The brilliant and ballsy life of Ireland’s favourite courtesan, Peg Plunkett

How a ‘fallen woman’ became not only Ireland’s most prolific courtesan but one of histories ballsiest bitches

‘Chastity I willingly acknowledge is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But I may be allowed to ask—Is it the only one?’ 

This is one of the opening lines of Peg Plunkett’s 1795 memoir. An archetypal good girl, who became a fallen women and then rose to become Ireland’s premier courtesan, Peg built much of her adult life on challenging what society expected of her.

The story of her life is jam packed with scandal, sex and good times, it’s a proud middle finger up to gendered morality. But I have to tell you right now, this won’t just be a rollicking romp through Dublin’s red light district. Peg’s life was littered with tragedy, she was a victim of abuse and experienced a terrifying level of violence. But each time she somehow managed to come back, more brilliant and ballsy than before.

Peg Plunkett was one of histories greatest survivors and I cannot wait for you to meet her

Quick trigger warning this article contains mention of domestic violence, violence against women and miscarriage.
Peg Plunkett
portrait of Peg Plunkett, artist unknown

Peg was born in Killough sometime between 1727 (gaged from her last memoir) and 1742 (from modern historian findings.) If you’re thinking ‘dear god this is a ridiculous piss take of a lady never revealing her age’ then you’re right!

Peg was deliberately vague about when she was born. And not only that. A lot of what we know about Peg (especially in her early days) comes from her memoirs. However like most of us do when recounting a story, she totally omits anything she finds boring. So sure she might regale us with anecdotes of her incredible life, but she’ll do it leaving out dates, times and locations. Which works in the context of telling a great tale, but is really bloody annoying when it comes to studying her life. However, there are some facts about her childhood that we do know.

Pegs dad and mum were first cousins and had a whopping 22 children, although only eight survived. Three boys and five girls, with Peg falling somewhere in the middle.

With a family of eight in rural 18th century Ireland around the time of a mass famine, statistics wise, Peg should have grown up on the breadline, but she was one of the lucky ones.

Her dad was a wealthy landowner so could shield his family from the harsh realities that waited just outside their door. Behind the gated walls of the families country house, Peg enjoyed warmth, music, dancing and got a solid education.

She was expected to became a respectable woman, to marry well, perhaps a business man like two of her sisters already had. She’d pop out some babies, make a nice home and be a good wife. The end. Not exactly the most exciting life, but solid and dependable. Her future was set.

But then everything came crashing down when fever swept the family. Peg was quickly sent away, to live with an uncle. By the time she returned home her mother was dead, her older brother was dead and her father was broken. Unable to cope he handed over the running of the family to Pegs elder brother, Christopher.

Just like that all hopes for Pegs future were set ablaze.

Christopher was an out and out dick and as such relished his role as head of the household, ruling with an iron fist. He spent wildly, bullied those around him and basked in the endless power he now had over his sisters. He was in charge of the money that would be used to help secure them good marriages and so of course it was that of money that he spent with such gay abandon.

To get away with this finical delinquency, he decided to refuse any proposals that came his sisters way. By doing this he could carry on splashing the cash and his sisters would remain stuck at home, free for him to bully them as he pleased. A true win for Christopher, or so he thought.

You see after a while one of Pegs older sisters decided she done with this BS, packed up and moved to Dublin (Peg doesn’t give her sisters name, which isn’t super annoying at all…)

Soon the sister met a man who was happy to marry her without all the bells and whistles. And so they did. But not before she came back to publicly call out Christopher for being a total and utter ass hat. Declaring she would rather become a woman of her own making than Christopher’s servant.

Oh and as an extra middle finger to Christopher, the sister took 15 year old Peg to Dublin too.

f you
A modern depiction of Peg leaving home for Dublin (probably)

Peg fell in love with Dublin. She roamed the city, taking in all it had to offer and in return flirted up a storm with every eligible man she met. Here she flourished, her bright wit and beauty making her the centre of attention. She discovered a love for entertainment, dizzying nights out in foggy rooms and of course, the company of smart, handsome men.

By the time Christopher demanded her return home, Peg had a flock of suitors and proposals. It was a get out of jail free card that Christopher wasn’t going to bend to. He’d let one sister get away and it wasn’t going to happen again. He not only refused Peg’s dowry and rejected proposals, he actively worked to scare men away from her.

With Peg and her younger sister now successfully trapped at home, Christopher turned all his attention to extinguishing Peg’s new light (he didn’t want her getting ideas after all!). 

That’s when the beatings started. Christopher would whip Peg until her body was covered in bruises and welts. He wanted her weak. A crumpled wreck on the floor. 

Peg managed to escape for a short period to one of her married sisters houses. Here she went all in on her plan to get out from under Christopher’s thumb for good. She needed to find a husband, one who’d treat her well and wouldn’t back down to Christopher’s threats.

This was a tall order and sadly the only eligible guy who’d take her was the elderly grocer. Peg was desperate but not that desperate, so even though the grocer asked for her hand in marriage, she was for once happy knowing Christopher would scare him away.

Nope! This was the one time her dad stepped in and so Peg was now that unhappily counting down the days to her wedding. But then she met another man. An already engaged man (red flag!) who proposed to Peg and promised her a new life far away from all her troubles. Of course Peg jumped at the chance and the pair ran away to elope.

But like so much in Peg’s life, it wasn’t to be. Whilst staying in an inn one night, Peg was awakened by her brother in law bursting into her bedroom waving a pistol. He was quickly followed by two mates, also armed, who pointed their guns straight at the pair. In a matter of seconds Peg’s lover escaped through the window and she was dragged back home to Christopher.

I’m sorry to say it’s about to go more downhill

Life got worse for Peg. She tried to escape to Dublin a few more times but was always dragged back home. Christopher’s beatings got worse, to the point that she’d be left unable to leave her bed for days afterwards.

Pegs’ younger sister was also struggling. Trapped in her gilded cage, she’d watched Peg’s attempts at freedom and felt any escape from Christopher and captivity was impossible. She stopped eating, and retreating inside, a shadow of her former self. Peg tried to care for her sister, but there was only so much she could do. Condemned to watch on as her sister slipped away. Taking to her bed one day and never leaving. She died shortly afterwards.

Not long after her sisters death, Christopher whipped Peg until she was on her knees. Brutally beating her as she vomited blood and eventually lay unmoving on the cold floor.

Peg was bed bound for three months. Lying in bed, in constant pain she realised she had to get out. For good this time.

As soon as she could get up, she convinced her dad to give her enough cash to get to Dublin. Called a carriage and left.

map of Dublin from 1780s
Map of Dublin a few years after Peg first arrived for good

Once more Pegs sisters took her in. Slowly she shook off the shackles that had weighed her down and returned to the bright thing about town she’d been before.

Peg didn’t know what lay ahead if her but the city around her was growing more wonderful every day and she hoped she would to.

Her brother in law introduced her to one Mr Dardis. Being relatively poor he was by no means presented as a suitor for Peg, but ever the romantic, she had other ideas. The pair furtive arranged to meet after dark, away from her families prying eyes. On those breathless nighttime rendezvous Peg fell in love.

Dardis secretly proposed and just like that, Peg was not twenty and yet somehow onto engagement number 3. 

But this wouldn’t be like her other engagements because she chose to have sex with Dardis. This might seem like a perfectly normal thing to do, but in the 18th century this was a huge and potential life changing decision. To have sex with a man outside marriage could mark a woman as ‘ruined’. If the marriage didn’t go ahead, her future would be in tatters. But Peg was young and in love, so she went with her heart.

Then Peg realised she was pregnant.

To make matters she couldn’t let her family know, for fear it would ruin her. Worse still, Dardis decided that actually, he didn’t want to marry her now. Which definitely did threaten to ruin her. Terrified of the repercussions she ran away.

She was alone, penniless and pregnant, But then Dardis came to her rescue. Well sort of. He found her somewhere to live – a brothel, before moving Peg to the country to quietly have the baby. After which Peg and her new born daughter moved back to Dublin to live with Dardis.

This wasn’t a happy ending though.

Peg was spiralling down. She constantly beat herself up for yet again falling in love with the wrong guy. She was struggling for money, selling off her possessions for food. She couldn’t count on her family in Dublin, who had found out that she not only had a child out of wedlock but she’d lived in a brothel and as such they didn’t want this harlot in their lives. And then there was the baby, who she saw as nothing more than another sign of her failings.

Peg didn’t know what to do, but she thought she knew would she deserved.

Peg arrived alone at her family house. Crying she begged Christopher to take her back. But he refused. Even her abuser didn’t want her now.

She went back to Dublin to beg her sisters for help. They too turned her away saying

‘If a morsel of bread would save me from death and destruction, I would refuse it to you’

Peg was now truly alone in the world. Left to count pennies for a tiny room and survive on watered down broth. Gone was the sparkling beauty who’d once taken Dublin by storm. In her place a fallen women hidden behind tattered clothes.

