- The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of the Secret Commission, and: Maiden Tribute: A Life of W. T. Stead
The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon is the first complete reissue of W. T. Stead’s famous series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, together with letters to the editor and editorial reports on both the reaction in Parliament and attempts to prosecute the journal for obscenity. Apart from the [End Page 198] wholly irrelevant picture on the front cover, this is a useful edition, ably edited, annotated, and introduced by Antony E. Simpson, and should find its way into university libraries and the collections of historians of sexuality. Barring several minor errors of fact (the Wilde trials were in 1895, not 1892, and London was not the only place in the country to have a professional police force before the second half of the nineteenth century), Simpson’s introduction is a good, concise summary of the history of policing and prostitution in Britain, of The Maiden Tribute itself, and of the scholarly debate surrounding it.
William Thomas Stead, a pioneer of sensationalist techniques in higher-brow journalism, penned The Maiden Tribute to chivvy the House of Commons into voting through a Criminal Law Amendment Bill. This bill promised to raise the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen and to prosecute brothel-keepers more effectively. Stead began his investigation into London’s seamy underbelly and published his findings at a time when it seemed the bill would sink. He helped whip up an alliance of moralists, feminists, and radicals that concentrated the minds of members of Parliament. The act duly passed, but Stead himself, having staged the purchase of Eliza Armstrong, a thirteen-year-old girl, to show how easily it could be done, was famously tried and served a short prison sentence for her “abduction.”
For those familiar with The Maiden Tribute only from secondary sources, the full text will make fascinating reading. Stead began on 4 July 1885 by tantalizing his readers with the horrors that he was about to serve up in his report: “We say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days” (52). Unsurprisingly, with appetites thus whetted and the promise of lurid, prurient, titillating detail, sales skyrocketed.
The Maiden Tribute consisted of four articles published between 6 and 10 July. Its title derived from the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens paid once every nine years by vanquished Athens to King Minos of Crete, the children being flung into the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. Stead’s contention, after a four-week immersion in the “London Inferno” by his “Secret Commission” (himself and a small number of helpers), was that a slave trade was thriving in the heart of London. “This very night in London, and every night,” he wrote, “year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but seven times seven . . . will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Maidens they were when this morning dawned, but to-night their ruin will be accomplished, and to-morrow they will find themselves within the portals of the maze of London brotheldom” (58). Unlike the lamenting Athenians, Londoners did not know about this tribute or did not care. [End Page 199]
Stead himself had practically nothing to say about the sacrificed boys and their modern equivalents; his focus was fixed on young teenage girls forced into selling themselves. He borrowed freely from narrative...