Chapter 14 A Georgian Disgrace

It is usually estimated that seven-eighths of the structures in Victorian London were actually Georgian. The face of the city and its general architectural character were legacies of that earlier era; the Victorians did not begin to rebuild their capital in any substantial way until the 1880s. This reluctance reflected the economics of urban building. For most of the century, it simply was not profitable to tear down old structures, even those badly suited to their modern functions. Certainly the reluctance was not aesthetic--- the Victorians loathed the Georgian style, which Ruskin himself termed "the ne plus ultra of ugliness."

Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the Times, in reporting that a convict had escaped from Newgate Prison, observed that "the virtues of this edifice have been clearly overstated. Not only is escape from its confines possible, it is mere child's play, for the fleeing villian had not yet attained his majority. It is time for this public disgrace to be torn down."

The article went on to comment that "the Metropolitan Police has dispatched groups of armed officers into the rookeries of the town, in order to flush out the escaped man, and there is every expectation of his apprehension."

There were no follow-up reports. One must remember that during this period, jailbreaks were, in the words of one commentator, "quite as common as illegitimate births," and nothing so ordinary was really newsworthy. At a time when the curtains of the windows of Parliament were being soaked in lime to protect the members against the cholera epidemic while they debated the conduct of the Crimean campaign, the newspapers could not be bothered with a minor felon from the dangerous classes who had been lucky enough to make a clean getaway.

A month later, the body of a young man was found floating in the Thames, and police authorities identified him as the escaped convict from Newgate. It received barely a paragraph in the Evening Standard; the other newspapers did not mention it at all.

Chapter 15 The Pierce Household

After his escape, Clean Willy was taken to Pierce's house in Mayfair, where he spent several weeks in seclusion while his wounds healed. It is from his later testimony to police that we first learn of the mysterious woman who was Pierce's mistress, and known to Willy as "Miss Miriam"

Willy was placed in an upstairs room, and the servants were told that he was a relative of Miss Miriam's who had been run down by a cab on New Bond Street. From time to time, Willy was tended by Miss Miriam. He said of her that she was "well carried, a good figure, and well-spoke, and she walked here and there slow, never hurrying." This last sentiment was echoed by all the witnesses, who were impressed by the ethereal aspect of the young woman; her eyes were said to be especially captivating, and her grace in movement was called "dreamlike" and "phantasmagorical."

Apparently this woman lived in the house with Pierce, although she was often gone during the day. Clean Willy was never very clear about her movements, and in any case he was often sedated with opium, which may also account for the ghostly qualities he saw in her.

Willy recalled only one conversation with her. He asked, "Are you his canary, then?" Meaning was she Pierce's accomplice in burglary.

"Oh no," she said, smiling. "I have no ear for music."

From this he assumed she was not involved in Pierce's plans, although this was later shown to be wrong. She was an integral part of the plan, and was probably the first of the thieves to know Pierce's intentions.

At the trial, there was considerable speculation about Miss Miriam and her origins. A good deal of evidence points to the conclusion that she was an actress. This would explain her ability to mimic various accents and manners of different social classes; her tendency to wear make-up in a day when no respectable woman would let cosmetics touch her flesh; and her open presence as Pierce's mistress. In those days, the dividing line between an actress and a prostitute was exceedingly fine. And actors were by occupation itinerant wanderers, likely to have connections with criminals, or to be criminals themselves. Whatever the truth of her past, she seems to have been his mistress for several years.

Pierce himself was rarely in the house, and on occasion he was gone overnight. Clean Willy recalled seeing him once or twice in the late afternoon, wearing riding clothes and smelling of horses, as if he had returned from an equestrian excursion.

"I didn't know you were a horse fancier," Willy once said.

"I'm not," Pierce replied shortly. "Hate the bloody beasts."

Pierce kept Willy indoors after his wounds were healed, waiting for his "terrier crop" to grow out. In those days, the surest way to identify an escaped convict was by his short haircut. By late September, his hair was longer, but still Pierce did not allow him to leave. When Willy asked why, Pierce said, "I am waiting for you to be recaptured, or found dead."

This statement puzzled Willy, but he did as he was told. A few days later, Pierce came in with a newspaper under his arm and told him he could leave. That same evening Willy went to the Holy Land, where he expected to find his mistress, Maggie. He found that Maggie had taken up with a footpad, a rough sort who made his way by "swinging the stick"--- that is, by mugging. Maggie showed no interest in Willy.