Whilst working out what to do next, Peg met one Thomas Caulfield in a Dublin tea house. A wealthy wine seller, he took a shine to Peg. Walking her home that night he dropped two guineas into her cleavage and promised that if she would go home with him he would take care of her.

Peg took this illicit invitation incredibly well. She didn’t bulk or run, instead she saw it as a sort of come to Jesus moment. Peg later said it helped her she see a new future for herself

‘Then all was distress, doubt and uncertainty. Now my mind was tranquil and I looked forward in hope’

And just like that, she decided to become a courtesan. As you do. 

whats his type
Because Peg can make it work

Caulfield put Peg up in her own place and showered her with gifts. She received a steady income and was back on her feet. Then Peg fell pregnant again. But this time she knew the position she was in. She arranged for Caulfield to continue giving her and their new son enough money to live off, even after he left her to marry another woman.

With her new cash and freedom Peg spent her days and nights out in Dublin’s music halls and taverns. She made friends with other women, whose tarnished reputations had taken them down more alternative career routes. She was in her early twenties and loved it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the moment.

But then once more, tragedy. Peg’s son died. Devastated, the situation was made worse when Caulfield used their child’s death as an excuse to cut her off.

But Peg bounced back. After all, being a courtesan was her job now, so she went off to find a new man. This cycle continued until she met one Mr Leeson (Peg never gives us his true name, but it’s likely he was Jospeh Leeson, the son of an English Earl who became a member of Irish Parliament)

Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown by Pompeo Batoni in 1751
Joseph Leeson 2nd Earl of Milltown (fancy!) pictured in 1751

Lesson moved Peg in with him and she happily basked in the riches that came with her new role. She still loved to party and also have the odd affair but tried to play this down a least a little for her new gig.

Eventually Leeson and Peg moved to his country pile in Kildare. There she lived the life she was once promised, the lady of a country estate. It was fine enough, but soon the call of city was to much. Though for safety, Leeson moved Peg to the outskirts of Dublin, in the hopes it would stop her from having affairs and living it up with her old friends.

It didn’t work.

The thing was, to Peg, this was a business relationship. She didn’t love Leeson, he paid her to be his mistress. So she believed she should be allowed to have sex with other people. To go out with her friends and to live the life she wanted. She’d been constrained and punished in the name of gendered morality for so long and she was over it. After all, if a man was in her position, wouldn’t he do the same?

Leeson demanded that Peg be monogamous to him. She claimed he actually proposed to her, but she wouldn’t accept, later saying:

‘I looked upon marriage merely as a human institution, calculated chiefly to fix the legitimisation of children and oblige parents to bring them up and provide for them. To ascertain the decent of property and also to bind two persons together, even if they might be disgusted and heartily tired of one another.’

That my friends is what we call a HOT 18th century take.

Peg was by no means a woman of her time. She was a fallen woman who had gone against the morality that once beat her down and was now becoming her own person. She would not abide by what was expected if her anymore.

Modern adaptation of Peg leaving Leeson (I mean…she’s called Peggy so lets say this loosely works OK)

And so a newly empowered Peg took up with another rich gentleman, Buck Lawless (great name, sadly *spoiler alert* not a great guy). Together they had several children, though none would survive childhood.

And yet, despite this tragedy and the fact this was initially a business transaction, the pair fell in love.

To say it was a surprise for Peg would be an understatement. She hadn’t intended to fall in love again, but it had happened. And this time she wanted it to work, hell, she even managed to stay monogamous!

At first the relationship was bliss. All loving looks and halcyon days. But then jealousy set in. Lawless struggled with the fact that Peg was a known courtesan. If she smiled at another man, it would provoke a massive argument. Then he’d flirt with other women to make Peg jealous and then once more, the pair would be in a shouting match.

Then their arguments started to turn physical. During one fight, Lawless pinned a pregnant Peg down in the bed, beating her so badly a doctor had to be called. Peg would lose the baby.

Once more Peg was living with an abuser. But like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself and chose to stay with Lawless.

However, in what would prove ultimately lucky for Peg, Lawless was running out of cash. He’d heard about people striking it rich in America and decided to try his luck there. This would of course mean leaving Peg, who by the way, was once again pregnant!

Peg was devastated at the idea of her lover leaving her, but Lawless promised it wouldn’t be for long and in the meantime he’d send money back for her and the baby….

Why are you like this Buck? WHY?!?

Peg gave birth to their daughter and waited to hear from Lawless. They weren’t married, but they were in love. They had a baby together, that had to mean something, right?

For months, Peg faithfully waited. She turned down offers for courtesan work and read up on American affairs, hoping to get glimpse of what Lawless might be up to. But he never appeared. He never wrote to her and he never sent back money.

Peg realised that she’d not only been dumped. but ghosted, 18th century style. 

She allowed herself to be devastated for a bit, but then then picked herself back up. Peg was resolute that she would not depend on a man to build her life, but instead use them as a means to create her own.

And so Peg set herself back up as a courtesan. Her first serious client was a clergyman (of course it was…), the pair had a child before she was back to the cycle of one man in, one man out. But courtesan work only paid so much and then there was the penniless periods between gigs.

Peg decided she wanted something more stable so in the mid 1770’s she joined forces with her friend Sally Hayes and set up a brothel.

Situated in an upscale area of Dublin, Peg wanted her brothel to be as swanky as possible. Each sex worker was hand picked by her, dressed in sophisticated fashions and were able to hold their own in political conversations. Champagne flowed, entertainment was dazzling and soon Peg and Sally were the talk of Dublin.

Of course her new found fame was of the infamous kind, but Peg didn’t really care. When someone shouted at her:

‘Oy Peg! Who slept with you last night, Peg?’

She just rolled her eyes and called back

‘Manners you dogs!’

Things were going great and the money Peg was earning wasn’t bad either. So what else do you do when you’re newly flush with cash? Hire a musician to follow you around constantly of course!

Ok, well maybe that’s not what most people would do, but it’s what Peg did. She wasn’t exactly the best at making good finical decisions (something which as we know by now, constantly bit her on the arse). She was of the mindset that while she had cash she’d spend the hell out of it! And oh boy did she. Out out every night in more glamorous frocks than the last, popping bottles and generally painting the town red with her business partner and best friend, Sally.

But you know how it goes when you’re living your best life. Someone has to try and ruin it. And 9 times out of 10 that someone is your ex.

That’s right! Buck Lawless is back!

eye roll
This fucker. The literal turd that will not flush

After going MIA for several years he popped up out of the blue to tell Peg he was back in Ireland and asked her to come visit him in Cork. Peg wasn’t keen, but Sally knew that her friend was still hung up on Lawless and so convinced Peg to go see him.

The two women rocked up to Cork determined to:

  • A) party
  • B) do it all on Lawless dime

And they did. For a month! Unfortunately it wasn’t just drinking and dancing. Peg and Lawless started a relationship again. By the time Peg and Sally went back to their Dublin brothel, Peg was pregnant (it’s her ninth for those counting). Unfortunately Buck Lawless and his love child weren’t the only things Peg had to worry about.

In November 1779 tragedy turned Peg’s world on its head once more. A gang with the frankly terrible name, the Pinking Dindies, broke into her house. They smashed up the place and then beat Peg until she was unconscious. Peg’s two year old daughter watched on as the young men beat her unresponsive pregnant mother. Peg would lose her baby and her daughter also died (Peg claimed of shock)

Furious and unbowed, Peg wanted retribution.

But unlike her attackers, she took the high road. She filed a suit against seven of the youths, who were all Trinity College students. The case was not in Pegs favour. After all, she was a ‘whore’ and unlikely to be taken seriously in court. Not to mention that her attackers threatened to kill her if she didn’t drop the case. But she stood tall, casually mentioning that she carried a pistol she was all to happy to use should the men come near her again.

Peg won the day in court. She received finical compensation and ensured her attackers left Dublin for good.

However the loss of her children left Peg bereft. Of her nine children, eight of whom she’d actually raised, those were the only ones who’d survived and now they too were gone.

Depressed and still in constant pain from her injuries, Peg longed for a change.

You know whose coming back to fuck this horrible situation up further don’t you? That’s right! Buck Lawless! Although he’d now moved to London, he pleaded that with Peg to come live with him. He wrote her sweet love letters and promised her a fresh start in London. Peg figured at this point she had nothing to lose. So she sold up and moved to London.

hello darkness
No good can come of this…

Aaaaand of course it turned out that Buck Lawless, being Buck Lawless, was shacked up with another woman. This time Peg was done. Refusing to see him and rejecting his oh so remorseful advances.

Peg tried to make a new life for herself in London, but she just couldn’t get along with the city. Though she managed to stay long enough to insult the Prince Regent not once but twice (that’s our girl) first by ordering the same waistcoats as him for her shoemaker and then by riding down the road next to him.

With ridiculous royal protocol well and truly smashed, Peg made her way back to Dublin.

