Wednesday 6 October 2010

The Case of Miss Cass

Another quote from R.D.Blumenfeld's 1887 diary:
Everybody here appears to wildly excited over the experiences of a certain Miss Cass, a simple seamstress, who went for a walk in Regent Street, and was arrested and locked up by a policeman on the charge of annoying men.
The annoyance, of course, was a charge of soliciting. Her case became a cause celebre. In retrospect, it looks like a fairly clear case of mistaken identity, where the policeman and, subsequently, the magistrate, persisted with their belief in Miss Cass's guilt, beyond any evidential justification. The Pall Mall Gazette ran with the headline, 'The Police Outrage in Regent Street', since the charge of street prostitution, if levelled against a respectable woman, was incredibly serious and damaging. The case was even debated in parliament, before the Home Secretary. Here's the Hansard report outlining the initial details of the case:
With regard to the facts of the case, Miss Cass was a young woman who until the last six weeks had spent all her life in Stockton, in the county of Durham, where she had borne an irreproachable character. Six weeks ago she had come up to London with her late employer, a draper in a large way of business in Stockton, and set about finding work in the trade which she had previously followed. About three weeks ago she had obtained employment with Mrs. Bowman, 19, Southampton row, who was also a person of irreproachable character. He had been favoured with a visit from the vicar of the parish, who had assured him that she was a constant attendant at the church and pious and moral in her character. He mentioned this because he was aware that some aspersions had been cast upon the character of Mrs. Bowman. Miss Cass had been about three weeks in Mrs. Bowman's employment without ever having been outside the house, except on one occasion, on the, night previous to that which she was arrested, and then only for a few yards to post a letter. About 8.30 on Coronation Day she had gone out to make some purchases at Jay's. She walked through some back streets, down Tottenham-court-road, and so to Regent street, calling at the house of a friend, whom she found out. Finding Jay's shop closed, she walked down Regent-street, threading her way through the somewhat crowded street. Suddenly she was seized by a policeman and dragged to Tottenham-court road police station. She was of course greatly surprised, and thought at first the policeman was doing this more as a joke than anything else, but he informed her that he was going to charge her with solicitation. She was taken to the station and entered in the book as a common prostitute. The police-constable stated that he had seen her on several previous occasions about the streets soliciting gentlemen in the same manner as that in which she was alleged to have acted that night. When she had been charged, the police-officer went to Mrs. Bowman's house and informed her in the most offensive manner possible that a young woman lodging with her had been taken up for prostitution. Miss Cass was bailed out, and on the following morning was brought before the police magistrate.
The magistrate took the policeman's side, but Mrs. Bowman spoke bravely in defence of her employee and the magistrate had little choice but to back down. However, rather than announcing that Miss Elizabeth Cass was a victim of a mistake by the policeman, the magistrate left her with these words:

"I believe she was out for an improper purpose. If you are an honest girl, as you say you are, don't walk in Regent-street at night after 9.30, for if you do, next time you are caught here, you will be sent to prison or fined."

In other words, in the magistrate's mind, any single woman on the streets after dark was, de facto, a prostitute. Miss Cass and Mrs. Bowman launched a complaint against  the police. Here's Miss Cass's account of the incident:

