2001) Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

Gaimster, David. (2000). ‘Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum.’ History Today L (9), September.

Goldhill, Simon. (2011). Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity. Princeton: University Press.

Grant, Michael. (1997). Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

— (1979). The Art and Life if Pompeii and Herculaneum. New York, Newsweek.

— (1971). Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Book Club Associates.

Hunt, Lynn. (1993). The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800. New York: Zone Books.

Nead, Lynda. (1992). The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Richun, Amy. ed. (1992). Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: University Press.

Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.

For more from Dr Carver, visit:

Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’

Author Blog: Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher

Academic Blog: Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic

Theresa Berkley: Queen of the Flagellants

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Flagellation. An 18th Century engraving presented to the Royal Society in hopes they could explain the appeal.

No dirty, sexy history would be complete without the story of the extraordinary Theresa Berkley, who as a brothel madam and splendid businesswoman to boot, amassed a fortune and compiled a list of London’s finest and their sexual predilections during her long career which spanned both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

She began her business life as a brothel mistress in the late eighteenth century when she opened the first of her premises to patrons who wished to be flogged or birched or do the same, if they preferred a more active role, to the establishment’s willing ladies. It was a time of licentiousness and debauchery which flourished beneath a veneer of high morality and ideals. The service she supplied was not a unique one; flagellation or le vice anglais had played a fairly prominent role in English sex work from about 1700 onwards. She was simply clever and intuitive in how she reacted to and serviced her clientele.

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The White House, now known as Manor House, has become an office building. 

Theresa’s career spanned 49 years, ending only upon her death in 1836. She began in 1787 by turning the White House, a mansion in Soho Square, into a haven of sadomasochism by installing various instruments of torture. These included whip-thongs, cats-o’-nine-tails studded with needle points, supple switches, thin leather straps, curry combs, ox hide straps studded with nails and green nettles. She opened another establishment in 1828 at 28 Charlotte Street (now 84-94 Hallam Street) Fitzrovia which housed a contraption devised for flogging gentlemen known as ‘the Horse’ and where George IV was reputedly a regular visitor (see below).

Berkley brought her collection of instruments of torture with her to Charlotte Street and according to Mary Wilson, another madam, “were more numerous than those of any other governess. Her supply of birch was extensive, and kept in water so it was always green and pliant. There were holly brushes, furze brushes and prickly evergreen called butcher’s brush.” Clients could be “birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half hung, holly brushed, furze brushed, butcher brushed, stinging nettled, curry combed, phlebotomised and tortured.” She had a ready supply of mistresses in the form of Miss Ring, Hannah Jones, Sally Taylor, One-eyed Peg, Bauld-cunted Poll and a black girl called Ebony Bet, who both administered and received floggings and flagellation.

Theresa herself, possessed of a pleasant disposition and whose countenance was pleasing to the eye, occasionally allowed herself, if the price was right, to be whipped by her clients, although she preferred to be the one to administer her flagellations. Political and public figures, together with the wealthy constituted her clientele and she maintained absolute privacy, although the calibre of her clients incited little fear of imprisonment or transportation as had befallen other brothel keepers of the time. Certainly her establishments were never raided by the constabulary.

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The Berkley Horse (1830)

Berkley was also a devout Christian, her occupation notwithstanding. An insight into her extraordinary professional success is recorded by her erstwhile colleague Mary Wilson, who in the Foreword to The Venus School-Mistress in 1810 wrote that Theresa possessed:

“(That) first grand requisite of a courtesan, viz. lewdness: for without a woman is positively lecherous, she cannot keep up long the affection of it, and will be soon perceived that she only moves her hands or her buttocks to the tune of pounds, shillings and pence. She could assume great urbanity and good humour; she would study every lech, whim, caprice and desire of the customer, and had she the disposition to gratify them, her avarice was rewarded in return.”

Thus Theresa displayed a genuine open-mindedness; an attitude of libertinism which she exploited for financial gain. Her ‘governessing,’ as it was known during the period, brought her wealth, which when she died, was inherited by her brother. He arrived from Australia, where he had been a missionary for 30 years, to find she had left him a large estate. Appalled upon finding how it had been amassed, he immediately renounced all claim as her heir and departed again for the Antipodes.