On arriving she was greeted by her best girl Sally Hayes and another friend Moll Hall. Together the trio made it a point to go out on the town whenever they could.

And then they were banned from doing so.

The celebrated musician Signor Carnavalli was the hottest ticket in town, however he expressly forbidden, as Peg put it, ‘every lady of my description’ from attending. Of course Peg totally ignored this and rocked up anyway. However as the most famous courtesan in Dublin, she was quickly spotted and chucked out. Told in no uncertain terms that her kind of woman was not wanted here.

Peg was not having this. She returned to the theatre the next day with a warrant against Signor Carnavalli, for throwing her out despite her having paid for a ticket.

Peg was accompanied by four hulking bailiffs who proceeded to haul the musician off to prison. Dusting herself off, Peg then matched into the theatre and apologised to the waiting audience, explaining that Mr Carnavalli was no in prison thanks to his conduct towards her.

Peg’s defiance made headlines. All of Dublin knew Peg Plunkett was back in business and this time she wasn’t letting anyone’s bullshit slide.

Business boomed with Pegs clients including some of Ireland’s most prolific men of the day. Her wealth and notoriety  soared for the next few years. Peg using this as a platform to cement her place in society by throwing huge parties and masquerades (despite them being banned).

Is she blowing all her money once again? Yes. But at least she is doing it in style

Throughout the 1780’s Peg discovered she had somewhat of a soft spot for a man in military uniform. With thousands of soldiers stationed in Ireland, both serving and waiting to hear if they were to shipped out to fight in the British Empires colonies, soldiers were staple in Peg’s brothel clientele.

Of course it wasn’t long before Peg was starting affairs of the books. Sally Hayes and Peg started a string of relationships. They burnt hot and fierce, but as soon as the soldier in question was posted abroad, things quickly cooled off.

Though Peg describes falling in love a few times with some of these men, things never got serious. She wouldn’t let them. When one Captain Cunynghame begged Peg to go with him, she declined as:

‘…though he was a fine showy fellow, I had much rather remain in Dublin, where I knew every wish could be gratified’

After all, why would she leave the empire she built? By now Peg was known as ‘the reigning vice queen’. She set up another high end brothel and was enjoying life as an unlikely member of Dublin’s high society. No longer were people ashamed to be seen with Peg, she was an established part of the elite.

She started an affair with Ireland’s Lieutenant, The Duke of Rutland that made the cities front pages. This created a media whirlwind around her. Even simple trip to the theatre became a point of gossip and scandal. Soon every move Peg made was discussed and poured over.

And then Peg did something truly shocking – she got married

…well only after she made it clear to her new spouse that she didn’t love him, actually she hated him and was in it purely because he was getting a title.

Her intended was Barry Yelverton, son to a baron and by all acccounts, the worst. But, Peg loved the idea of being an infamous courtesan with the title ‘the right honourable.’ Oh also, his family were really rich, which Peg was also a fan of.

The pair were married by a former minister and almost immediately broke up. When Yelverton’s Dad offered Peg a ton of money to dissolve the marriage she happily accepted and ditched her husband.

Peg wasn’t proud of what she’d done. After all it wasn’t like she needed the money or the title. She’d just done it because she could. It was cruel and unnecessary but it was also an F you to how the morality of marriage had screwed her over in the past. No longer was she the girl who was thrown out like rubbish when men’s feelings changed. She was Peg Plunkett, Queen of Vice, she could turn the tables and make men disposable. She was untouchable.

Peg and sally
Peg and Sally out to take men for everything they can get

Then after thirty plus years in the courtesan business, Peg decided she was done. She’d worked hard and now she could just bask in the spoils of her success.

After doing some maths, Peg calculated that once all her clients paid in their I.O.U’s she’d have enough to retire on. Feeling safe in the knowledge that all good gentlemen paid their debts, Peg didn’t wait for the men to actually pay, instead buying a house in Blackrock, a town just outside of Dublin..

The bliss of retirement didn’t last long. Peg being Peg and crap with money she hadn’t done her sums rights. Her bank accounts were haemorrhaging money and if she didn’t do something fast, it wouldn’t be her new home in Blackrock she’d be living in, but debtors prison.

Peg called on those I.O.U’s she was counting. But surprise surprise, the men weren’t planning on ever paying up. 

Once more, it looked like Peg was screwed. But she was determined that although she might be down, she wasn’t out.

Fine, her clients weren’t going to pay up. That was ok. Because she knew another way to get them to pay and earn a tidy sum at the same time. She’d write her memoirs. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy the juicy story of Ireland’s leading courtesan. Obviously she’d have to name names, including those of her most high profile clients…unless they paid up.

In 1795 Peg released her first memoir. It was a hit and closely followed by a second. 

She penned a third, however by the time it was released in 1797, Peg had died. 

She was remembered for her role as the nations leading courtesan, but also for her unwillingness to bend to what was expected of her. Still at the very end of life, refusing to let the cards life dealt her keep her down.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more?

Well you can read Pegs memoirs (for free!!) here I’d also suggest checking out Julie Peakman’s book, Peg Plunkett, Memoirs of a Whore, which is currently a steal on kindle for a little over £3.

How show girls bolstered the blitz

In September 1940, when bombs first fell on London, there were forty two theatres in the city’s West End. But as the dust settled, only one remained, its lights on, the show still going.

The Windmill Theatre, known for its show girls, fan dances and naked tableaux, was the capitals unlikely Blitz stalwart. But what made this little strip show that could even more incredible was that it not only positioned itself as London’s go to wartime theatre, but actively worked to make itself a key player in the allied fight to win WW2.

Press photo of The Windmill Theatre and its infamous ‘We Never Closed’ signage

In the early 1930’s, Laura Henderson (more commonly known as ‘Mrs Henderson’) bought The Windmill Theatre. Previously a cinema, she had it totally pulled apart and transformed into a tiny theatre that she hoped would celebrate Britain’s many storied variety acts.

Sadly for Mrs Henderson, variety was on its last legs. The audience were nowhere to be found, and down and out variety performers far outnumbered those in work.

So Mrs Henderson roped in entertainment maestro, Vivian Van Damm (more commonly known as VD) to think up a way of making her variety theatre a sell-able form of entertainment.

VD re-branded the theatre as an all British home for a truly British art form and its homegrown British acts (can you see a theme here?). Alongside the patriotic love fest, The Windmill was also sold as a sort of charity, after all, Mrs Henderson was giving previously unemployed performers work, which if you squint hard enough, could technically be counted as charity.

But all of this wasn’t enough to put the theatre in the black. You see, no matter how much you re-branded it, at its core The Windmill just wasn’t doing anything different. It was still just another theatrical revue.

So, with rival revues running all over London, ones that offered tons of acts and ran all day long, why pick the Windmill over anything else?

Answer: Naked Tableaux

A 1934 tableaux, entitled, My Pearls

The brainchild of VD, the idea of naked women on a London stage was at once, new, taboo and a must see ticket.

Sure the idea of half dressed women creating a picture on stage, had clear roots in regency era theatre, BUT it hadn’t been done to the level that The Windmill was offering.

Which is exactly why The Lord Chamberlain took such an interest in The Windmill girls.

The Lord Chamberlain was the censor for all theatrical pursuits and thus the person who could license The Windmill’s use of nudity to this level. But, a stiff upper-class Lord, licensing erotic theatre in the 1930s? Doesn’t seem likely right?

Enter Mrs Henderson… who just happened to know Lord Cromer, the current Lord Chamberlain. Mrs Henderson hounded Cromer, showing him how The Windmill ran and that everything was above board, crucially arguing that her show wouldn’t be titillating audiences, but would in fact be a true artistic endeavour.

After all, you wouldn’t argue that the Venus Dimilo put her boobs away. So much like a statue, if the naked windmill girls didn’t move, they couldn’t possibly be considered ‘vulgar’ public pornography.

And so, The Windmill not only got their license, but censorship backing that prevented morality groups from forcing them into closure.

Programme from a 1930s-production at the Hammermsith Lyric direct from the Windmill Theatre

Throughout the 1930’s, The Windmill ran under the banner:

‘Naughty specialities, gorgeous girls and comics who are destined to go places’

Female dancers, singers and show girls, were sandwiched between male comedians sets, with the highlight of each show being the multiple nude tableaux’s, offering depictions of art, historical events and fiction all told by nude female live statues.

Suddenly The Windmill ticket office was buzzing! But if you thought that audience inside the theatre would be the same, you’d be wrong.

Audiences to the show were often deathly quiet. And as one former Windmill Girl, Doris Barry remembered, much of the audience were:

‘Men with raincoats over their knees, half of them playing with themselves’

It was far from a good experience for the girls on stage. Many of whom were young and wanted to perform, not be openly masturbated at.

Then WW2 hit and everything changed.

Staged photo of Windmill dancers performing in gas masks

After the blitz truly started in 1940, The Windmill found fame as one of the only theatres not to close up shop. Dubbed the ‘Great little windmill’ by press.

