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Was it really possible for someone in Victorian London to "purchase" a young girl for sexual purposes?
While prostitution was alive and well in 19th century London, it was still something that "polite society" preferred to ignore. Though social reform movements had scored some legal victories, including the repeal of repressive legislation allowing suspected prostitutes to be arrested as potential health risks, women of all ages were still plying their trade in red light districts across the United Kingdom. Along with the women walking the streets, there were also the brothels that could be found just about anywhere, many of which offered unique "specialties" for discerning customers. Due to extremely loose age of consent laws, even girls as young as 11 or 12 could work as prostitutes and, despite pressure from early feminists such as Josephine Butler, Parliament was often reluctant to do anything to prevent it. While Parliament eventually raised the age of consent to 13 in 1875, stories about the active trade in "white slavery", mostly featuring young girls being abducted and sold to brothels on the continent, were common.
It was against this backdrop of rumour and suspicion that William Thomas Stead first burst on the scene. Following a distinguished newspaper career in northern England, including a series of exposes in 1876 that propelled him to national fame, Stead eventually came to London to be assistant editor to the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette (later the London Evening Standard). On becoming editor in 1883, Stead helped transform the paper and, in the process, established himself as one of the world's first investigative journalists.
But Stead was also a showman who quickly made a specialty out of spectacular media spectacles intended to sell newspapers. After the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum in 1885, it was Stead who first ran a headline in eye-catching 24-point type saying "TOO LATE" and demanding answers for why the government had allowed Gordon's forces to be overrun. He also became notorious for his interviewing technique which often blind-sided politicians and public figures, something which would come back to haunt him soon enough.
Beginning in 1885, Stead launched a shocking and controversial series on child prostitution, including efforts by reformers to raise the age of consent for women to 16, something Parliament had been slow to do. Stead had known Josephine Butler and her fellow crusaders for years and was an outspoken critic of many of the politicians who opposed reform. In the series, which he titled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," he helped reinforce the sense of moral panic that often surrounded the idea of young girls being forced into prostitution. Many of the articles in his series ran with titles such as "The Violation of Virgins" and "Strapping Girls Down" and Stead insisted that young girls could be bought from unscrupulous parents, often to be sent overseas.
To prove many of the outrageous claims he made in his newspaper articles, Stead decided to carry out what would be the most controversial piece of investigative journalism in his long career: the purchase of a 13-year-old girl named Eliza Armstrong from her alcoholic mother. To accomplish this, he recruited Rebecca Jarrett, a former brothel-keeper who was working as an assistant for Josephine Butler. Jarrett learned about Eliza and her mother who was apparently desperate for money. On meeting with the mother, Jarrett gave her a cover story about hiring Eliza out as a maid though she would later insist that the mother had been aware that this was a lie. The mother was paid five pounds sterling for Eliza, a decent sum in those days.
After Eliza was taken from her home, she was given a medical examination to prove her virginity (without her consent). She was then drugged with chloroform and taken to a brothel. It was at this point that Stead, posing as a customer, placed himself in Eliza's room and waited for her to wake up. As far as the staff and customers of the brothel were concerned, it was business as usual though Eliza was terrified (she let out a scream when she awoke to find a strange man in her room). Eliza was then removed from the brothel, subjected her to another medical examination to prove she was still a virgin, and then turned over to prominent members of the Salvation Army who had been helping Stead. They arranged for Eliza to be sent to France, ostensibly for her own protection.
Though Eliza was not physically harmed at any point, the ordeal must have been horrifying. Not only was she removed from the only home she ever knew, she would spend the next few weeks living in France under what was basically house arrest to keep her out of the public eye while Stead's newspaper ran her story. In writing about the entire affair, Stead described what he had done in extremely graphic and tasteless terms that critics would later refer to as "the vilest parcel of obscenity ever issued from the public press." He did change Eliza's name to "Lily" and also hid many of the more questionable details about what he did under the premise of "exposing" the sordid sex trade in young girls.
But Stead's prose did sell papers. Not only did all copies of the Pall Mall Gazette sell out within hours, but "entrepreneurs" quickly bought up all the copies they could so they could sell them on the streets for up to twenty times their original price. Many newspaper vendors refused to sell the paper due to the lurid content involved that that did little to hurt sales. To keep up with demand, the Pall Mall Gazette was forced to buy paper from their chief rivals to run extra copies. Critics and fans of Stead's series besieged the newspaper's offices. Though fans praised Stead for calling attention to the problem of "white slavery" and child prostitution, his critics, who also happened to include many of Stead's friends, openly accused him of going too far in getting his story.
But that was nothing compared to how Eliza Armstrong's mother reacted on reading Stead's story and realizing that "Lily" was, in fact, her daughter. On going to the police with her story,Elizabeth Armstrong insisted that she had been duped into selling her daughter and had no idea that she would be sent to a brothel. Police immediately laid charges against Stead, Rebecca Jarrett, and Bramwell Booth, then-chief of the Salvation Army, for abduction and indecent assault. What followed would become one of the most famous court cases of the late 19th century as well as exploring the limits of journalist ethics.
To be continued
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