Wednesday, June 29, 2011

July 6, 1885 --- Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

The most sensational expose in Victorian journalism, begins in The Pall Mall Gazette.  Entitled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," the series details the London trade in young virgins, or "dainty morsels" as the Gazette's editor W.T. Stead calls them.

Readers fought rival emotions of disgust and excitement as Stead's lurid prose revelled in the "shuddering horror... constantly occurring in those dread regions of subterranean vice." Thanks to shameless advance promotion - a warning (left) was issued that "those who prefer to live in a fool's paradise of imaginary innocence" should not buy the paper - first day sales are overwhelming. In the days following, the Gazette actually ran out of newsprint.

The rival St. James Gazette called it "the vilest obscenity ever issued from a public press" and Stead's paper was removed from the ubiquitous W.H. Smith railway newsstands. Pressed by public outrage, police began arresting those vendors willing to sell the Gazette, prompting Stead to reply, "Instead of waging war against street boys ... let them prosecute us." They did and he wound up in jail.

Going beyond merely writing titillating headlines ("Strapping Girls Down"), Stead, to prove his point, had actually purchased a 13 year old girl. She cost him three pounds, an additional two bob after a midwife confirmed virgo intacta. In his zeal, perhaps, Stead had misled the girl's mother telling the woman he was buying her daughter for a maid. The girl was returned unharmed and Stead was unrepentant: "Beyond the momentary surprise of the midwife's examination, which was necessary to prove that a little harlot had not been palmed off on us, she experienced not the slightest inconvenience."

Convicted of fraud, however, he spent two months in jail. Stead gloried in his "martyrdom," declaring, "I shall not appeal and I shall not flinch." On the anniversary of his conviction each year (until 1912, when he went down with the Titanic), Stead appeared in London in convict uniform.

The series did move Parliament to pass laws raising the age of consent to 16.

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