But just staying open when there was no bomb insight, wasn’t good enough for VD. He wanted The Windmill Theatre to never close.

The theatre’s layout meant that -hypothetically- bombs could be raining right outside it’s doors, but those in its theatre would still be safe.

The way VD saw it, The Windmill could and should be the one place in London that could keep its lights on during those hellish nights and do it with laughter and a healthy dose of nudity – it was a hell of a way to give Hitler the middle finger!

And so, VD militarised The Windmills workforce. Staff were put on bomb and fire watching rotas and they strengthened the theatre exterior with sandbags.

Most of the company moved into the theatre itself, both to be able to take on extra shows and for safety, with an emergency bunker being installed.

Shows were altered to include wartime themed numbers and tableauxs. With VD ensuring around 500 free tickets per week were given to soldiers. Soon the brigade of creepy mac wearers were gone and The Windmills audience were allied soldiers from all over the world.

The girls became pin ups, not only during performances but in the everyday. With staged pictures of their ‘daily lives’ in their new underground dorms being released to the public. Catipulted into a strange type of duel celebrity, the Windmill Girls became postcard pin ups for soldiers a long way from home. But they also served as a type of propaganda on the home front, providing Britain with a much needed reminder that life, laughter and fun could still go on.

Staged photo of Windmill performers sleeping

And this really cannot be overstated: The Windmill girls, were risking their lives to do their jobs.

They were working right in the middle of the blitz, in a target area. Members of The Windmill’s staff died whilst working there.

A bomb actually landed on the doorstep of The Windmill and though it did not explode, it lay there, a ticking time bomb. Upon seeing the bomb, VD purportedly proclaimed:

‘Get this bloody bomb off my doorstep! I’ve got a show to put on’

Often the girls on stage could hear the bombs falling right outside. Yet only a few times did a girl make any movement whilst in their tableaux. Once when a bomb dislodged a dead rat from the rafter and it fell at her (who wouldn’t have moved for that, to be fair)

On another occasion, a bomb hit a hotel in the same street. At the sound of the enormous impact, one of the women performing supposedly turned her head ever so slightly in the direction of the bomb and thumbed her nose at it.

Windmill girl, Sonia Stacpoole walks the corridors of the windmill with both her costume and helmet

An example of just some of the immense bravery shown by these women, is the story of Margaret McGrath. Who was one of the Windmill’s most beloved performers (in 1942, she was actually named The Windmills no1 girl, by Life magazine!)

In addition to her work on stage, Margaret took turns on fire watch, looking out from the theatres rooftop to ensure that no spreading blaze was coming close. Then in October 1940, Margaret was thrown into action when a bomb hit a cafe, which sat just opposite the theatre.

Bodies and debris were strewn across the street. Worse still, The Windmill staff quickly realised that someone was missing, a teenage electrician who’d been by the cafe at the time of the explosion. He was also the brother of one of Margaret’s fellow showgirls.

Someone needed to go out into the street, walk amongst the pile of bloodied and mangled bodies and identify if their boy was one of them. Margaret stepped up.

Almost immediately after, she was back at work. Which was fortunate for those around her, as pretty soon after, a fire bomb hit some stables right by the theatre.

Margaret put on her metal helmet and rushed to the blaze, along with fellow Windmill girl, Annie Singer.

The fire was ferocious, killing several people. None the less, Margaret and Annie managed to rescue six horses.

They then led the panicking horses through Piccadilly Circus, singing the whole time to calm both themselves and the horses. Until another bomb hit. The horses bolted, but Margaret and Annie stayed firm, despite the very obvious continuing danger. Going after the terrified animals and eventually leading them to safety.

All this and still, when she was aged 97, Margaret told the Daily Mail:

‘The war years at The Windmill were the best of my life. And boy, have I had a life!’

Pin up postcard of Margaret McGrath

Margaret was not a rare case! All The Windmill girls stepped up and risked a lot, many being only being in their late teens or early twenties.

They witnessed horrors right outside their front door and went on stage minutes later. They met and fell in love with soldiers by the stage door, who were killed just days later. And yet no matter what, these women acted as the positive, cheerful, sexy, fun face of the war effort.

And of course, they did all this whilst being publicly put on trial by the morality police.

And still, STILL, they got up every day and did it all again. That is bravery.

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? – check out Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London, by Judith R Walkowitz. It’s a fantastic read and contains so much more info on The Windmill

Natasha Tidd is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s worked at museums and heritage sites across the UK. A huge history nerd, she will happily talk your ear off about women’s history, over several glasses (be real, bottles) of wine

Come up and seize me sometime: the arrest of Mae West

Mae West was arrested for -what else – sex. BUT not the sex you’re thinking about… Sex the play

You see, long before Mae West was lighting up Hollywood, with her trademark heavy innuendo, she was in New York, trapped in a brutal battle with the law, fighting to promote equality, freedom of speech and,of course, sex.

So let’s jump into the arrest, incarceration and surprising rebirth of, Mae West:

1959 article on mae West arrest
1959 article on Mae West’s arrest

By the 1920s Mae West was a theatrical veteran. Now in her thirties, she’d trod boards across New York, learning her craft from burlesque acts, musicians, dramatic actors and everyone in between.

Yet, though her name was known, Mae had never actually had a big break. As she delved further into the years after the big 3-0, younger models started taking what, until then, had always been Mae’s roles. It was starting to look like her dream of a big break was never going to happen.

BUT Mae West wasn’t the kind of woman that would go down without a fight. So she decided to make her own big break.

Mae started writing plays, and after knocking out a couple of practice pieces under the pseudonym, Jane Mast, she wrote what she knew would be her ticket to the big time. This being Mae West, the play was -of course- titled:



Mae West eye roll gif
Like she’d have called it anything else…

Sex follows the ups and downs of sex worker, Margy LaMont. When writing her, Mae West was adamant that Margy would be totally different to other sex workers that had previously been portrayed on stage.

Margy is funny, likeable and smart as hell; more importantly, at no point in the play does she need saving, nor does she repent; instead she pushes back against the idea that her work as a sex worker somehow makes her lesser.

Naturally, there was only one actress Mae West had in mind for this plum part: Mae West.

And so, in April 1926 (thanks to a donation by her Mum) Sex opened in New York.

Posters for the shows included strap lines like :


Because, you know, subtlety.

late in the run poster for Sex
A late run poster for Sex

Sadly for Mae, Sex was not met with favourable reviews.

Not only was the shows subject seen as obscenity of the highest order, the shows star made things worse by adding race into the mix.

Mae West had insisted that Sex include what was then known as ‘black music’. This combined with the shows scandalous stance on gender and sexuality, was just too much. And sex soon proved the perfect breeding ground for a powder keg of riotous fury.

BUT nothing seemed able to stop Sex. Despite the constant bad press, audiences kept coming. In a year where New York’s other big plays included work by the likes of Noel Coward, it was Mae Wests little Sex engine that could, that outlasted them all.

Mae West bad gif
Truer words were never spoken

Sex wasn’t the only show Mae was running. Inspired by her friends, many of whom were LGBT+ and often forced to keep their sexuality and relationships hidden, Mae wrote her next play, Drag.

Drag’s hero, Rolly Kingsbury, is a closeted man who is stuck in a loveless marriage, and has to put up with arguably the worst family in the world; his Dad is a homophobic judge and his Father in Law is a conversion therapy pioneer (I told you they were the worst family ever)

Drag looks at Rolly’s use of his wife as a ‘beard’, his secret relationships with men and his family’s horror that Rolly could ever be one of ‘them.’

Oh, and the whole thing ends in a HUGE drag ball before *spoiler* Rolly is killed, which his Dad (a judge remember) covers up as a suicide, for fear of having Rolly’s sexuality discovered and the family’s honour tainted by homosexuality.

Yeah. I think we can all agree that this play was just a tad controversial for the 1920s (*cough* understatement of the year *cough*)

yes drag gif.gif
Thank God, Drag gets semi-regular reprisals, because it sounds like an amazing ride that I need to get on!

But the plot wasn’t enough for Mae. You see with Drag , Mae wanted to do something never done before. She wanted to cast LGBT+ actors.

This was theatrical treason.

You see, allowing anyone on the LGBT+ spectrum to perform on stage was actually banned by the actors union at this time.

But you know by now that a little thing like that wasn’t going to stop Mae.

So she set up open auditions in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, ensuring she got the cast she wanted; casually going against every rule in the book to do so.

Drag opened out of town in January 1927, to packed out houses
….until it was shut down after 2 weeks

no cute gif
Fricking no fun 1927

After Drag, The Society for the Prevention of Vice and other groups against obscenity, were out for Mae’s blood.

First a play on sex workers and freedom of sexuality AND THEN a play that promoted open homosexuality?!?!? It simply wouldn’t stand, Mae West and her corrupting plays HAD TO GO!

The axe fell in February 1927, just 1 month after Drag debuted. The police stormed Sex, carrying out a mass arrest of Mae and her company before completely shutting the play down.