Henry Ashbee, businessman and erotic author, makes mention of Theresa after her death in his series of Curious and Uncommon Books, published in 1877. He details that Dr. Vance, her medical practitioner and executor “came into possession of her correspondence, several boxes full, which, I am assured by one who examined it, was of the most extraordinary character, containing letters from the highest personages, male and female, in the land.” But he records, “The whole was eventually destroyed” as upon her brother’s renunciation, her estate had devolved to Dr. Vance who similarly wanted nothing to do with it. Thus, the Berkley Whipping Horse, now owned by the Royal Society of Arts in London, together with the rest of the estate became the property of the Crown.

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Another Berkley Horse (1828)

Dr. Vance died while Ashbee was writing his Bibliography of Forbidden Books and Ashbee expressed the hope that perhaps now Theresa’s memoirs, reputedly ready for publication, and which contained “Anecdotes of many of the present Nobility and others, devoted to erotic pleasures and Plates” could be published.

It appears not. Either Dr. Vance or his executors felt this manuscript was too incriminating or too unworthy for public release and it too was destroyed. Such reticence in matters of sex, or prurience, was emblematic of the Victorian age – respectability was the order of the day and the absolutes of godliness, goodness and virtue were what Victorians aspired to achieve, at least outwardly. Concentration on these matters inevitably led to the submersion of the baser instincts and enterprising women like Theresa Berkley, willing to supply services of a sexual and masochistic nature, were able to continue to ply their trade to a willing and receptive clientele.

Not surprising, really, in an era when women were not allowed to own property and could not vote. The sense of power afforded when a woman was able to use a whip on a man for payment would be one difficult to pass up if you were so restricted in life and in achieving an acceptable standard of living. Theresa Berkley was in fact a very dangerous woman; she held the power to blackmail or expose those of high political status and influence, but chose to keep their identities secret during her long career, all the while diarising their proclivities for future reference. One can only conclude she was also a very shrewd woman – one who turned her lewd capabilities into a viable business, one who knew how to survive and prosper in an era when few women were able to do so without inherited wealth and status – and write her memoirs for publication only after her death.* A pity her trustees were not so brave as she in this regard; the truth as she proposed to tell it was thus lost together with a valuable insight into the psyche of the upper class English of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

*Debate persists over whether Theresa Berkeley wrote and perhaps funded the publication of the 1830 pornographic novel Exhibition of Female Flagellants.

Sources

Linnane, Fergus. Madams: Bawds & Brothel Keepers of London. The History Press, 24 October 2011.

Mudge, Bradford Keyes. The Whore’s Story: Women, Pornography & the British Novel, 1684 – 1830. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nomis, Anne O. The History & Arts of the Dominatrix. Anna Nomis Ltd. 2013.

Reyes, Heather (Ed). London. Oxygen Books, 2011.

Teardrop, Destiny. Femdom Pioneer Theresa Berkley. Femdom Magazine, Issue 15, 25 April 2011.

Wilson, Mary (Forward). Venus School-Mistress or Birchen Sports, 1810. (first published 1777, reprinted regularly and expanded throughout the nineteenth century)

Manor House, Photo. Nancy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

082-2Leigh Denton studied English Literature and Fine Art before becoming a litigation lawyer in Sydney. She maintains an interest in Victorian and Edwardian history, blogs on this subject at downstairscook.blogspot.com and is presently at work on a novel set in the nineteenth century.

She has previously written on the legal and social reformer Josephine Butler for the Dangerous Women Project, an initiative of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and regularly tweets snippets of interest on Twitter as @DownstairsCook.

 

 

Turn Up the Jazz: Murder and Mayhem in Prohibition New York City

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It was July 1929, and ex-convict Simon Walker walked into a speakeasy. He came with friends William “Red” Cassidy and Peter Cassidy, a couple of guys known as waterfront street fighters, and the bar was the Hotsy-Totsy Club at Broadway and Fifty-fourth Street. The speakeasy was owned by the gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and his partner, Charles Entratta. Alcohol mixed with high tensions resulted in an argument between the Cassidy boys and Legs. Guns were drawn and shooting commenced. The orchestra played on, covering up the sounds of gunfire as Simon Walker was killed.

The murder of Simon Walker in the Hotsy-Totsy Club in 1929 was a common occurrence in the Prohibition days of New York City. Bootlegged liquor, speakeasies, and gangsters ruled the city, and the changing ideas of sexuality, class structure, and views on drinking turned the city upside down.

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Jack “Legs” Diamond

The Volstead Act went into effect January 1920, outlawing alcohol. It was the first time the government had attempted to control a moral principle in the citizens of the nation with the passage of law. Deemed the “noble experiment,” Prohibition sought to improve the lives of the poor by removing the vice of drinking. The noble experiment would be a colossal failure, and in no place would it be more spectacular than New York City.

