Tyburn on this date three hundred years ago saw the hanging of two women, both transgressors of the booming capital’s purported sexual mores.
The Ordinary of Newgate Paul Lorrain favored Mary Price (alias Purry Moll) and Elizabeth Cave for the occasion with “A Dehortation from living after the Flesh, that is, after the carnal Desires and sinful Lusts of our Corrupt Nature, which brings forth Death, even Eternal Death.”
Purry Moll‘s sinful Lusts didn’t really have that much to do with her crime; it’s just that she and her husband had walked away from an unedifying union after the banns of marriage were already published. It seems that her post-hubby lover upon putting out to sea had left her a tobacco box as a mark of his affection but — and this gets a little tangled — her mother‘s lover had snatched the box. Moll, clearly in a domestic passion which the scarce words on file at the Old Bailey hardly even attempt to convey, strangled to death a three-year-old girl who was the daughter of mom’s lover. (But not by mom.)
So grief-stricken was she that she insisted on pleading guilty despite the court’s repeated admonition that “if she confess’d it she must be hang’d: To which she replied, if she did confess it, she confess’d nothing but the Truth.”
With her was a woman “about 40 Years of age” of whom the Ordinary noticed — and his narrative is unfortunately truncated by a missing page — “her Face to be extreamly disfigur’d, even to that degree as to have her Nose and Lips eaten up (as it were) with the foul Disease.” Ms. Cave confirmed that “she had been a very lewd Woman, debauch’d.”
She was, in fact, a whore, as would be obvious to any 18th century cad by the cursory narration of her trial: a fellow named Sampson Barret “depos’d, that going through Drury Lane at about 11 o’Clock at Night, there was 6 or 7 Women kind standing together, who divided and made a Lane for him to go through them” whereupon Elizabeth Cave followed him and picked his pocket.
Now, with apologies to the children’s rhyme, there’s really only one reason a guy would be traversing Drury Lane at 11 o’clock at night and that he’d bump into six or seven women on his way … and baked goods weren’t the reason.
This street was a hub of London’s vigorous sex trade. Pronging off “the great thoroughfare running east from the Royal Exchange, along Fleet Street, to St. James’s Park, linking the financial and trade centre of the City with the political power base of aristocratic West London,”* Drury Lane channeled into the far less reputable Covent Garden and from the 17th century had developed into the heart of the red light district that earned this zone the sobriquet “great square of Venus.”
Here, tarts offered their wares amid the bustle of theaters and taverns, often pursuing their profession under the guise of a nominally legitimate street-hawking occupation such as flower-selling.** But little pretense was necessary: from the mid-18th century there was even an annual catalogue of area working girls, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies which by the end of its run in the 1790s was selling 8,000 copies per year. So great a boon was sex work to the economy that a German visitor half-joked that if suppressed, “London would soon be depopulated; the fine arts would be frightened away; one half of the inhabitants would be deprived of subsistence.”
In the “Morning” plate of William Hogarth‘s Four Times of the Day cycle (above), men rendezvous with prostitutes outside a notorious Covent Garden dive, Moll and Tom King’s Coffee House.
We catch an interior glimpse of this same environment in plate three of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, wherein said rake frolics at a Covent Garden brothel (below).
Unsurprisingly, venereal diseases such as that suffered by Elizabeth Cave were quite common among the more proletarian pros to be found at an hour to midnight on Drury Lane; nevertheless, they had no shortage of customers.
If Cave did indeed rob this passing john, it was unfortunate for her that she took currency. In order to save small-time criminals from the gallows, juries routinely applied “pious perjury” to downrate the value of stolen objects below the absurdly low one-shilling (12-pence) threshold for felony larceny; such maneuvers were obviously impossible when it was actual shillings that had been pilfered.
* The trade spilled aggressively out upon that same august thoroughfare, which was the route Defoe alluded to when complaining in the 1720s of “being in full Speed upon important Business, [and] have every now and then been put to the Halt; sometimes by the full Encounter of an audacious Harlot whose impudent Leer shewd she only stopp’d my Passage in order to draw my Observations to her; at other times by Twitches on the Sleeve. Lewd and ogling Salutations; and not infrequently by the more profligate Impudence of some Jades, who boldly dare to seize a Man by the Elbow and make insolent Demands of Wine and Treats before they let him go.” (Source)
** “Flower girl” consequently developed into a euphemism for a tramp. One literary artifact of this history is Eliza Doolittle of the G.B. Shaw play Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady: it’s never overtly stated in the text, but because Eliza begins as a Covent Garden flower girl her virtue is implicitly suspect … hence her repeated insistence, “I’m a good girl I am!”