Front page of the New York Daily Mirror

BUT those that thought arresting Mae West on obscenity charges and the threat of prison time would put an end to her, were about to be proved veeeery wrong.

Mae decided that rather than her demise, her arrest was going to be her making.

So she rocked up to court in the most amazing outfits, gave every interview going, wrote articles, signed autographs and made sure everything she said and did in court got headlines.

At one point the judge point blank asked Mae:
‘Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’
To which she innocently responded:
‘On the contrary, your Honor, I was doin’ my best to conceal it.’

Mae West at the trial for Sex
Mae during her Sec trial, just casually wearing a stoll to court

After successfully turning her arrest and subsequent trial into one long press call, Mae was sentenced to 10 days in prison. So naturally Mae transformed what had been a press call into a press tour.

She arrived at New York’s Welfare Island (now Roosevelt island) in a limo, wearing a spectacular outfit.

Once inside and behind bars, Mae made herself comfy. She befriended the other inmates, as well as the staff, even dining with the Warden and his wife.

Of course she leaked all of this to the press, including the little tidbit that she ensured that under her prison uniform was the finest silk underwear.

Mae also took the opportunity to highlight how shitty the treatment of New York’s women prisoners were. Keen to make it clear that though she was dining with the warden, everyone else was treated like dirt. She then put money where her mouth was, donating to actually help make things better inside.

Throughout, Mae continued to hustle. Transforming what should have been her downfall into her long sought after big break; seriously I cannot understate how much she was smashing this! Bitch was taking busted up lemons and turning them into champagne!

By the time Mae West walked out of those prison gates she was an American Icon.

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Moral of the story thus far – do not try to mess with the West!

Pretty much as soon as her days in the jail house were over, Mae was back at work, creating a new play.

The Pleasure Man was essentially a re-do of Drag. However in an effort to prevent another shut down, Mae turned the shows lead into a straight guy… though she made sure that the shows epic drag ball remained.

The play had its Broadway debut on 1 October 1928.
As soon as the curtain fell, the entire cast was arrested.

Despite the arrest of the entire cast, a matinee performance was allowed the next day.

Once more the police flooded the theatre; one of the drag queens performing managing to squeeze in a speech on police oppression, before the arrests started up again.

As the cast were dragged away, the police were met with a wave of boos from a crowd that had formed outside the theatre.

cast of Pleasure Man during their arrest
Two members of The Pleasure Man cast during their arrest

At The Pleasure Man trial, Mae and her cast were accused of:

‘unlawfully, wickedly and scandalously, for lucre and gain, produce, present and exhibit and display the said exhibition, show and entertainment to the sight and view of divers and many people, all to the great offence of public decency’

Mae West defended her work to the end; eventually seeing the charges dropped. However the fight had cost Mae $60,000 (that’s just under $1million today!)

Mae West and the cast of Pleasure Man
Mae West with some of The Pleasure Man company

By 1930, the trials were over and Mae West had turned to Hollywood. Thanks to her constant work, she was now one of the most in demand actors in the world.

Mae West would become one of cinemas longest standing icons, known for her heavily innuendo laced jokes, as much as she was her business smarts; even becoming one of America’s highest earning individuals.

But Mae’s fight for equality, for alternative lifestyles to be explored and celebrated and for taboos to be dropped, has been forgotten. And that’s a damn shame, because as Mae West would say:


‘Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often’

This was interesting where can I find out more? You should definitely read Mae’s plays! Sex, Drag and The Pleasure Man are all in print (link here) and as the plays are still performed, you might even be able to find a performance near you (let us know if you do!!!) 


The History of Pin Ups

Innocent but erotic, cheesy yet still oozing sex appeal; it’s an irrefutable fact that pin up girls have one twisted tightrope to walk!

But how did we get this mixed up icon of salaciously safe female sexuality? A figure that’s somehow simultaneously suitable for the side of weapons, twee tattoos and more boudoir shoots than you can shake a stick at.

Well my friends, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with the mother of all pin ups:

The Gibson Girl

Created in 1887 by Charles Gibson, The Gibson Girl is now widely accepted as the first pin up.

Drawn lasciviously The Gibson Girl represented a woman that could be imitated but couldn’t actually exist (thanks to biologically impossible!)

She had sizeable breasts but an itty bitty wasp waist. A swan like neck and masses of dark hair piled precariously atop her head, that was miraculously impervious  to sweat, rain and general disaster.

Gibson Girls at the beach
There is no danger of these ladies getting sand in their hair, nor anywhere else

But what bought the Gibson Girl to life was that she had a clear personality.

The Gibson Girl was based on ‘the new woman’. Self assured, put together, sensual and intelligent all at once. She wanted independence, but like… not too much independence (Gibson Girls weren’t after the vote, that would just be crazy!)

A Gibson Man was created to go with The Gibson Girl, but much like Ken to Barbie, nobody really cared.

It was the impossible woman they wanted to pin to their walls, not her random boyfriend.

The Gibson Girl and The Gibson Man
To be fair, the Gibson Man does look like an insufferable twat

Soon there was a Gibson Girl boom, with her face appearing all over magazine and newspapers; quickly becoming the ideal standard for Western beauty.

Women donned Gibson Girl-Esque hair do’s, along with s-bend corsets which simultaneously pushed out the tits, nipped in the waist and pulled the wearers back forward, allowing for that classic Gibson Girl arse to tit ratio.

Camile Cliford
Famed real life Gibson Girl, Camile Clifford and her RIDICULOUS waist

But the outbreak of World War 1 saw the demise of the Gibson Girl.

No more would women obligingly get that Gibson Girl figure by donning an s-bend corset.

You see, women had things to do, countries to keep running and they kind of needed working spines for that shit.

So they stepped up, wearing more practical and masculine clothing than before.

A trend that was immediately sexualised for war propaganda 

Now this mix of girl next door charm and patriotism leads us nicely to our next chapter in pin up history…

The Petty Girl

George Petty had been airbrushing and illustrating for years, mainly for cheese-tactic sexed up adverts and calendars. But in 1933 he joined fledgling magazine, Esquire and became an immediate hit.

Placed slap bang on a double page in the middle of the magazine, Petty’s drawings coined the term centrefold, as they were torn out and given prime real estate on walls and lockers around America.

A classic George Petty Girl
A classic example of George Pettys work

A ‘Petty Girl’ was the classic all American girl next door, just reeeeally sexed up! She was lithe, but curvy, with elongated limbs that made her legs go on for daaaays (again with the almost entirely biologically impossible women!)

But what really made the Petty Girl a phenomenon was that Esquire readers could place her into their worlds.

She was posed in idealised every day scenarios from chatting on the phone to celebrating  seasonal holidays and even ingratiating herself into what were then typically male jobs.

An illustration used in a mechanics calendar
Do you get it? Rigid….like the name of good industrial equipment

Soon Petty Girls weren’t just on bedroom walls, they’d been adopted by soldiers looking for a slice of comforting similarity as they headed to war.

It was easy to transpose a childhood sweetheart or crush onto a perfect Petty Girl; after all that was the whole point of their design!

And just like that pin ups went from books to bombers.

b-17 Memphis Belle.jpg
The crew of The Memphis Belle, pose with their B-17 Bomber, complete with George Petty illustration

By the 1940s and 50s pin up was everywhere.

Petty style drawings were used to sell magazines to men, but they were also marketed to women. Selling everything from fashion, homeware and films; MGM even made a film about the drawings (the imaginativley titled, Petty Girl)

With such success came a ton of rival artists, all with a slightly different take on what made the perfect imaginary woman:

Gil Evgreen

Gil stepped up George Pettys knack for the everyday. Placing models in even more average scenarios (cooking, decorating, hanging out with cute animals)

Yet he made these hum drum scenes both implausible and accessible, by setting up his pin up girls as cutesy girl children who were also sex objects (basically the proto type for any modern rom com lead!)

Sure she might be flashing her underwear…but only because the poor lamb had accidentally tripped!

An Unexpected Lift, Gil Evgreen
I simply cannot tell you how many dresses I have ruined thanks to errant cranes

As well as this ‘cheesecake’ pin up style, Gil was known for his masterful (and slightly maniacal) manipulation of the female form.

He’d have models pose for pin up photos, then set his pencil to work, nipping, tucking and enlarging certain key assets until he had the perfect fantasy

Can we please talk about how uncomfortable the models pose looks????

And just as before, it wasn’t just men buying the pin up fantasy! Women were a key audience and they would be vital in its evolution:

Zoe Mozart

Zoe made her mark by creating pin up illustrations that veered much closer to reality than her male peers work.

Sure these painted ladies were still very much in the realm of make believe, but Zoe worked to have them look like actual women; tiny waists are great and all, but not when they are so teeny that women need to find somewhere new to keep stuff like their organs…

It seemed like Zoe was onto something; her realistic approach was selling like hot cakes, from adverts to film posters and men’s calendars.