Before Prohibition, saloons were the heartbeat of neighborhoods. Saloon owners were the first to raise money for patrons when an emergency happened or give loans until a patron could get back on his feet. Saloons were meeting places for unions and neighborhood groups. During the day when men were at work, mothers and their children would come to the saloons or children alone would be sent to pick up growlers for dinner, as the beer was safer than water to drink. The saloon was the first place an immigrant would learn how to manage the new world from those who had come before. Prohibition would end the idea of the saloon as a cultural center when drinking alcohol earned the glitter of being outlawed.

With the loosening of ideals around sexuality and drinking, speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs flourished in a city that might not have even known of the Volstead Act if one just looked at the actions of its citizens. So enamored were the citizens of New York with this new, loose lifestyle, drinking became a sort of sport. While before Prohibition, it would damage one’s reputation to be arrested, being arrested for the violation of the Volstead Act became the cat’s pajamas. Members of high society would flaunt the fact that they had gone to jail for consuming alcohol, so neat was it to be caught drinking.

The nightclub evolved from the saloon as a way for establishments to slip under the radar of Prohibition agents. Such establishments would promote dancing as its main entertainment and not alcohol, just like cabarets. Using walnut or mahogany screens to shield windows, hidden doors inside other establishments, and even going so far as to move frequently, nightclubs and cabarets could offer the much sought-after alcohol while avoiding the scrutiny of the Prohibition Bureau. Even when speakeasies were padlocked for selling alcohol, the business would keep operating out of a back door, leaving the padlock in place as if the owners were abiding by the law.

Speakeasies became the place to see and be seen. They were often outrageously decorated with rich woods, glittering brass rails, and dazzling lights. The Aquarium even housed a giant fish tank. The Country Club had a mini golf course. The 21 Club became the exclusive haunt of midtown. Drinking was no longer a moral taboo. It was the center of nightlife in New York. People who had never drunk before were suddenly taking up the drink because it was the thing to do.

But this glamorous, carefree life came at a price. As liquor was outlawed, it was illegal to manufacture it, sell it, and consume it. Alcohol used in manufacturing was even poisoned to deter people from consuming it. They did anyway to dire consequences. But the speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs had to find some way of getting alcohol for their patrons. This led to the extraordinary rise in organized crime in the 1920s. Bootleggers constructed elaborate rings to bring liquor into the city. The importers would hide their bootlegging businesses behind legitimate businesses like olive oil importing. The Menorah Wine Company even attempted to import over $100,000 in liquor on forged permits from the Prohibition Bureau under the guise of sacramental wine importation.

This organized crime had a little help from the inside. Prohibition agents were often unqualified for the job. Many were men returning from World War I and in need of a job. They would go into the bureau and start on the take from a gangster, earning more than they could ever dream. In return, the agent would tip off their gangster employer by calling from the bureau office the night of a raid. It got so bad the bureau turned off the phones in the office on raid nights. Agents would confiscate liquor from other bootleggers only to sell it to their gangster employers. A Prohibition agent was a great thing to be in the 1920s if you knew how to play your cards.

But it wasn’t just the gangsters of New York that were cashing in on this illegal trade. Ethnic groups, minorities, and new immigrants also found bootlegging as a way of just paying the bills and staying a breath above the poverty line. They would sell a shot of liquor out of a hip flask on the street, stand as guards in front of speakeasies to warn of raids, and set up shop as a “cordial,” where it was known liquor would be sold. In Harlem where unscrupulous landlords gouged rent prices, tenants staged rent parties near the end of the month, dishing out shots of liquor for high prices. They would collect enough to then pay the rent the next day.

But although the liquor was flowing and the jazz was roaring, the noble experiment caused a higher crime rate than ever before seen in New York City. Reputable businesses like the famed Delmonico’s were forced to close, and honest saloonkeepers forced out of business. It was with a reluctant heart that Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the wet movement in order to secure the democratic nomination in 1932. A dry from the beginning, FDR had no interest in repealing the Volstead Act, but popular consensus was against him. The noble experiment had failed. People were being killed for shots of liquor. Honest bartenders had been forced to carry out their trade in secret. Jobs were scarce, and the Great Depression loomed over it all. So when he took office in 1933, FDR stayed true to party platform and put into motion the steps that would end Prohibition. The roaring ‘20s were no more, and the sound of jazz faded into the night.

Sources:

Lerner, Michael A., Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeaspy_800pxIn the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Don’t miss To Be a Spy: A Spy Series Christmas Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com