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“Vagabond, Common Prostitute, Prostitute,”

Page history last edited by Kelly Bowron 11 years, 9 months ago


“Vagabond, Common Prostitute, Prostitute,” John D. Lawson, The Adjudged Cases on Defenses to Crime. Vol. IV. Including Special Defenses to Crimes Against the Public. San Francisco: Bancroft-Whitney, 1887. Pg. 800.


   327.---”Vagabond”--”Common Prostitute”--”Prostitute.”--These terms are not synonymous. In Springer v. State, Wilson, J., says: 'In these cases the indictments charge that the defendant ‘did willfully and unlawfully keep a disorderly house, to wit, a house kept as a common resort for prostitutes.’ Our code defines a disorderly house as ‘one kept for the purpose of public prostitution, or as a common resort for prostitutes and vagabonds.’ This definition is different from that contained in the code before the revision. In the original code a disorderly house was ‘one kept for the purpose of public prostitution, or as a common resort for prostitutes, vagabonds, free negroes, or slaves.’ Under that definition of the offense, these indictments would unquestionably be good. It is contended, however, that, under the statue as it now is, the indictments are bad, because they fail to allege that the house was kept as a common resort for both prostitutes and vagabonds. In our opinion, this exception is well taken. Neither in common parlance nor in the definitions given by lexicographers are the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘vagabond’ synonymous. It is not every prostitute that is a vagabond, and vice versa. Our code declares that a common prostitute is a vagrant. It is only the common prostitute that is by law made a vagrant of vagabond.


    “Are all prostitutes common prostitutes? In the common acceptation of the terms they are not. In the sense in which these terms are used in the code we understand a prostitute to mean a woman who is unchaste; who has surrendered herself to illicit intercourse with men. A common prostitute is a public prostitute, who makes a business of selling the use of her person to the male sex for the purpose of illicit intercourse. A woman may be a prostitute and yet have illicit connections with one man only, but to be a common prostitute her lewdness must be more general and indiscriminate.


    “We conclude therefore that the word ‘prostitute’ as used in the definition of disorderly house does not necessarily mean and include vagabonds and that, therefore, a house kept as a common resort for prostitutes, unless they be common prostitutes, is not a disorderly house. It must also be kept as a common resort for vagabonds. If the house was kept for the purpose of public prostitution, then it is a disorderly house. It must also be kept as a common resort for vagabonds. If the house was kept for the purpose of public prostitution, then it is a disorderly house, without regard to what class of persons resort to it. But when the house is kept as a common resort, to constitute it a disorderly house, it must be kept for the common resort of two certain classes of persons, to wit, prostitutes and vagabonds.


    “This being our view of the statute we think these indictments fail to charge any offense against the law and the judgements are reversed and the prosecutions dismissed.                                Reversed and dismissed.”



               Notes on the Text



disorderly house: The argument in this piece is that the while the orginal definition of "disorderly house" included the important word "public" before prostitute, the newly revised version leaves it as simply "prostitute" which creates confusion as there are different types of prostitutes.


common acceptation of the terms: The author makes note of the fact that there is a difference between a dictionary definition (as defined by lexicographers) and an accepted usage of terms, and further points out that both forms agree that vagabond and prostitute are not synonymous.


prostitute: According to this text, a prostitute is a woman who is "unchaste" and has had illicit sex with a man. Further, it could be with one man alone and it does not indicate that the sex is for money.


common prostitute: The text differentiates a common prostitute from simply a prostitute as a common prostitute being "public" and a monetary transaction for the use of the woman's body.



                Commentary on the Text



Kelly Bowron, February 20, 2009


There are so many issues in this short piece of legal definitions that could be focused on. The idea of a lexical definition and a common usage definition of a word and how those two definitions agree and disagree. The concept of some person or thing or action being labeled as bad or good and where those concepts came from and developed. The issue of lewdness and how the definition of the word shifted from unlearned to vulgar. The idea of “public” in terms of a woman and her sexuality and how that public unchasteness creates a category all of its own and increases the negative connotation surrounding her actions. The concept of the word “house” and the not only social but legal definition of a disorderly house versus an orderly house and what house and home meant for the Victorian social structure. The social ideology that would tie in “prostitutes, vagabonds, free negroes, or slaves” as the types of people that could create a disorderly house. All of this demonstrates the importance of words, both in how society influences them and also how they influence the society itself. It also demonstrates how important it is to understand word definition within the context of a culture and a specific time period. It further shows how easy, for example, it would be for a modern reader to assume that simply the word prostitute means a woman who sells her body for sex. This would, apparently, be a mistake without the word “public” attached to the word prostitute.


That a woman having sexual intercourse with a single man outside of the confines of marriage would be considered a prostitute--just not a public one--is intriguing. It calls into question so many areas of sexuality and "place" for the Victorian woman and what it meant for a woman to find herself outside of the accepted place of home and marriage. It also begs the question of if being a public prostitute is defined by selling one's body as a "monetary transaction," then the institution of marriage as a contract shys away from being a private prostitution by the thin veneer of respectability and social acceptance alone. Meredith Moore, in her article “Private vs. Public: Female Sexuality in Victorian Culture,” writes:


Respectable women, it was claimed, could not be part of the public sphere of city life. If women left the safety of the home and were on the streets, it was claimed, they became corrupted by the transgressive values of the city. They would be thought to be prostitutes or vulnerable workingwomen, both victims of a hostile and threatening environment.


It would appear, then, that not simply having sexual relations, but just the act of moving within the public sphere could give question to the respectability of a woman and make the label of prostitution a possibility.


This brings to mind Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem "The Goblin Market" which circles around the ideas of private and public spaces and the risks that a woman takes in leaving the private home for the public market. The poem also shows the danger in the woman participating in commerce and how closely it is tied with the idea of prostitution as when Laura sells herself (in the form of a lock of her hair) she is corrupted and begins to whither and die:


But when the moon waxed bright

Her hair grew thin and grey;

She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn

To swift decay, and burn

Her fire away.


There seems to be no question that the ideas of female sexuality, commerce, and public and private spheres are all tied together in ways that great care should be taken to understand when dealing with issues of female gender and identity in the Victorian period. Words are powerful means of understanding culture and time periods and pieces such as this that show how the society itself was playing with the definition of words are valuable to the scholar.



                Works Cited



Moore, Meredith. "Private vs. Public: Female Sexuality in Victorian Culture." The Victorian Web. 2007. 19 Feb 2009. <http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/nudes/1moore4.html>.


Rossetti, Christina. "The Goblin Market." The Victorian Web. 19 Feb 2009. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/gobmarket.html>



                For Additional Reading



The Victorian Web: There is a whole section on this website devoted to issues of gender and sexuality in the Victorian time period that contains useful information on these issues.





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Comments (2)

Sarah Karlis said

at 4:57 pm on Mar 2, 2009

The legal definitions they are putting forth in this article here regarding types of prostitution are really fascinating. I am surprised as you you are, Kelly, that there to be a "prostitute" does not appear to require anything other than illicit sex. I wonder if there are other defining acts that are not mentioned here, like being paid, and if so why any other behavior that defines being a prostitute is not mentioned here. It seems that at least in Victorian literature the word mistress does not seem to be replaced with prostitute. That would lead me to believe that they are defined differently, but it is an odd thing that the definitions here do not go into very much detail about that - unless the crudeness of the act is washed over in these documents simply to be less "lewd".

nschwart@emich.edu said

at 11:41 pm on Mar 2, 2009

Or it could be another way to use different words to get a hint of what the gossip was. In a repressed society such as the Victorians had, it's hard to imagine them not gossiping about various 'forbidden' acts and such (ala East Lynne) and wanting to know more. And without being too gruesome about it, multiple definitions could serve the purpose of letting more of the gossip seep through without saying it in so many words. While having a mistress implies a stable relationship outside of the church-approved one, a prostitute could lead to speculation of a person having multiple lovers or a love of unmissionary-styled sexual contact. Along with various STDs and possibly being sex-crazed, which would have sent everybody into a frenzy of gossip and speculation.

In that way, the subtle differences are just subtle enough to get more of the story and more peeks into a darker side of the world to which many may have not been accustomed.

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