But there was a problem – now the public wanted real women! 

By the late 50s, photography was the order of the day. With the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were decorating walls and pin up started to die out.

Pretty soon it was the 60s and imagined illustrations just couldn’t compete with the likes of Playboy, whose mix of explicit images and -ahem- articles, had taken America into a new age of sexual fantasy.

Playboy Bunnies
Playboy Bunnies promoting a new Playboy Club

And yet the pin up could not be destroyed.

The classic Petty, Mozart and Evgreen style of pin up is very much back in. Just now it’s labelled as a vintage and classy alternative to the today’s more intense male gaze.

You can see it’s traces in everything from Virgin airlines branding to cutesy advertising and of course, every time a bridesmaid has worn victory rolls and a halter neck to a ‘vintage wedding’.

The pin up vibes are strong with this one

This was interesting where can I find out more? For Gibson Girl goodness I’d suggest checking out, The Weaker Sex: The Story of a susceptible bachelor, which is a reprint of some of Charles Gibsons best work.

Woman Rebel: The controversial life of Margaret Sanger

In 1873, the US passed The Comstock Act, a dicky little law that made it illegal for contraceptives, tools to be used in abortions, sex toys, erotica and even sexually charged letters (!) to be sent in the post.

In stricter states it was illegal for a person to possess these items (let alone post them!) and you could be damn sure that if you were caught you were facing a hefty fine or jail time.

This was the repressed world Margaret Sanger was born into. Margaret Sanger

Born in 1879 Margaret was one of 11; part of a huge Irish Catholic family that lived in poverty on the edge of New York.

Her Dad, Michael, was a drinker but also a radical free thinker, he’d dreamed of being a doctor (though poverty had made that impossible!) instead becoming a stone mason; but he still urged his children to become more, to better themselves and the world around them.

And Margaret’s Mum? Well her job was making babies! And in 11 kids in, she was clearly good at it.

But you can’t have almost a dozen kids (and 7 miscarriages) without your health being affected; after one pregnancy to many, she died in her 40s

At just 19, Margaret had lost her mum. Devastated, she immediately blamed her Dad (a very teenager in grief move) Margaret was angry, surely if her Dad hadn’t knocked up his wife so much, if she’d had some control in how many kids she’d had, then she wouldn’t have died so young.

Something had to change and with nobody also doing anything, Margaret had to do it herself (again, a very teenager move!) so she became a nurse. lets do this!!.gif

Margaret soon found out that working as a nurse in New York’s lower east side was, pretty damn bleak. The work was tough, the hours long and every day she had to face the strangle hold that The Comstock Act had over women’s life’s.

Without access to contraceptives, more women were falling pregnant and, just like Margarets mum, more women were dying in birth.

There was no way safe alternative as The Comstock Act also barred postage of abortion tools. Desperate, women were turning to heinously dodgy back alley abortions, even self-abortions…both methods almost always ended disastrously.

Every other day, Margaret had to watch another woman’s future being wiped out as she died in her arms.

First her Mum, now this… Margaret was angry and she sure as hell wasn’t going to let this shit continue, saying:

‘No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother’

So Margaret buckled and worked to change things. She started writing a sex column and in 1914 set up (the amazingly named) magazine, ‘The Woman Rebel‘, dedicated to showing women who to take back control of their bodies.

…Unsurprisingly The Woman Rebel immediately broke The Comstock Act and Margaret had to flee to Britain to avoid being thrown in jail.

fuck off!.gif
Damn you Comstock Act!!!!!!

But despite is constant dicketry, The Comstock Act couldn’t keep a good woman down!

Whilst in Britain, Margaret researched contraceptives, got involved in women’s rights and came back to America way better connected and with big ideas on spreading contraceptives throughout the good ol’ US of A.

The land of the free and the home of having a choice

On 16 October 1916, Margaret opened her first birth control clinic in New York. She employed a Yiddish translator (hoping to make the areas large Jewish community feel welcome) along with her sister and fellow nurse.

That first day more than 100 women poured through the doors.

Aaaaand 10 days later the police shit down the clinic and threw Margaret in jail.

fuck sakes
All together: Fuck you Comstock Act!!!!

Margaret wouldn’t be deterred though. On her release she re-opened the clinic…and it was shut down again…and so she re-opened it again!

While that was going on, she also fought against her initial Comstock Conviction; which led to the law being changed to allow doctors to prescribe contraception to female patients if it was for a medical reason.

Margaret clung onto this loophole and on the back of it she formed The American Birth Control League (later planned parenthood!) in 1923 the league opened Americas first legal birth control clinic. From there they created a network of safe contraceptive clinics that would become Planned Parenthood. excited.gif

The end right? No….see Margaret wasn’t satisfied; sure having a safe, legal birth control network was great…but what could it truly achieve without foolproof contraceptives?

Margaret dreamed of some kind magic pill that would offer blanket coverage, but the science just wasn’t there!

So she started to look at alternative options… and found eugenics

yep, its about to go as well as you think it is

In the 1920s and 30s, eugenics was a theory gaining traction. Now it’s very easy to imagine that the only people supporting eugenics were the same people who would soon prove themselves to be  the worst of humanity (looking at you Adolf), but that just wasn’t the case.

You see, Eugenics was a mainstream theory, it had support from doctors, presidents, philanthropists, teachers and scientists; it was taught in most US colleges and was seen as a far more acceptable way of controlling birth than birth control.

Yeah…historys kind of messed up.

Margaret wrote about eugenics as a way to give birth control more clout and for it to be taken more seriously. By tapping into the eugenics community she hoped that one day birth control would become just as mainstream and supported.

So, what did she actually write about? Well thats check out her most cited work:

The Eugenic Value of birth control propaganda (published in 1921s Birth Control Review)

Yeah…not the snappiest title.

At the beginning of the article, Margaret likens Eugenics to birth control…in that both were initially met with scorn and skepticism; and though Eugenics has moved passed this to be taken seriously, birth control is still in that stage.

It’s all going fine…until Margaret starts saying things like this:

‘the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.’

And this…

(speaking on ‘idealistic sexual ethics) ‘Such systems have in the past revealed their woeful inability to prevent the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has today drifted.’

Aaaaaand this…

‘Drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.’ woah.gif

Yeah…its a lot.

In the past several years this chapter in Margarets work has been getting a lot of attention. Arguably more attention than the work she did setting up birth control clinics and giving woman some autonomy over their bodies.

The majority of this started in 2015 when US Senator, Ted Cruz, led a republican group in demanding a museum remove a bust of Margaret; citing this quote from a letter Margaret wrote when opening a clinic in a predominantly black community:

‘We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population’

I think we can all agree, thats pretty fucked up Margaret – well it would be, if she said it. You see Ted got a tiny bit lazy and only used half a quote…out of context.

What Ted forgot to mention was that Margaret was writing a letter that voiced her concerns; after a spate of false rumours suggested Margaret was planning to use the clinic as a genocide machine, she wanted to work with the local church to make sure that the community would feel comfortable going to the clinic. Heres the full quote:


‘We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.’

This is just one example of the majority of articles around Margaret Sangers involvement with eugenics (seriously google it, it’s a cluster fuck of a rabbit hole). Most of these articles are maybe 10% fact and the rest is twisted to fit a current political narrative…that narrative, is -of course- abortion.

oh good
Already excited for social medias reaction!

It seems strange to be calling for the removal of statues, busts, paintings, etc, of one supporter of eugenics…and not all.

After all, it was a mainstream theory, other pro-eugenic people include Helen Keller (who referred to it as like ‘weeding’ a garden), Winston Churchill, social reformer Beatrice Webb, H.G Wells, not to mention multiple presidents, a noble prize winner and many many more.

The only reason I can think of is that Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood…and with most of the people calling for these removals, anti-abortion campaigners, that would seem to be the answer.

prove me wrong.gif
prove me wrong…

So where does that leave us? Well, with the history of a complicated woman.

A woman who overcame countless hurdles to bring reproductive rights to America, but who also supported an incredibly shitty theory that manages to be discriminatory against pretty much all minorities at once; yet the same woman also also fought for minority staff to be bought into her clinics – Margaret Sanger is the definition of a complex person.

And I think thats good; too often we idolise our historical heroes, with Margaret, you can’t do that (well you shouldn’t anyway!) and that means we have the opportunity to explore a female historic figure in the kind of way we don’t normally do…just make sure you do whilst using all the facts!

That was interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest Sabrina Jones, Our Lady of Birth Control; it’s a graphic novel and a deep dive history read at the same time (the dream!)





How brothels built America

Fact: Sex workers helped build America. These women came to the Wild West/The Old West (whatever you want to go with) and smashed every expectation of womanhood.

They became business oligarchs, they built entire communities and forged their own independence.

It’s a one hell of a tale! But before we dive it it, let’s quickly knock out the basics:

How did the West come to be?

Around the mid 1800s there was a huge boom in the amount of land being built in the South West of America. Most of this land was built for mining. As new sources for coal and metal mining were discovered, towns sprung up overnight to house the influx of workers that appeared to mine it.

