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Digital Highlights: Abduction!

Title page of Ann Brookhouse's narrative.

Tabloid-style stories have been popular for far longer than what we think of as tabloid journalism. A Narrative of the Seizure & Confinement of Ann Brookhouse from the end of the eighteenth century is just such a piece. Purporting to be the true life narrative of a young female victim of abduction “as related by herself” and “written by a friend.”

Brookhouse, or her friend, relays the story with a keen sense of the dramatic, starting at a point when she started to feel she was being followed, and rising sharply to the climactic moment of the abduction itself: “…a man…suddenly caught hold of me from behind and said with vehemence, but in a low tone, “Damn! you, Madam, if you scream or make any resistance, I will fire this pistol into your mouth…” (6) Brookhouse is later told that she has been snatched from the street because “great person” has fallen in love with her and cannot stand to be without her. She tells a sad story of long captivity by a husband and wife who attempt to bring her around to the idea of the “great person” in love with her.

Unfortunately for Brookhouse, her story veers in a dark direction; while it is never directly said, it seems clear from her telling of the story that the “great person” wishes to settle money on her in return for sexual favors. Despite this, Brookhouse recounts herself as being keenly attentive to the conditions of her captivity, describing the house and rooms in which she is held, and describing, too, how she listens for sounds about her, trying to figure out where she is without being allowed to see out the windows.

Stories like this were in common circulation as an explanation for the rise in the rate of prostitution in urban areas of England during the eighteenth century: young women would be taken off the street and either forced directly into sexual slavery or bewildered into accepting some “proposal” before she fully understood what was going on. Equally common were stories where a young woman fresh from the country came into town and was inveigled into prostitution by someone, often an older woman running a bawdy house, who pretended to offer food, shelter, and often clothing and delaying the need for payment. When the new arrival was firmly indebted, the bawd could exact her transition to work on the streets as payment, threatening to turn her over to law enforcement for nonpayment of debt. Historians including Dan Cruikshank in his The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital and Hallie Rubenhold in Covent Garden Ladies: Pimp General Jack and the Extraordinary Story of Harris’ List discuss prostitution in all its forms, including abduction narratives like Brookhouse’s.

Despite the melancholy tone, Brookhouse’s story makes for exciting reading: will she give in? will she escape with honor intact? will she be rescued?

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