"With regard to the assertion that the evidence of the constable distinctly established three cases of solicitation, there is no truth in it at all. I saw nobody. I spoke to no one; and no person spoke to the, except the policeman. I did not attract any one's attention, and did not say a word to any one after leaving the house. I did not make the purchases I had intended, as the shops were closed. I am a stranger to London. I knew the affair took place near Jay's, but did not know I was in Regent-street. I was not aware of the character imputed to that neighbourhood, and had no idea that single young women ran any risk. I did not "take hold of two other gentlemen," and I did not bear the expression used in the street. "It is very hard I should be stopped. It is the third time I have been stopped in this street." There was no gentleman standing near the constable to use these words. What happened was this. The policeman said,"I want you." I could not speak for a moment, and could only say there was some mistake. He replied, "Oh, no; I have been watching you for some time." I again said, " You have made some mistake." He retorted, " Oh, no, I have not; I know you well enough." I could not do anything but repeat that it was a mistake. He took hold of my arm and led me down a side street. There was no crowd. At the police station, in a little room, he stared at me, and I asked if he would send for my employer, and he said, "Oh, she'll come," and added, " You don't know me, do you?" I replied that I did not, and he said, "I know you, and have known you for some time." I had never seen him before. When be caught hold of my arm in the street I asked him to let it go, as I would walk along with him. He retorted, "I must take hold of your arm, for if I don't you will say so in the morning, and they will complain that I allowed you to walk alone." I could only exclaim, "In the morning!" in great surnnse. I have been here three weeks, and have only been about two months in London, having stayed six weeks at Manor Park, with some people who had had a shop at Stockton, where I was with them as first hand for two or three years, until they gave up. I stopped on with their successor for nearly a year, so, practically, I was in the same situation for nearly four years. Previously I had been with another dressmaker of Stockton for nearly a year, and I held a situation before that in the same town for four and a half years. I am twenty-three years of age. My parents live at Stockton. Whilst staying in Manor Park I came to London once or twice, and once in the afternoon went with my former employer to Regent-street. I had good characters from all my places."
Part of the problem was, undoubtedly, that the main thoroughfares were a good place to pick up ladies of a certain character. If Miss Cass was a little confused, or simply taking a slow stroll through the crowds, she was an easy target for an over-enthusiastic officer of the law. The Jubilee celebrations also created an unusual mix of people on the streets, which may well have confounded police preconceptions of the role of women in public at such an hour. The wilful and ultimately rather emancipated Nancy in Gissing's In the Year of Jubilee, set in 1887, has an interesting dialogue early in the book, talking to her bookish friend Jessica:
'Well, will you come to-morrow?'
'Ye-es; if you'll go somewhere else with me in the evening.'
'Where to?'
'To walk about the streets after dark, and see the crowds and the illuminations.'
Nancy uttered this with a sly mirthfulness. Her friend was astonished.
'Nonsense! you don't mean it.'
'I do. I want to go for the fun of the thing. I should feel ashamed
of myself if I ran to stare at Royalties, but it's a different thing at night.
It'll be wonderful, all the traffic stopped, and the streets crammed with people,
and blazing with lights. Won't you go?'
'But we should have to be out so late.'
'Why not, for once? It needn't be later than half-past eleven.'
Nancy broke off and gesticulated.
'That's just why I want to go! I should like to walk about all night, as lots of people will. The public-houses are going to be kept open till two o'clock.'
'Do you want to go into public-houses?' asked Jessica, laughing.
'Why not? I should like to. It's horrible to be tied up as we are we're not children. Why can't we go about as men do?'
'Won't your father make any objection?' asked Jessica.
Later, if memory serves, she manages to fulfil her wish and wander through nocturnal London. One wonders if Gissing had Miss Cass in mind.

Ultimately, Miss Cass and Mrs. Bowman levelled a charge of perjury against PC Endacott, which was heard at the Old Bailey [full text here]. We learn from the court report that Endacott was on 'special duty' and tasked to 'bring in prostitutes'. A clerk deposed 'in that part of London there are more charges with regard to annoyances in the street from women, than any other part of London—I have known as many as 20 or 30 in a day, in a great many Endacott has given evidence'.  The constable was ultimately found innocent of wilful perjury (though it was widely accepted that he had mistaken the woman's identity) and returned to the force on full  pay.

As for Miss Cass herself, by the time of the trial, she was known as Mrs. Langley, married to a former beau from Stockton. In Victorian terms, that definitely counts as a happy ending.

The unmentioned possibility is that, of course, Miss Cass was simply trying to chat up one or more men in  Regent-street, not for financial gain but for — what? The fun of it? In the excitement of the moment? To find a new boyfriend? This, of course, would also have damned her as utterly immoral; and so we can never know.

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