Suddenly you had entire towns with 1000’s of men and maybe a dozen or so women. Now you don’t have to be good at maths to see that the ratio here is a little off.

Having spotted the er…supply and demand issue, business minded women start arriving in these towns and setting up shop as sex workers.

Soon these women were earning in one day what they might otherwise earn in a week as a factory worker or clerk.

buisness gif
GOOD buisness

There were of course risks….a lot of risks. But in the Old West it was these women were effectively working at the same risk level as a working men had. Communities, rules and laws were still being worked out, which meant that murder, beating and work caused incidents/deaths we’re sadly not rare hazards for any gender or line of work!

Yes the risks were high, BUT the clients were many, the going was good and soon the cash was flowing!

So, women started opening their own brothels. This in turn led to women buying land, companies and eventually building business empires of their own.

boss gif
The original boss bitches  

Soon entire towns revolved around one damn good brothel.

This wasn’t luck. The ladies running these brothels had business smarts for days. Seriously they could have smashed The Apprentice (and probably Donald Trump too…)

One of the best examples of this is Mattie Silks: 

Mattie Silks, who became America's youngest brothel owner at just 19 and ran a successful brothel in Denver
Mattie Silks: admittedly looking v awkward here

A small town girl, Mattie opened her first brothel at just 19. This made her the youngest madam in America.

She invested her profits back into the business, as well as growing her income and holdings by buying real estate and land.

These buisness smarts meant that in just a few years Mattie was running one of Denvers most popular brothels. Patrons were greeted with luxury surroundings and a full orchestra – because this wasn’t just sex…it was Silk sex, and it was classy AF.

But Mattie didn’t stop at having a leading chain of high end brothels. She paid her staff a salary that made them some of the highest paid women in the country.

pay it back.gif
Yes Mattie pay it back!! 

OK, so, by now you might be thinking – sure these women created businesses that made them some of the richest women in the country and bought tons of new income to the growing West. But is that really building America? Don’t you need stuff like, schools, hospitals and churches, as well as places to have sexy time?

Why yes.

And they did that too.

These women had made themselves pillars in their communities. They weren’t just there for the money, they wanted to make a difference.

Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Diamond Jessie Hayman, opened her brothel doors to feed, clothe and shelter anyone that needed help. And Diamond Jessie was far from alone!

Here are just a few examples of how America’s sex workers made a difference:

Lou Graham, donated money to build up Seattle’s schools and also saved countless businesses and banks during a period of depression.

Anna Wilson’s will requested that her huge mansion be turned into Omaha’s first emergency hospital.

And former slave turned influential brothel owner, Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant, campaigned tirelessly for the de-segregation of streetcars in San Francisco.

These women were doing way more for their communities than just providing cash and a good time. They were building them up, and turning them for shit holes to sustainable home steads!

Mary Ellen Pleasent
Mary Ellen Pleasant

And you best believe these communities didn’t forget the women that helped make them!

In 1890, Wyoming refused to become a US state, if it’s women were not allowed to keep the vote (which they had been granted in 1869) saying:

‘We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women’ 

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Yes Wyoming!!! 

This was really interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell (great name!), it has an amazing section on this.

Nell Gwynn: Not your strumpet

Nells mother ran a brothel; her Dad wasn’t on the scene. But this wasn’t even the most tulmotous part of her, far from ideal, childhood. 

Born in 1650, Nell grew up in one of the most difficult times in English history.

By 11 Nell had seen England change from a puritanical Government led country, where church attendance was mandatory and gambling, dancing and theatre was banned – to a country with a new King, Charles ll, at its helm, who loved nothing more than a drink, a dance and a roll of the dice.

It was to say the least: a full on clusterfuck of change!

Nell saw her future possibilities and place in society change overnight.

BUT she didn’t have time to focus on how the rich (and therefore powerful) were turning her world on its head; she had to earn a living!

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But obviously less making it rain, more making it so you eat and don’t die…

Growing up in a brothel it’s very possible that Nell worked there as a child and although that suggests she may have dabbled working as a sex worker, it’s not known for sure if she did.

What we do know is that one of Nells jobs was to fetch brandy to refresh worn out punters mid session. A totally acceptable job for a child. What gif.gif

But, growing up in the brothel made Nell a hustler and by her early teens she was flogging oranges to the crowds now flocking to Londons Covent Garden and its newly re-opened theatre district.

Orange selling may sound wholesome, but believe me, it was dog eat dog.

With hoards of sellers packing the streets, only the loudest, boldest and most whip smart would get theirs wares noticed. In this competitive game of survival, Nell was a clear winner.

With a quick wit, a no nonsense attitude and looks to boot she quickly captured the attention of the crowd and her oranges were selling like hot cakes (or hot oranges?…)

But it wasn’t just Theatre go-ers who were attracted to Nell. The Kings own theatre company soon noticed Nell and invited her to join their troupe.

At just 14 Nell became one of the first female actresses to take the stage.

Nell Gwynn, painting
The hero of our play, Nell Gwynn

Sadly, Nell couldn’t read or write, which made reading scripts and learning lines pretty much impossible!

Still, she found ways round this. Having herself coached through the dialogue.

But this impairment perhaps explains why Nell hated dramas, which she found dull and too wordy (to be fair, if you’ve ever had to sit through a restoration era drama, then I’m sure you agree)

Yet, when it came to comedy, Nell would light up a stage. Using her fast wit and ability to creatively swear like a sailor, Nell became a household name.

Esteemed writer Samuel Pepys was a huge Nell fan girl, dubbing her:

‘Pretty witty Nell’

His thirst apparently could not be contained and Pepys continued;

‘So great a performance of a comical part, I believe, was never in the world before’

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys: Fan girl and thirstiest bitch on the planet 

As all good theatre kids know, a play isn’t anything if there isn’t a showmance behind the scenes and Nell was more than happy to do her bit. So, she started an affair with famed actor, Charles Hart.

Like all good showmances the pair starred opposite each other in several productions and their PDA made things nice and awkward for everyone working with them.

But it wasn’t too last. Nell moved onwards and upwards. Starting affairs with many a man whose name started with ‘Sir’ and ‘Lord’.

And then one night Nells life changed for ever…

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It’s about to be just like disney; with added sex, swearing and alcohol!

In 1667 a 17 year old Nell was performing in ‘The Maiden Queen’, when the thirty something King Charles ll rocked up.

Charles was taken with Nell, as was his pal, the Duke of Buckingham, who saw Nell as the perfect pawn for a scheme he was plotting.

You see, The Duke of Buckingham was keen to oust the Kings current mistress, Barbara Castlemaine, who he believed was demanding too much money and power.

So why not replace the noble born Barbara with this gutter snipe? Nell was a slum girl done good, surely she’d be so thrilled at being in the Kings bed and would be no trouble at all!

Not our Nell!

Nell immediately refused the Mistressing offer. Unless, of course, she was paid £500 compensation for the ‘trouble’ that becoming the Kings mistress would cause her.

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Truly, Nell had historic levels of sass

The King wouldn’t pay Nell… but he also couldn’t resist her.

She soon became became a fixture at court parties, events and plays.

Within months the unlikely pair were firm friends and only then did Nell fall into Charles bed and accept the role of royal mistress.

Of course she still had caveats! She wasn’t giving up her career for anyone.

Charles eventually agreed and so Nell became one of the first Royal Mistresses to hold down a career and her mistress-ing duties.

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Duties that included, but were not limited to, occasionally getting half a boob out

Charles was enamored with Nell. So enamoured in fact that he had a topless portrait of Nell made and took immense pleasure in taking male friends into his rooms to let them marvel at the fine piece he was tapping. Because Charles was nothing if not a classy King. Nell Gwynn as venus

Nell was the apple of Charles eye…but that eye had a habit of wandering.

In 1668 Charles made entertainer, Moll Davis his mistress.

He lavished Moll with jewels and the promise of a house. The similarities between the two women were obvious and this cut a little to close to the bone for Nell. So she decided to shut that shit down.

Moll Davis
Moll Davis – I mean she hasn’t even got half a boob out, what kind of mistress is she?

Nell sent a dish of sweet meats for Moll to fill up on before she joined the King in bed that night (gotta keep your energy up!).

Sadly the sweet meats were laced with laxatives and for some reason Moll didn’t make her rendezvous with Charles…

Shortly after she was removed from mistress-ing duties.

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After Moll, no other mistress came close to toppling Nell. By 1670 she was firmly the main woman in Charles life and was pregnant with his child.

She decided to rest up and make sure her unborn baby was safe, so stopped working as an actress.

Unfortunately, at the same time, Charles decided she should also stop working as his mistress.

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Appropriate reaction

There was a new lady in Charles life and this one was no less than French nobility!

Louise de Kéroulle moved to England to serve the Queen (she had previously served Charles sister in France) Charles was soon head over heels for his wifes new maid and made her a royal mistress.

