Hesitant to give night free reign over her beloved little blue-green orb, the sun lingered just below the horizon, spraying beams of light and long shadows in equal measure across the land. Twilight is a time of unwinding and reflection, and as the warm August evening laid the way for the coming night, Mary Hunt’s mind ambled through the events of the day, while her feet carried her through the streets of London. On one particularly peaceful stretch of road, Hunt found herself utterly alone, with only her thoughts to keep her company. The sweet scent of unharvested corn tickled her senses, while next to her long rolling waves of shadow emanated from an ocean of cornstalks swaying in the breeze. At ease in the warmth of the summer evening, and lost in the wanderings of her mind, Hunt strolled along unaware that enshrouded in the sea of shadows a solitary predator stood, his weapon unsheathed, waiting for a lone woman to come by and strike his fancy. By the time she saw him, it was already to late, the beast had snatched her with its limbs and pulled her towards its exposed-throbbing-prick. Hunt struggled valiantly, kicking and screaming with all her might. Unfortunately, the brute overpowered her and after what may have been two minutes or thirty – it is difficult to judge time when ones life is threatened and every second feels like an eternity – the fiend managed to push Hunt into the cornfield at which point he viciously shoved her to the ground, grabbed her throat, pulled up her petticoats, and raped her.
Mary Hunt’s account of the time that she was sexually assaulted was horrifying, and the last thing that I want to do is belittle the traumatic experience that she was forced to endure, by presenting it as nothing more than one of many similar cases. However, after reading the testimony of several other women – who like Hunt, stood before the Judges and Jurymen of the Old Bailey courthouse claiming to be rape victims – I could not help but recognize a pattern. A pattern which I believe can be used to help illuminate the fact that after being assaulted and raped, Hunt (along with many other women) suffered a further injustice at the hands of the the completely male dominated courthouse. Throughout this brief discourse, I will argue that Luston Vaughan was acquitted of the rape charges made against him, not because there was convincing testimony offered to suggest that he was innocent, but rather, that he was acquitted because the members of the court unjustly held the testimony of women – which included the testimony presented by Mary Hunt– in ill repute.
From the time that the Old Bailey courthouse opened in 1674 until the end of the seventeenth century, 303 women stood before the judges and jury of the court professing to be the victims of rape. In 60 of of the 303 cases presented to the court the defendant was found guilty, in the other 243 cases the defendant was acquitted of all charges. In other words, just over 80 percent of the men on trial for rape were found innocent. It is worth noting that in a time before forensics became the remarkably accurate science that it is today, rape trails almost always amounted to little more than a contest between the words of the alleged victim and the words of the accused. This means that between 1674 and 1799, if a woman stood before the judges and jury of the Old Bailey courthouse claiming to be a rape victim, more than 80 percent of the time the court would discount her as a liar and take the word of the accused male. When figures like these are presented, one cannot help but wonder how many other women, after being victimized by rape, chose not to press charges because they knew that they had less than a 20 percent chance of receiving any sort of retribution.
Although the aforementioned figures strongly suggests that gender discrimination played a key role in determining the verdicts of the rape trails that took place at the Old Bailey courthouse between 1674 and 1799, until “said” figures are attached to concrete examples of gender discrimination they are only educated speculations. By drawing specific examples of gender discrimination from the trial of Mary Hunt, I will add depth and validity to my analysis of the data that I have already provided on the Old Bailey rape trails.
On a night when ale is flowing and tongues are loosened, it is not uncommon for men to share with one another tales of their past sexual conquests. When men tell stories of how they seduced various women, they often win the cheers and praise of their peers. Unfortunately, while for men sexual promiscuity is usually a pathway to praise and glory, for women sexual promiscuity has been and still is more often than not a fast track to becoming known as an undignified slut. In other words, there is a double standard in which men are encouraged to boast about their sex lives, while women are forced to pretend that they do not have sex lives.
When reading the trial of Luston Vaughan, it quickly becomes obvious that Hunt was discriminated against because the completely male dominated courthouse endorsed the aforementioned double standard. Although Vaughan was on trial for raping Hunt, there was not a single point throughout the entire case in which the prosecution deemed it necessary to make any enquires about Vaughan’s sexual past. However, the prosecution* deemed it necessary to uncover essentially every detail about Hunt’s sexual past. After the Prosecuting Attorney accused Hunt – without evidence – of having had sexual relations with a convicted felon, he went on to further sully her reputation by illuminating the fact that Hunt had once been evicted from a building that she had been living in. Although he was unsure of the circumstances that led to Hunt’s eviction, the Prosecutor had no doubt that it was because Hunt had done something terrible. However, Rather than asking Hunt what she had done to get evicted, the Prosecutor began guessing out loud, “did not he [the Parish Officer] say he would take you up as a common street walker.” After Hunt replied no to this question, the Prosecutor asked her if she was evicted “as a common nuisance to the neighbourhood.” To this second question, Hunt also answered no. According to Hunt, the Parish Officer evicted her because she thwarted his sexual advances. By wildly guessing out loud about the reason that Hunt had been evicted from her building, the attorney imbued the jury with negative, unfounded notions about Hunt’s sex life. Although the aforementioned slanderous allegations were irrelevant to the case, and should have had no bearing whatsoever on the verdict of the trial, they almost certainly did negatively impact Hunt’s credibility in the eyes of the Jurymen. The fact that Hunt’s sex life was scrutinized and unjustly defiled by the prosecution, while Vaughan – the defendant in a rape trial – was not requested to disclose any information about his own sex life, is proof of a double standard. Women with sex lives – even if they were merely fictional sex lives created by the prosecution – could be and often were disregarded by the jury as being nothing more than untrustworthy sluts. The sex lives of men, on the other hand, no matter how potentially incriminating they might be, were more often than not dismissed as being completely irrelevant. In essence, women were penalized for being women.