Willy then took up with a girl of twelve named Louise, whose principal occupation was snowing. She was described in court as "no gofferer, mind, and no clean-starcher, just a bit of plain snow now and then for the translator. Simple, really." What was meant by this passage, which required considerable explanation to the presiding magistrates, was that Willy's new mistress was engaged in the lowest form of laundry stealing. The better echelons of laundry stealers, the gofferers and clean-starchers, stole from high-class districts, often taking clothes off the lines. Plain, ordinary snowing was relegated to children and young girls, and it could be lucrative enough when fenced to "translators," who sold the clothing as second-hand goods.

Willy lived off this girl's earnings, never venturing outside the sanctuary of the rookery. He had been warned by Pierce to keep his mouth shut, and he never mentioned that he had had help in his break from Newgate. Clean Willy lived with his judy in a lodging house that contained more than a hundred people; the house was a well-known buzzer's lurk. Willy lived and slept with his mistress in a bed he shared with twenty other bodies of various sexes, and Louise reported of this period, "He took his ease, and spent his time cheerful, and waited for the cracksman to give his call."

CHAPTER 16 Rotten Row

Of all the fashionable sections of that fashionable city of London, none compared to the spongy, muddy pathway in Hyde Park called the Ladies' Mile, or Rotten Row. Here, weather permitting, were literally hundreds of men and women on horseback, all dressed in the greatest splendor the age could provide, radiant in the golden sunshine at four in the afternoon.

It was a scene of bustling activity: the horsemen and horsewomen packed tightly together; the women with little uniformed foot pages trotting along behind their mistresses, or sometimes accompanied by stern, mounted duennas or sometimes escorted by their beaus. And if the spectacle of Rotten Row was splendid and fashionable, it was not entirely respectable, for many of the women were of dubious character. "There is no difficulty," wrote one observer, "in guessing the occupation of the dashing equestrienne who salutes half-a-dozen men at once with whip or with a wink, and who sometimes varies the monotony of a safe seat by holding her hands behind her back while gracefully swerving over to listen to the compliments of a walking admirer."

These were members of the highest class of prostitute and, like it or not, respectable ladies often found themselves competing with these smartly turned-out demimondes for masculine attention. Nor was this the only arena of such competition; it occurred at the opera, and the theatre as well. More than one young lady found that her escort's gaze was fixed not on the performance but on some high box where an elegant woman returned his glances with open, frank interest.

Victorians claimed to be scandalized by the intrusion of prostitutes into respectable circles, but despite all the calls for reform and change, the women continued to appear gaily for nearly a half-century more. It is usual to dismiss Victorian prostitution as a particularly gaudy manifestation of that society's profound hypocrisy. But the issue is really more complex; it has to do with the way that women were viewed in Victorian England.

This was an era of marked sexual differentiation in dress, manner, attitude, and bearing. Even pieces of furniture and rooms within the house were viewed as "masculine" or "feminine"; the dining room was masculine, the drawing room feminine, and so on. All this was assumed to have a biological rationale:

"It is evident," wrote Alexander Walker, "that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector; the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protecting. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs: the woman naturally obeys."

With minor variations, this belief was repeated again and again. The power of reasoning was small in women; they did not calculate consequences; they were governed by their emotions, and hence required strict controls on their behavior by the more rational and levelheaded male.

The presumed intellectual inferiority of the female was reinforced by her education, and many well-bred women probably were the simpering, tittering, pathologically delicate fools that populate the pages of Victorian novels. Men could not expect to share much with their wives. Mandell Creighton wrote that he found "ladies in general very unsatisfactory mental food; they seem to have no particular thoughts or ideas, and though for a time it is flattering to one's vanity to think one may teach them some, it palls after a while. Of course at a certain age, when you have a house and so on, you get a wife as part of its furniture, and find her a very comfortable institution; but I doubt greatly whether there were ever many men who had thoughts worth recounting, who told these thoughts to their wives at first, or who expected them to appreciate them."

There is good evidence that both sexes were bored silly by this arrangement. Women, stranded in their vast, servant-filled households, dealt with their frustrations in spectacular displays of hysterical neuroses: they suffered loss of hearing, speech, and sight; they had choking fits, fainting spells, loss of appetite, and even loss of memory. In the midst of a seizure they might make copulating movements or writhe in such arcing spasms that their heads would touch their heels. All these bizarre symptoms, of course, only reinforced the general notion of the frailty of the female sex.

