Friday, September 25, 2009

Tart of the Week: Elizabeth Needham

You might recognize this tart. The only image we have of her is a satirized one by William Hogarth from the first image from A Harlot's Progress. But what many may not know is that Mother Needham was a very real person; a pimp, a cunning businesswoman, and tart by all means.

Who knows why or how Elizabeth got involved in the brothel business but she opened up one of the nicest brothels in London, and did so on the nicer side of the city. Elizabeth's face may have been scared by her various venereal diseases but she dressed in fine silks and wanted no less for her fancy brothel which demanded the best. Her whores had only the best clothes, but that was because they were ones that they were forced to rent from Elizabeth. The woman was a shrewd businesswoman, which perhaps explains why she was such a successful procuress. Elizabeth was known to pick up her pretty prostitutes from the streets. She invited the homeless girls to live with her under false pretenses. Soon the girls found themselves having to pay a heavy rent in order to live and work in the elegant brothel. If they couldn't pay up they were forced to take on more customers or face debtor's prison.

Elizabeth wasn't unfamiliar with prison herself. On 21 July 1724 The Daily Journal reported,
Yesterday morning the celebrated Mother Needham and Mother Bird, two eminent conservators of the Game of the Kingdom, were committed to Newgate; their houses being disturb’d the night before by the Constables, who disengaged the Gentlemen and Ladies to a great number, and carried them to the Round-House. This being the first time Mrs Needham ever received publick correction, since her being at the head of venal affairs in this town, ’tis thought will be the ruin of her houshold.
Yes, Elizabeth was quite the drama queen. When she wasn't herding young innocents into servitude, her house was burning down with Frenchmen in it. She also had the pleasure to house the infamous prossie, Sally Salisbury in her confines. The newspapers and gossipers always seemed to have something to talk about with Mother Needham around.

However, tongues can only wag for so long when a woman is condemned. A raid on brothels sent Elizabeth to court to pay for her crimes. She was fined a shilling and sentenced to two days in the pillory. As with many of our tarts' judgment days, the whole town showed up to witness. Elizabeth was feeling ill so was allowed to lay face down in front of the pillory. Someone (maybe Elizabeth herself) paid guards to stand in front of Elizabeth as some sort of protection from the onslaught of what she was about to be pelted with. The crowd was large and very rowdy. A little boy died when he fell on a iron fence, trying to get a better look. By the time Elizabeth was brought to the pillory the crowd was out for blood, her blood. They were so violent in pelting Elizabeth that she was dragged off the pillory half-dead, despite her face-down position and guards. Her wounds would prove to be fatal and Elizabeth soon died from the ordeal before she could even make it to the second day of her sentence. While Elizabeth was not the nicest person in the world, her violent martyrdom begs the question: why so bitter?
May he who is without guilt cast the first stone.


  1. I was thinking thank goodness such methods of punishment aren't permitted nowadays, but remembered that in some countries women accused of adultery are stoned to death. These are supposed civilised times but really, society hasn't changed much, if at all.

    Hope you haven't got too much of a hangover Heather, after Arthur Day! :D

  2. I like how Guinness brings out the fierce social justice conservator in you, Heather. Heaven knows I developed most of my civic outrage while on benders of various stripes.
    In any event, I wonder what the 'visitors' suffered from their end of the mass arrest? It is so sexist that the madame, no matter how vile she may have been to her, as you say, prossies, would suffer more than the guests, who were just as 'guilty' of 'amorality' and who, additionally, were probably bringing diseases home to their wives between shags on the other end of town. Wow, I'm getting pretty pissed off and I'm not even pissed.

  3. The more things change, the more they stay the same is so true, women are still being blamed and punished for providing something that men demand, but are ashamed to admit. Progress indeed!

  4. what a coinky-dink I was just looking at this image in my illustrated Fanny Hill this morning.

  5. Hahaha, you guys are too funny! As one of my friends says, oh no you're one of those drink and preach killjoys.

    @Sue- You said it sister! Couldn't have worded it better myself

  6. Death by pelting is pretty harsh, but I can't say I have a lot of sympathy for someone who basically sold young girls into sexual slavery. By my standards, lots of sins that people were put to death for in the past were not nearly as bad.

  7. You have a very valid point there Aloha.