Much like today, during the eighteenth century when men sat around tables in various alehouses boasting about their past sexual endeavours, they grew comfortable and proficient in sexual discourse. Women living in eighteenth century London, on the other hand, were forced to repress their sexuality, so as to avoid being deemed sluts. Under such circumstances it would have been unreasonable to expect women to be comfortable or proficient when discussing sexual matters. However, at the Old Bailey courthouse, women were penalized for not being as fluent as men in sexual discourse. This form of discrimination was evident in Hunt’s trial against Vaughan. When Hunt gave her account of the time that she was raped, she explained that when Vaughan had attacked her, his penis was hanging out of his pants. However, rather than explicitly saying that the defendant attacked her with his penis out, Hunt said, “what he had, he had out.” When discussing the male genitalia, Hunt was so uncomfortable that she would not refer to it by its proper name. Despite the fact – or perhaps in lieu of the fact – that it was quite apparent that Hunt was uncomfortable discussing the sexual details of the time that she was raped, the Prosecuting Attorney unsympathetically badgered her with questions about specific, irrelevant details of the time she was Raped. The following conversation between the Prosecuting Attorney and Hunt exemplifies the way in which the Prosecutor attempted to make Hunt uncomfortable with irrelevant questions.
Were his breeches quite unbuttoned when you first came up to him? – What I told you before is the truth, I do not mean to tell any thing else.
Were they quite unbuttoned? – They were undone, that is sufficient.
Were they quite undone? – I shall not tell you.
Were they quite unbuttoned? – Which way do you mean, Sir.
You know what breeches are, were they quite unbuttoned? – Yes, Sir, they was unbuttoned, and what he had he had out.
Which way were they undone? – You knows if you please.
No, I would rather have it from you, be so kind as to describe how they were undone, was the waistband unbuttoned? – No, Sir, that was not.
Not all the time? – Yes, Sir, after he got me into the field.
Was it before you were insensible? – Yes, Sir, when he knocked me down, and when he was upon me.
Did you complain of the buttons hurting you, were there any marks? by your account, they must have been uneasy to you? – He unbuttoned his breeches when he was upon me; he knocked me down, and got upon me, and when he was upon me, he unbuttoned his breeches.
To force Hunt to go through the pains of recounting the time that she was raped,so that he could make less than insightful speculations about button marks that might or might not appear on a rape victim seems cruel and pointless. While it is conceivable that the button on a waste-band could leave marks on a rape victim, it is also quite possible that a victim could be raped while the waste-band was buttoned without receiving any bruises. This line of questioning did nothing to advance the trial, but it did fluster Hunt and force her to lose her composure, which probably reduced her credibility in the eyes of the Jurymen. It is of little wonder that few women received any sort of retribution at the hands of the Old Bailey court, if they were fluent in conversations revolving around sexual matters, they would more than likely have been dismissed as sluts, and if they were uncomfortable and lacking proficiency in sexual discourse they would have been berated and penalized for their lack of proficiency.
When asked how long it took Vaughan to drag her to the cornfield and rape her, Hunt guessed that the entire ordeal was over and done with in about thirty minutes. The night that Hunt was allegedly raped was a warm August evening, and for that reason there were many other people out wandering the streets. Immediately before the trial came to a close, the Jury put these two pieces of information together and concluded that Hunt could not have been assaulted and raped at the side of the road for thirty minutes without anyone walking by. It is worth noting that on a couple occasions throughout the trial, Hunt explicitly told the Prosecution that she thought Vaughan intended to kill her. It is difficult to judge time when one’s life is threatened and every second feels like an eternity, and it is unlikely that Hunt had time to look at her watch while she was being choked and raped. To acquit a potential rapist over what in all likelihood was an understandable miscalculation on the part of Hunt, would be a serious injustice in and of itself, however, I would argue that Hunt (along with many other women) suffered an even greater injustice. Although the Jurymen used Hunt’s minor miscalculation to justify their verdict, one would be hard pressed to deny the fact that the stream of unwarranted allegations made against Hunt’s character weighed heavily on the Jury’s final decision. Hunt, like many other women who stood before the Judge and Jurymen of the Old Bailey courthouse, was belittled, berated, and ultimately lost her court case because of her gender.
*In Vaughan’s trail, the person questioning Mary Hunt is never given a title. However, according to the Old Bailey website, it was not common for a defendant to have a defense lawyer until the nineteenth century. The Old Bailey Website also said that most cases involved a confrontation between the prosecutor, the victim, and the defendant. For these reasons, I have deduced that the man questioning Hunt is the prosecution, but I am not absolutely certain.
All quotations from the Trial Transcription are taken from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers: