HIST 3130 Chapter Notes - Chapter 6: Moral Panic, Incest Taboo, Pubic Hair

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9 Aug 2016
Week 6
Taking Nellie Johnson’s Fingerprints: Prostitutes and Legal Identity in
Early Twentieth-Century London – Julia A. Laite, 2008:
At 10:30 on the cold and drizzly evening of the 18th of December 1920, D Division police
constables James Bull and Willie Watson were patrolling their familiar beat along the
Tottenham Court Road
At that hour the shops and offices had long since closed, but along the streets lights spilled
from the cafes, hotels and restaurants of early 20th-century North Soho, an area rivaled only
by C Division Soho, Piccadilly and Mayfair for having the highest concentration in the
metropolis of both on and off-street prostitution
Amongst those frequenting the area that night was Nellie Johnson, whom Bull and Watson
subsequently arrested for being a ‘prostitute behaving in riotous or indecent manner’
After the arrest, the 3 made the short walk back to Tottenham Court Road Station and the
constables wrote Johnson’s name up in the charge book it was in this warmer, drier, and
brighter room that Watson recognized her as the same woman who had been previously
convicted for a prostitution offence, around 3 years prior, under the name of Lily Johnson
PC Frederick Walker, a younger and less experienced constable, soon joined them, telling
his colleagues that he recognized the woman as Nellie O’Keefe, whom he knew to have been
sentenced in May 1920 to 10 weeks hard labour as a disorderly prostitute
Inspector Bradshaw, the Night Superintendent, followed police orders and denied Johnson
bail on these grounds, detaining her in the police-station cell for the remainder of the cold and
drizzly weekend after 2 uncomfortable nights, she appeared, along with the usual crowd of
colourful petty-criminals and petitioning poor, before the aging magistrate G. L. Denman Esq.
on Monday morning at the Marlborough Street police court
Watson and Bull, acting as prosecutors, told Denman of their discoveries and he
subsequently referred Johnson’s case to a higher court she was to be tried as an
‘incorrigible rogue’, as allowed for after repeated convictions under the Vagrancy Act
Prisoners who had been remanded to Quarter Sessions, and who were denied bail or could
not post it, were taken into custody to await trial to her probable chagrin, Nellie Johnson
spent Christmas in Holloway Prison
Constable Watson, for his part, spent some time that Christmas preparing for Johnson’s
Country of London Sessions trial at the Criminal Record Office in Scotland Yard (CRO) he
asked for her file by name, and was given one which listed a criminal record of 6 convictions
for prostitution and one for larceny
On the 11th of January, he attended Sessions alongside the other 2 constables, the file in
hand when the young constable Walker stood up to give evidence of Johnson’s previous
conviction for 10 weeks hard labour, he was instructed by the older officers to read from the
file and inform the court of her other 5 convictions as well
What Bull, Walker, and Watson did not realize at the time was that the CRO had handed
Watson the wrong file, and that the criminal record the represented in court as Nellie
Johnson’s was actually the record of another woman whose name was Agnes Johnson
both women had numerous convictions for prostitution and one conviction for minor property
crime, and both had been convicted under the name of ‘Lily Johnson’
Because neither photograph nor finger prints had been taken of either prisoner, the mix-up
passed unnoticed by all involved except for the defendant herself she protested against one
of the convictions read out against her, telling the court that she had not been bound over for
2 years probation in March 1920 the judge asked Walker to repeat the date, consulted his
notes and announced that the record was indeed correct; Johnson was sentenced to 6
months’ hard labour for being ‘an incorrigible rogue’
Nellie Johnson’s recourse to appeal or official complaint was very limited, and the cost of
hiring legal aid was prohibitive it is unclear, therefore, how the error on the part of D
Division was noticed; the Metropolitan Police had long and bitter memories of the numerous
prostitution-related scandals corruption, blackmailing, bribery, wrongful, arrest and perjury
which had plagued the force for over 40 years
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Week 6
Particularly strong in their recollections was the ‘Cass Controversy’ as they called it: the 1887
case of a police constable who had found himself on trial for perjury and was eventually
stripped of his position for wrongfully arresting and prosecuting Elizabeth Cass, a
dressmaker’s assistant, as a common prostitute even 30 years later, the mention of this
case or any threat that the well-publicized scandal might be repeated worried and angered
both the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office
Mindful that a similar controversy could soon be on their hands, everyone involved with the
Johnson case took pains to ensure that the incident would not come to the attention of the
general public the constables were required to write lengthy reports for their
superintendents,, the superintendents had to rely to the Police Commissioner’s questions,
and the Commissioner had to assume the Home Secretary that in the future, Paragraph 489
section 17 of the general police orders on the fingerprinting of prostitutes would be strictly
adhered to
Two key charges could be used to arrest street prostitutes in London in the first half of the
20th century: the 1824 Vagrancy Act (any prostitute behaving in a riotous or indecent manner
in a public place was liable to a fine or imprisonment) and the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act
(any prostitute loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution to the annoyance of
passengers or residents was liable to a fine)
These laws, combined with the Towns and Police Clauses Act of 1847, were often referred to
as ‘the solicitation laws’, and formed the framework for the system in England and Wales for
control of prostitution
In contrast to the historical attention given to the Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts, the
solicitation laws are seriously under-examined yet they were put in place prior to the CD
Acts, lasted long after the CD Acts were repealed, affected a far greater number of women,
and were significantly more important to the police and the state in their control of prostitution
than were the short-lived and geographically limited CD Acts
The attention to the CD Acts has meant that many historians attribute too great a degree of
influence to Britain’s regulated system, comparing it to France or Italy, or assert that Britain