Frustrated men had another option, and that was recourse to prostitutes, who were often lively, gay, witty--- indeed, all the things it was inconceivable for a woman to be. On a simpler level, men found prostitutes agreeable because they could, in their company, discard the strained formalities of polite society and relax in an atmosphere of "unbuttoned easiness." This freedom from restraints was at least as important as the availability of sexual outlets per se, and it is probably this appeal that gave the institution such a broad base within society and allowed prostitutes to intrude boldly into acceptable arenas of Victorian society, such as Rotten Row.

Beginning in late September, 1854, Edward Pierce began to meet Miss Elizabeth Trent on riding excursions in Rotten Row. The first encounter was apparently accidental but later, by a sort of unstated agreement, they occurred with regularity.

Elizabeth Trent's life began to form itself around these afternoon meetings: she spent all morning preparing for them, and all evening discussing them; her friends complained that she talked incessantly of Edward; her father complained of his daughter's insatiable demand for new dresses. She seemed, he said, "to require as a necessity a new garment every day, and she would prefer two."

The unattractive young woman apparently never thought it strange that Mr. Pierce should single her out from among the throng of stunning beauties on Rotten Row; she was completely captivated by his attentions. At the trial, Pierce summarized their conversations as "light and trivial," and recounted only one in detail.

This occurred sometime in the month of October, 1854. It was a time of political upheaval and military scandal; the nation had suffered a severe blow to its self-esteem. The Crimean War was turning into a disaster. When it began, J. B. Priestley notes, "the upper classes welcomed the war as a glorified large-scale picnic in some remote and romantic place. It was almost as if the Black Sea had been opened to tourism. Wealthy officers like Lord Cardigan decided to take their yachts. Some commanders' wives insisted upon going along, accompanied by their personal maids. Various civilians cancelled their holidays elsewhere to follow the army and see the sport."

The sport quickly became a debacle. The British troops were badly trained, badly supplied, and ineptly led. Lord Raglan, the military commander, was sixty-five and "old for his age." Raglan often seemed to think he was still fighting Waterloo, and referred to the enemy as "the French," although the French were now his allies. On one occasion he was so confused that he took up an observation post behind the Russian enemy lines. The atmosphere of "aged chaos" deepened, and by the middle of the summer even the wives of officers were writing home to say that "nobody appears to have the least idea what they are about."

By October, this ineptitude culminated in Lord Cardigan's charge of the Light Brigade, a spectacular feat of heroism which decimated three-quarters of his forces in a successful effort to capture the wrong battery of enemy guns.

Clearly the picnic was over, and nearly all upper-class Englishmen were profoundly concerned. The names of Cardigan, Raglan, and Lucan were on everyone's lips. But on that warm October afternoon in Hyde Park, Mr. Pierce gently guided Elizabeth Trent into a conversation about her father.

"He was most fearfully nervous this morning," she said.

"Indeed?" Pierce said, trotting alongside her.

"He is nervous every morning when he must send the gold shipments to the Crimea. He is a different man from the very moment he arises. He is distant and preoccupied in the extreme."

"I am certain he bears a heavy responsibility," Pierce said.

"So heavy, I fear he may take to excessive drink," Elizabeth said, and laughed a little.

"I pray you exaggerate, Madam."

"Well, he acts strangely, and no mistake. You know he is entirely opposed to the consumption of any alcohol before nightfall."

"I do, and most sensible, too."

"Well," Elizabeth Trent continued, "I suspect him of breaking his own regulation, for each morning of the shipments he goes alone to the wine cellar, with no servants to accompany him or to hold the gas lanterns. He is insistent upon going alone. Many times my stepmother has chided him that he may stumble or suffer some misfortune on the steps to the basement. But he will have none of her entreaties. And he spends some time in the cellar, and then emerges, and makes his journey to the bank."

"I think," Pierce said, "that he merely checks the cellar for some ordinary purpose. Is that not logical?"

"No, indeed," Elizabeth said, "for at all times he relies upon my stepmother to deal in the stocking and care of the cellar, and the decanting of wines before dinners, and such matters."

"Then his manner is most peculiar. I trust," Pierce said gravely, "that his responsibilities are not placing an overgreat burden upon his nervous system."

"I trust," the daughter answered, with a sigh. "Is it not a lovely day?"

"Lovely," Pierce agreed. "Unspeakably lovely, but no more lovely than you."

Elizabeth Trent tittered, and replied that he was a bold rogue to flatter her so openly. "One might even suspect an ulterior motive," she said, laughing.

"Heavens, no," Pierce said, and to further reassure her he placed his hand lightly, and briefly, over hers.

"I am so happy," she said.

"And I am happy with you," Pierce said, and this was true, for he now knew the location of all four keys.