Buying Eliza (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

When William Thomas Stead  went on trial for orchestrating the kidnapping of Eliza Armstrong, he had no difficulty responding with the same showmanship that characterized his entire career as a journalist.  Though several other people involved in the kidnapping were charged as well, including Rebecca Jarrett and Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, Stead insisted that he was solely responsible for the entire scheme and that the others were simply his "unwilling agents."   Despite his efforts however, Rebecca Jarrett, and Booth went on trial as well along with midwife Louise Mourez (who had conducted the "virginity test" on Eliza). 

Just weeks before the trial began, public outrage, spurred by Stead's newspaper articles, had forced Parliament to pass legislation raising the age of consent to 16, something they had been delaying for years.  The Act also strengthened existing laws against prostitution and brothels, as well as greater protections for women believed to have been abducted for "white slavery."   For good measure, a last minute amendment also expanded existing penalties for homosexual relations between males (women were not affected by the act) and Oscar Wilde would be punished under this same Act just a few years later.    The forced passage of the legislation made even more enemies for William Stead, not only from the legislators themselves, but from other newspapers who resented his "scooping" them on the story.   All of which added a very political element to Stead's trial and guaranteed that prosecutors would do everything in their power to see him convicted.

The trial, which had already been generating headlines internationally, attracted hundreds of spectators who swarmed into the courtroom creating what one newspaper described as :a mass of human being wedged in almost inextricably."   Acting as prosecutor was the Attorney-General himself, Richard Webster, while Stead insisted on defending himself.  With Rebecca Jarrett, Bramwell Booth, and the others being represented by their own defense attorneys, the entire trial quickly became a media spectacle.   Just the way William Stead wanted it.

Even at the preliminary hearing which was held in September, 1885,  the adverse publicity provided by Stead's newspaper rivals meant that Stead and his co-defendants were targeted by angry protestors whenever they appeared in public.  Over the course of the five-day preliminary hearing, mobs  gathered outside the courtroom and all the defendants had to be escorted to and from the courtroom in a prison van that was familiarly known as "Black Maria."  

Reporters also eagerly wrote down all of the trial details, including the various outbursts provided by Eliza's mother.   Though Eliza seemed calm under cross-examination,  Elizabeth Armstrong was outspoken in denouncing Stead and attacking prosecutors and defense attorneys alike over how she was being portrayed, especially when her own fitness as a mother was carefully scrutinized.  Questions relating to her "character" focused on her previous convictions for public drunkenness and assault, and even one charge for her use of obscene language  (which she defended by saying "I swear a good deal").   She also emphatically denied being paid for her daughter or having any knowledge that Eliza was being sent to a brothel. 

But the main event took place with the trial which began on October 19.  While Stead did a decent job of defending himself, the prosecution had no difficulty establishing that Stead relied entirely on Rebecca Jarret's word that Eliza's mother had willingly sold her daughter.  There was also no written evidence of the payment Elizabeth Armstrong had supposedly received.  Despite the discrepancies between the testimony given by Stead and Rebecca Jarrett,  Stead justified everything that he did by saying that his actions had been intended to protect young girls like Eliza Armstrong.   As he said in his closing remarks at the trial:

Mr. Attorney General says we must protect the children of the poor. Was not that the object that I did all this for? You know it was, and you know that was why Jarrett did it, and Jacques did it, and Bramwell Booth did it. It was not in order to abduct a girl, but to rescue her from what we believed to be her inevitable doom; and if in the exercise of your judgement you come to the conclusion that you can take no note of motive, no note of character, no note of the intent and scope of our operations, all I have to say is, that when you return your verdict I make no appeal to any other tribunal. My lord has told me the question of motive may be considered afterwards, but if you find me guilty by your verdict, I shall make no appeal. By your verdict I stand or fall, and if in the opinion of twelve Englishmen born of Englishwomen, possibly the fathers of English girls, if they say to me "You are guilty", I shall take my punishment and I shall not flinch.

William Stead, Rebecca Jarrett, and Louise Mourez were all found guilty of abduction and procurement while Bramwell Booth and the others were acquitted.   Though Jarrett and Mourez were both sentenced to six months in prison, Stead only got three, something that many newspapers declared to be too lenient considering the nature of the crime.   Stead spent most of his sentence at HM Prison Holloway where was treated as a "first class misdeameanant" with his own cell, complete with a fireplace and a fellow prisoner who acted as his valet.  Louise Mourez died in prison while Rebecca Jarrett completed her sentence and vanished into obscurity afterward.   Much the same could be said of Eliza Armstrong of whom little is known despite reports that she later married and raised a large family.

While in prison, William Stead continued to act as editor of the Pall  Mall Gazette and even wrote a pamphlet describing his prison experiences.   He also wrote an essay, "Government by Journalism" in which he advocated greater involvement of newspapers in keeping corrupt politicians in check (something that would be a personal crusade following his release.   Even after his release, Stead was  allowed to keep his prison uniform (despite never actually being forced to wear it except occasionally) and he insisted on wearing it once a year on the anniversary of his sentencing.  

After resigning as editor of the Gazette in 1889, Stead remained a forceful writer and lecturer and embraced a wide variety of personal causes, covering everything from Esperanto to feminism.  Despite nearly bankrupting himself after launching his own newspaper in 1904 (which led to a nervous breakdown), Stead recovered enough to establish himself as an advocate of various peace initiatives during the Boer War and beyond.   He even envisioned an early version of the United Nations which he described as a "United States of Europe." 

It was his belief in spiritualism that caused his reputation to take its greatest hit however.  He became a believer after claims of receiving automatic messages from a deceased fellow journalist, Julie Ayres during the 1890s.   After his son Willie died in 1907, Stead actually set up what he called "Julia's Bureau" to pass on messages from the Beyond.  What this basically involved was having female mediums acting like stenographers to receive messages which they could pass on to grieving relatives.  Needless to say, it didn't work out.

Still popular at the ripe age of 63, Stead was invited in 1912 to give a lecture at Carnegie Hall.  Unfortunately, the lecture organizers chose to bring him over on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and Stead became one of the most well-known victims of its sinking.   There is a certain irony in his death by drowning considering that Stead had long been a critic of the lack of lifeboats available on modern ships.   He had even written a prophetic story in 1886 describing the sinking of a transatlantic steamer with massive loss of life due to there not being enough lifeboats.   He ended the story by warning that such a tragedy could  easily happen in real life. 

Even in death, William Stead had the last word.


Related Stories

  • Buying Eliza (Part One of Two)
  • Saving James Frye (Part One of Two)
  • The Abe Sada Incident (Part Two)


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