Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Cracks Terror, 1681

‘Whipping Tom’, the subject of a news pamphlet and this street ballad, made his way to London in 1681. Contemporaries thought that he was either the same man as, or had been inspired by, an earlier, country-based ‘Whipping Tom’ (who gets a likely mention in John Phillips's Virgil Travesty, 1678). Dressed in black, he waited in dark city corners for solitary women, and then made his assault, a vigorous hand spanking.

During his period of activity, he seems to have frightened the women of London into staying at home (the contemporary reports evidently regard this as a good outcome), or, if they had to be out, arming themselves with ‘Penknives, sharp bodkins, Sizzars, and the like’. But the rumour was that Tom either wore a concealed suit of chain mail, or was simply a spirit, and invulnerable.

His activities, now, would of course instantly brand him as a pervert, making these attacks simply for his own sexual gratification. The late 17th century cannot see this: ‘Some says he does it in pure love, / To such whose wives are us’d to rove;/ And that since last he came about,/ Few City Dames dare not stir out:/ The which if true, will save much Coin, / Which otherwise they’d spend in vain’ (and I do like that ‘coin/vain’ rhyme!). As you see, ‘Whipping Tom’ was represented as an agent of social correction: not something that you’d wish to have happen to one of the women in your own family, perhaps, but, overall, a good thing, distributing only what was generally deserved. The attitude was not a very considered one, while the pamphlet, in the main, colludes with 'Whipping Tom', in describing his deeds with a bawdy relish – at least of language, for it seems to stop short of any acknowledgement that these were sexual encounters for ‘Tom’: ‘They durst not stir out after Candlelight … for fear of having an Alarum beaten upon their Tobies’ .. ‘and turning them up as nimble as an Eeel, makes their Butt ends cry Spanko’.

The ballad, in representing Tom as ‘the Crack’s Terror’, assigns to him a particular class of victim, and therefore misrepresents the indiscriminate attacks he made. Like everything else in the ballad, the term ‘crack’ comes from the news pamphlet: ‘Another time as we are informed, he meeting with a demure Crack or Miss of the Town (who came to accost him) he so swinged her tail, that tis thought, she will not be capable of her Trade for some considerable time.’ A ‘Crack’, a 17th century idiom I’d missed (though it will surely be in Gordon Williams’s Dictionary of Sexual Slang and Imagery in Shakespeare and Stuart Literature) was a prostitute. But you can tell that the anecdote is spurious, written for the sake of a poor joke: compare these convincing specifics: ‘Another time the Woman that cries hot Gray Pease about the Streets, coming up Ram Alley in Fleet Street … a cold hand was lay’d upon her, and up flew her heels, and down fell the Pease Tub, when (as she has farther related) her sences were so charmed, that she lost all power of Resistance, and left him to Tyranize over her Posteriors at pleasure, the which when he had done, he left her to scrape up her ware as well as she could, for the use of such longing Ladies as are affected with such Diet.’

Shakespeare knew about these proclivities – there’s Cleopatra, the dominatrix of the imagination:

The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes…

The stupefied grey pea seller ambushed in Ram Alley, unable to resist, her senses charmed, letting Tom take his strange pleasure, seems a world away from Cleopatra, but trembles on the edge of Cleopatra’s assertion that ‘The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desir’d’. Her trade, in what I take to be salt-preserved peas, ministers to one of the other unaccountable longings of women.

Men dressed as woman went out on vigilante patrol, but Tom was never lured into a misplaced attack leading to his arrest. Aphra Behn mentions him in her play of 1682, The City Heiress ('and at last defeated, turn Whipping Tom, to revenge yourself on the whole sex'), there are a couple of other allusions, and then he slips back into the shadows, pioneer of a gaudy mass-produced pornographic fantasy.

I do not think I will look for any illustrative links for this one...

No comments: