In 1925, the Stanford Interior Journal ran a story about a court ruling in Moultrie, Georgia: a young farmer spanked his disobedient wife and she sued him for assault and battery. Judge Ogden Persons ruled:
‘a man has a right, under certain circumstances, to place his wife across his knees, in the time-honored position in which all sinners have been placed for that peculiar form of punishment from time immemorial, and administer to her a spanking.’
We have been thinking about exactly how ‘time-honored’ spanking really is as a punishment for young adult women, and so far we have seen that people were speaking of ‘an old-fashioned spanking’ as early as the middle of the 19th century, which arguably makes it pretty time-honored by the 1920s. Now it is time to laminate those dry semantics with a layer of the actual experience that words existed to enable people to represent, or perhaps to misrepresent or imagine.
Were there real cases of post-adolescent women being spanked before the media spanking boom that began at around the time Judge Persons was making his ruling in the mid-1920s? And whatever we may find, what are we to make of it?
It’s only fair to begin by lowering expectations: the cases are going to be few and far between. But that puts the problem of interpretation firmly at center stage. Most of what we know about the past, we know because direct evidence survives and is accessible; and since the quantity of evidence tends to lessen the further back we go, it’s at least possible that the reduction in the number of spanking incidents that we see prior to the 1920s is not an objective fact but to do with a change in the balance between what remains knowable and what is irretrievably forgotten. Are there few known examples because it is something that almost never happened, or because young women were spanked so routinely that it was commonplace and consequently not worth reporting? Was it frequent but not reported because deemed private or indelicate, or was it such a rare and remarkable event that, when it did happen, it was especially likely to be reported?
Perhaps it is best to leave those questions hanging, and make a start on our actual search for information. And before 1920, a good place to start is with the suffragettes.
We have seen elsewhere how the militant campaigners for the vote provoked the less enlightened elements in society into satirical suggestions that they ought to be given a good spanking. But it wasn’t all lampoonery. At an early stage of the movement, in the 1890s, Queen Victoria, no less, opined in all seriousness that suffragettes should be spanked. And in 1908, one of them was. And what’s more, it was the one the press characterised as ‘the youngest, pluckiest and handsomest’ of them all, none other than Miss Christabel Pankhurst herself.
It happened on March 4 when 27-year-old Christabel was attending a political meeting in Liverpool. After the speeches were over, she got caught up in what sounds like an early rag week prank by medical students, in which a group of ten young men separated her from her companions and somehow inveigled her into a private room. There they proceeded to give their captured prize a sound spanking, which was later described in the press as a ‘not serious, but humiliating’ indignity.
Released afterwards, the spanked Miss Pankhurst found her fellow suffragettes and fumed that she was going to call in the police. Her friends talked her out of it, arguing that the incident would only give the movement the wrong sort of publicity if it became widely known – so the medical students got away with it, and the suffragettes did their best to hush it all up, obviously with less than 100% success.
Equally obviously, this wasn’t a routine case of a young woman being spanked: Christabel was a celebrity, and she was part of a cause that had already occasioned a lot of spanking talk, so what happened was, in effect, that a group of frisky, humorous students got together to make it come true. From their point of view, it was primarily a piece of inventive playfulness, though obviously sore-bottomed Christabel didn’t agree.
In contrast, our next case concerns another celebrity, but it took place before he had achieved his fame, and was a far more quotidian domestic, or romantic, incident.
This is the stage magician and escape artist Harry Houdini and his wife Bess, who in the mid-1890s were touring with a circus troupe. They were both aged 18 when they married in 1894, but Houdini was evidently a masterful old-school husband, who on the occasion in question had forbidden her to see a show that was playing in town. When he learned that she had defied him, he went to the theater, pulled her out by force and spanked her, then pretended the marriage was over before staging a romantic reconciliation. It was their first major quarrel, and Bess remembered it all her life; she later told the story to Houdini’s first biographer, Harold Kellock, whose book was published in 1928, two years after the subject died.
The 1890s also brings us the case of Mrs Hollis Hunnewell (née Maud Jaffray), a statuesque society woman who was known as ‘the American Juno’, and was a keen athlete, adept in sports from polo to boxing.
She married Hunnewell in 1891 when she was 20, and the incident that concerns us occurred at some time between then and 1896, when it was reported as part of a general story about her in the Boston Globe. It had reached her attention that she had been discussed in insulting terms by another society woman, whom she proceeded to seek out, and the outcome was…
She rebuked her traducer, it is reported, by lifting her bodily, laying her face downward across her knees, and spanking her soundly.
These are all stories about relatively young people: medical students, men and women in their 20s, or maybe even their late teens in the case of the Houdinis. But none of the sources for the information, including the near-contemporary ones, treat spanking as a new-fangled practice. It seems it was ‘time-honored’ even then – and to prove it, we’ll go back to 1862.
In the summer of that year, Colonel Lewis P. Buckley of Akron (1804-68), the commanding officer of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was part of the Union forces occupying the strategically important Confederate city of Winchester, Virginia. He was walking down the main street with some colleagues when he encountered what the press described as ‘a fashionably attired, rather good-looking young woman’. With the careful courtesy of occupier to occupied, he bowed politely to her. With the studied contempt of occupied for occupier, she spat in his face. And the contemporary reporter can tell us the rest:
This was more than the Colonel could endure. He caught her, put her across his knee, so arranged her garments as not to interfere with the operation, and there, in the presence of many spectators, gave her a good spanking with the flat side of his sword. The woman screamed loudly, kicked terrifically, and as soon as allowed to, skedaddled quickly.
And that tends to discredit the hypothesis that spankings were usually too indelicate to report, since this one was evidently administered on the young woman’s exposed bloomers!
A case from a decade earlier, 1852, brings us back to the theater. It concerns the dancers George Washington Smith and 31-year-old Lola Montez, who were touring the eastern US.
On July 2, the last night of their engagement in New Orleans, Lola quarreled with Smith backstage and threatened to hit him. He told her, ‘Madam, if you smack me in the face, I shall certainly smack you.’ And the Times-Picayune of New Orleans takes up the story:
He had scarcely uttered the words before she struck him with her little fist on the cheek, when Smith proceeded to carry out his threat, and had her laying across his knee ready to perform the operation, when the carpenter and prompter rushed to her rescue and separated the combatants.
Her luck didn’t hold, as we learn from Lillian Moore’s 1945 biography of Smith, which describes what happened at a rehearsal in Philadelphia:
Lola was a temperamental creature, and when irritated it was by no means unusual for her to administer a few well-directed lashes with a horse-whip which she carried with her constantly. When, in Philadelphia, she flew into one of her tantrums, Smith amazed the trembling company by turning her over his knee and administering a sound spanking! The gay and gallant lady was too astonished to do anything but submit to her punishment like a spoiled child.
And from there we might go onwards into the 18th century to find a handful of documented cases that I have discussed elsewhere: in old Orleans in 1783, the onstage spanking of the actresses in The Game of Love and Chance by disgruntled audience members; in Venice in 1775, Dr Giuseppe Mussolo getting the last word in his quarrel with Matilde Cassinis by spanking her, an incident said to have inspired the Zerlina sequence in Don Giovanni; in London in 1746, the outrage of the composer Thomas Arne that motivated the backstage spanking of actress Kitty Clive (who may also have been spanked onstage eleven years later in The Taming of the Shrew).
But we can’t venture back too far, because we haven’t quite finished with Lola Montez yet. She introduces a complication into our history, which we shall have to deal with next tme.