I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1862, a terrifyingly violent crime-wave struck in the British capital; assailants approached their victims and put them in a choke hold while an accomplice robbed the unfortunate prey of everything of value.
But, “crime-wave” rather overstates the situation; it was more of a ripple, and a gentle one at that, that was hyped up by the press.
Victorian Street Crime
The streets of British Victorian cities were dangerous places, especially at night.
George Landow of The Victorian Web told the BBC that “London was riddled with crime and walking in many parts of the city was so dangerous that even police would not venture into them.
“Thieves with all sorts of specialities existed and some routinely killed people for handkerchiefs.”
In her 2006 book, Victorian London, historian Liza Picard quotes a French visitor in 1866 writing that “Crime is developing itself into a mania ... London has ceased to be a city which one can traverse at night with mind at rest and the hands in the pockets.”
Mugging was commonplace and was usually accompanied by violence. Chloroform sprinkled on a rag would render the victim temporarily helpless. Another technique, called bonneting, involved tipping the victim’s hat over his race to distract him.
Men were lured into dark alleyways by the prospect of a quick liaison with a prostitute only to discover a bunch of burly criminals ready to deliver a beating and robbery.
And then, a new stealing technique appeared―garrotting, sometimes spelled garotting, or garroting.
Garrotting and Robbery
Gangs engaging in the garrotting trade often operated in groups of three. According to The History Magazine, the team consisted “of a ‘front-stall,’ a ‘back-stall,’ and the garotter himself, described as the ‘nasty-man.’ The back-stall was primarily a look-out, and women were known to play this part.”
Once the two “stalls” have signalled the all-clear that there are no witnesses nor police in the vicinity, the “nasty man” goes to work. An enterprising reporter for The Cornhill Magazine decided to experience being garrotted by visiting a practitioner of the skill in prison.
He wrote that the “ruffian, coming swiftly up, flings his right arm round the victim, striking him smartly on the forehead. Instinctively, he throws his head back, and in that movement loses every chance of escape. His throat is fully offered to his assailant, who instantly embraces it with his left arm, the bone just above the wrist being pressed against the ‘apple’ of the throat.”
The victim “speedily becomes insensible” making it a simple task for the other members of the gang to relieve him of his valuables. Some garrotters used a stick or a cord placed across the throat to choke their prey unconscious.
The writer noted that women were very seldom attacked in this manner “to some last spark of manly and generous feeling which even a garrotter may cherish.”
Public Dread of the Garrotters
News of these vicious attacks spread fast, prodded along by lurid stories in the newspapers. The quality press huffed and puffed that the assaults by these brutes was somehow ungentlemanly. Here’s how The History Magazine puts it “The press vied with one another to create comparisons that were intended to alarm the population, from French Revolutionaries to Indian ‘thuggees.’ ”
The Observer expressed the opinion that the British highwayman was a superior class of person when compared with the choke-hold hooligans. It was as though using a brace of cocked pistols to aid in taking someone’s money and pocket watch was somehow nobler than strangling them into a stupor for the same purpose. The myth of the gallant and dashing highwayman was given a fresh polish.
The garrotters, on the other hand were described as “an irredeemable criminal class,” “degenerate, coarse, brutal ruffians,” and “folk devils.”
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In 1862, Hugh Pilkington, a Member of Parliament, fell into the clutches of garrotters in broad daylight in a fashionable part of the city. Also a well known antique collector in his 80s, Edwards Hawkins, was similarly attacked. These assaults provoked outrage and juiced up the level of public panic to new heights.
However, some of the more responsible journals played down the risk. No matter, people started to venture outside in groups and hired escorts in uniform to protect them.
Highway robbery is becoming an institution in London and roads like the Bayswater Road are as unsafe as Naples.”
The Spectator in 1862
The Garrotter’s Act
The alarm that overtook the population is a classic example of a moral panic; this is what happens when an irrational fear spreads widely through a population. Statistically, there was little chance of any one person becoming a victim of the garrotters, but vast numbers of people believed the villains lurked around every corner.
The weight of public opinion pressed in on MPs, especially when one of their own was attacked. The result was The Garrotter’s Act of 1863, which brought back flogging as a punishment for robbery with violence. The act allowed for up to 50 lashes to be administered. In addition, there was a general outcry in the public for toughening up of penalties handed out to criminals.
One outcome was that police and courts used the moral panic as an excuse to come down hard on bad guys. Relatively minor crimes, such as a pub brawl or a petty theft, were now charged as garrotting offences so as to attract a stiffer sentence. This also had the effect of falsely inflating the statistics on garrotting.
After about six months, the garrotters, who were probably quite few in numbers, moved on to other criminal activities and the panic faded into obscurity.
- London’s Metropolitan Police force took a lot of criticism for its handling of the garrotting scare. Giving rise to the following poem:
I won’t trust to laws or police, not I,
For their protection is all my eye;
In my own hands I take the law,
And use my own fists to guard my jaw.
- By the end of the 1860s, a quarter of the force had been let go.
- In April 2008, Gabriel Bhengu and Jabu Mbowane, both South Africans, were given 30-year sentences for killing two British men during robberies in England. Their method was to place their victims in choke holds so powerful that the men died.
- Origin: Thuggees were members of a professional criminal cult in India. Their modus operandi was to strangle people and rob them. Membership in the sect was hereditary and involved worship of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and death. It is from this group that we get the English word “thug.”
- “How Safe Was Victorian London?” Jaqueline Banerjee, The Victorian Web, February 6, 2008.
- “Where Is it Safe to Walk the Streets?” Tom Geoghegan, BBC News Magazine, January 22, 2008.
- “The 19th century Garotting Panic.” Miriam Bibby, History Magazine, undated.
- “The Science of Garotting and Housebreaking.” The Cornhill Magazine, Smith, Elder & Company, 1863.
- “Punch Responds to the ‘Outbreak’ of Garrotting (1862).” University of London, undated.
- “The Garotting Panic of 1862.”U.K. Commentators, July 6, 2008.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 10, 2020:
Hello Rupert. I am laughing and gingling because police feared to thread London streets at night. At present, the poem still holds true for my country Nigeria. Nigerians do not trust they laws, the police, and the law makers, including the courts. These are regard as thieves. Thanks for sharing.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on May 09, 2020:
That's interesting, I was thinking that very same thing even as I was writing my original comment. It seems if it works people will continue to use it.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 08, 2020:
Certainly Nathan, but as noted in "Bonus Factoids" the bad guys are still using old techniques.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on May 08, 2020:
Very fascinating. I'd never heard of this. Criminals are inventive. There's always something interesting about their antiquated methods in 19th century cities.