no longer relied on systems of legal labelling once these Acts were repealed they also
ignore the ways that prostitution control outside the regulated system functioned
In the context of the CD Acts, historians have looked at the ways in which a prostitute identity
was developed and assigned by medical discourse and medical registration however, over
a very long period the experience of prostitute women in Britain was far more commonly
governed by the solicitation laws and by a legal, not medical, process of classification
Through Nellie Johnson’s story, we can begin to explore the intricacies of a legal system of
prostitution control peculiar to Britain, at a crucial point in its development
The solicitation laws all relied on the idea that a common prostitute was a legally definable
person, and that, while prostitution itself was not an offence, the action of street solicitation
represented a special kind of public nuisance
The laws required that the prosecutor (almost always the police officer who had arrested the
woman) should prove that the woman charged with, loitering or soliciting for the purposes of
prostitution to the annoyance of’ or with ‘behaving in riotous or indecent manner’ was a
‘common prostitute’
In the application and administration of the solicitation laws, a woman’s status as a ‘common
prostitute’ was typically proven by the testimony of one or two policemen, who told the
magistrate that they had seen her frequenting a certain area and soliciting men
Despite the fact that this term was central to the arrest and conviction of women like Johnson,
it was never the subject of statutory definition and was not even addressed in case law until
1918, in the trial of R. v De Munck, almost a 100 years after the term was first applied to
certain women as a legal label in addition, the De Munck was being charged under the
1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act with procuring her daughter to become a prostitute
The defence put forward the argument that because Kathleen’s daughter was still medically a
virgin, she could not be considered a prostitute, and therefore the girl’s mother could not be
found guilty the court of appeal disagreed, and the justices instructed the jury that the
definition of the term ‘prostitute’ should not depend on the act of vaginal intercourse, but
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Week 6
should instead be understood to mean ‘a woman who offers her body commonly for lewdness
for payment in return’
Moreover, even with these informal and formal interpretations of the term’s meaning, in
practice no evidence was required in court as to the sexual acts that the woman had
performed, the multiple partners that she had had, or the money she had taken in exchange
At her first trial in 1916, Nellie Johnson’s status as a ‘common prostitute’ was proven by
reference to her presence or behaviour on the street, and she was ultimately convicted for
this behaviour because she was a ‘common prostitute’
In 1919, the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene (AMSH) launched an independent
enquiry into how the solicitation laws were applied in Britain, an enquiry which ended in
recommendations for their repeal
Mary Gordon, the first female inspector of women’s prisons, feminist and advocate for prison
reform, saw the solicitation laws as a mechanism by which the criminal-justice system,
‘manufactured prostitutes’
Helen Wilson, the president of the AMSH, categorized this labelling of a specific group of
women as a kind of ‘triple standard’ not only did prostitution law rely on a sexual double
standard which held women alone responsible for the prostitution contract, but it also
depended on the assumption that ‘good’ women could be legally and culturally divided from
The United Kingdom’s prostitution-control policy was if anything growing more repressive
the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1885, alongside a particularly resonant child-
prostitution scandal, had led to an upsurge in what came to be known as the ‘social purity’
movement, political pressure-groups which inspired and helped enforce new laws against
brothels and a more intensive police crackdown on street prostitution
These groups turned to the criminal law to promote morality and, as they saw it, to protect
women, concentrating not on the evils of the government control of prostitution as had the CD
Act repeal campaigners but upon the evils within the world of commercial sex itself
New laws were passed addressing prostitution, and the older solicitation laws became the
subject of much attention
To the constitutionally questionable legal language of the ‘common prostitute’ laws were
added equally questionable police-court procedures research conducted by feminists and
personal rights groups in the 1910s and ‘20s established that prostitutes were often arrested
or convicted nor for actually annoying passers-by or for actually being riotous or indecent, as
was required by the statute, but merely for soliciting, for standing on the street and being a
‘common prostitute’
Evidence of annoyance, If given at all, was provided in the police court by the unsupported
testimony of a policeman - many police officers and magistrates considered the act of
solicitation itself enough to warrant a charge of indecency
This first conviction also meant that the status of ‘common prostitute’ would be ascribed to
Johnson in court before her trial even began: as she sat in the dock, the court would be told
that the defendant was a ‘common prostitute’ and that she was charged with soliciting and
riotous conduct a record of prior convictions, presented, as was customary, during her trial,
fixed her legal identity
The solicitation statutes were unique indeed, for the tradition of English law looked
unfavorably on the entry of prior convictions into evidence for most other offences, and very
few laws required that a person be assigned a specific legal identity in order to be and to
facilitate their being convicted of a crime
To be sure, discrimination against career criminals plagued the judicial system, but no other
offence relied on such a formalized procedure of prejudicing it was Johnson who bore the
burden of proof to show that she, a common prostitute, had not been soliciting or behaving in
an indecent manner; for a stigmatized women with no legal counsel, during a trial which
lasted 5 minutes, this would have been a difficult task indeed
The legal stigma had other consequences as well police-court fines had to be paid, often by
the proceeds of further prostitution or by risky and illicit loans; a criminal record could make it
extremely difficult for a woman to get employment, let alone anything well paid
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