Louise used this new position to enjoy the finer things in life. She spent wads of cash on art, fashion and jewels. On the side she took up politics, forging herself a key role in English affairs with which to promote French causes.

Louise de Kéroulle
Louise De Kerolle: Unlike Moll, you know she is a threat because she has both boobs out.

Unsurprisingly Nell and Louise did not get along.

Not only were they fighting over the same man, but they were from two very different worlds. Louise was born into her position, Nell had to fight tooth and nail. Louise had never needed to work a day in her life, while Nell loved the independence work gave her so much that she was back on stage a mere four months after giving birth!

The fight between Louise and Nell got dirty real quick. And by that I mean they used tactics that were less based in Royal proticall and more Mean Girls.

Nell dubbed Louise ‘squintabella’ (due to a slight cast on Louise’s eye) and Louise never missed a chance to bitch out Nells lowly birth.

Charles gave Louise the title, Duchess of Portsmouth, as thanks for her role as mistress. Obviously Louise looooved rubbing this in Nell’s face. Once confronting/faux complimenting Nell in a crowded room (As she was passive aggressively want to do)

‘Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress; why woman you are fine enough to be a queen’

Nell shot back

‘You are entirely right, madam, and I am whore enough to be a duchess.’

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Bitchy comments aside, Nell had one thing Louise could never have.

She had the people on her side.

English people had a history of not being huge fans of the French and they were certainly not fans of Louise.

She was a catholic in a protestant country, who was rumored to be a spy and oh yeah…she was French. Nell played up to this.

One day when riding through London, the people in the street stopped to boo the carriage, thinking the woman inside to be Louise.

Calmly Nell popped her head out of the window and said:

“Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore” 

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seriously, get Tina Fey, I think we found a Mean Girls prequel 

In addition to her ability to sass for days, a HUGE positive Nell had going for her in the growing battle against Louise, was that she didn’t engage in politics.

This was a shrewd move. Nell had seen countless mistresses removed from their posts due to political meddling. Hell, she had even bought in as a mistress to oust the political minded Barbara Castlemaine!

The more Louise pushed for Frances interests in English politics, the more she pissed people off and pushed Charles away.

Nell opted for a different tact. She wanted to show Charles she was in it for the long haul. That the only thing she wanted from this relationship was him.

She didn’t ask for titles unless it was for their children and only pushed for political and social change on very rare occasions; which had the added bonus that this meant she was more likely to be listened to.

Nell’s clever moves paid off in 1675 when an exotic new woman arrived at court and pushed Louise off her pedestal.

The arrival of Italian runaway bride, Hortense Mancini, sent Louise packing.

Hortense Mancini, only one boob out…who knows what that means at this point

But Nell wouldn’t be ousted so easily. By now she had stopped acting and given Charles 2 sons, she’d paid her dues and wasn’t leaving without a fight!

Luckily Nell didn’t need to fight, Hortense (who we’ve covered here) was far to busy getting drunk, dueling in her nightgown and having sex with Charles’ daughter, to have any time to actually spend with Charles.

Unsurprisingly her career as mistress was short lived (screwing your partner’s daughter will do that…)

Though Hortense was out the picture things were about to get veeeeery shit for Nell.

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Honestly, this level bad

Within 2 years:

– Nell’s mum drowned

– Nell fell seriously ill

– Nell’s son died

– The press started saying that Nell was losing her looks (because papers have always been pricks)

Nell had just turned 30 and it felt like her life was already over.

She didn’t know what to do. All she wanted to do was escape.

So she did.

Nell packed up her things and moved to the country.

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half boob, a confused child and sausages…truly the symbols of the British countryside

But Nell wasn’t going to be shacked up in the countryside alone.

By the time he reached middle age Charles was having some trouble getting it up (decades of excessive drinking and partying will do that to a penis)

He wanted to relax; less partying all night, more of having a little lie down. Where better to do that then Nell’s country escape.

With nearly twenty years under their belt, Nell and Charles were happy to just spend time together. They went on walks, played cards and spent time with their son. Basically, they just had a nice time.

Then, on 1st February 1685, Charles spent the evening with Nell and some of his past mistresses (which sounds a bit Sister Wives…but each to their own)

The next morning Charles suffered a fit and 4 days later he was dead.

His last wish was:

‘ Let not poor Nelly starve’

As per Charles wishes, Nell’s debts were wiped and she was given a hefty pension. Despite being an very eligible bachelorette, Nell turned down all suitors, instead choosing to spend her time hosting salons at her house and entertaining friends.

Then in March 1687 Nell suffered a stroke that left her half paralysed.

In May that same year she suffered another stroke that confined her to bed.

She continued cracking jokes and seeing friends until in November 1687 she suffered a final stroke. Nell died aged just 37.

But she wasn’t done just yet…

A huge crowd swarmed London’s Martins in the fields church for Nell’s funeral. As per one of her final wishes, the closing sermon read:

‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance’

This was really interesting where can I find out more? In the spirit of Nell I am going to direct you to a play. That play is of course called, Nell Gwynn. Much like Nell its a whole lot of fun and is currently on at the Globe in London and also on tour!

Mata Hari: Super spy or innocent femme fatale?

Mata Hari’s life has blockbuster written all over it-honestly it’s Oscar bait at its finest:

A small town girl finds international fame as an exotic dancer at the turn of the 20th century. She takes lovers from across Europe and is privy to secrets of global superpowers.

But her glittering world comes crashing down when she is discovered to be a German spy. She is captured, imprisoned and takes her final bow in front of a firing squad in a small corner of France.

It’s Hollywood gold dust! A blockbuster bio pic in the making (seriously someone give Baz Luhrman a call) but is it actually true?

Eeeeer kinda but no….

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876. Mata was born and raised in the Netherlands. Her Dad made some incredibly canny investments which allowed Mata and her siblings a very comfortable and happy childhood. Everything was great!

…and then her Dad lost all his money and a year later Mata’s Mum died.

via giphy

Things were already pretty shit, when Mata’s Dad decided to reveal himself as the literal worst.

As soon as the funeral was over, he shrugged off his old family and started a new one. Sending Mata far away to live with a Godfather she barely knew. At just 15, Mata was on her own.

But she was hardy, she picked herself up and decided to pick up a profession – training to be a teacher.

Unfortunately when it rains it pours and the headteacher of her school had a thing for teenage Mata and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

The ‘affair’ was quickly discovered. The headmaster kept his job (naturally) and a shamed Mata was sent packing. Returning to her severely pissed off Godfather.

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Yeah, don’t look for the logic in this via giphy

Ok so the job hadn’t panned out, but work wasn’t the only thing that could get a girl money and the hell out of dodge. So Mata turned to the Lonely Hearts pages.

Aged 18 Mata married Rudolph “John” MacLeod, a twice her age, almost constantly drunk officer in the East Indies Army. I think you’ve probably guessed after that description- but- Rudolph was a notorious dick.

Mata Hari marriage
Great moustache. Still a dick.

Rudolph was jealous (despite constantly sleeping with anything that moved) and an all around abusive drunk who regularly beat his wife.

Despite the numerous marital issues, the couple had two children, Norman and Non and the whole family moved to Indonesia where Rudolph was now based.

As with everything until this point…tragedy soon struck.

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Seriously, it’s going to be a never ending stream of shit via giphy

In 1899 Mata awoke to the sound of screams. Immediately she ran to check on her children, only to find both Norman and Non convulsing in intense pain, a doctor was called but it was to late for Mata’s eldest. Two year old Norman died in front of her.

The cause of Norman’s death was shrouded in mystery. Locals theorised that the boy had been poisoned either by a soldier that Rudolph had ruthlessly beaten or by the child’s own Nanny (who Rudolph endlessly harassed). A more modern theory is that the children were being treated for syphilis (caught thanks to dear daddy Rudolph) and were accidentally given an overdose of medication.

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It always comes back to Rudolph!

The couple were barely hanging on by a thread and just couldn’t continue after Norman’s death.

Rudolph drank even more and blamed his wife for their sons death. Mata descended into a deep depression, struggling just to get through each day. Yet somehow, she clawed her way back to life and found the strength to finally leave her husband.

Don’t get too excited, it’s all about to go to shit again! via giphy

But Rudolph wasn’t done being a monumental ass hat just yet! Mata had custody of Non, but (of course) Rudolph wasn’t paying his half in full. This was pretty shitty behaviour, escalated dramatically when Rudolph never returned Non after a scheduled visit.

Mata didn’t have the connections or funds (after all she’d essentially been a single mum) to fight for her daughter.

Worse, when she confronted Rudolph, he came at her with a bread knife; Mata narrowly escaped the encounter with her life.

It was one knock too many and Mata lost her will to fight. So she gave up. Hoping that Rudolph would do right by their daughter, Mata did what felt like the only option left to her – she ran away.

‘I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris’

Surrounded by the glittering lights of Paris Mata worked to reinvent herself. She joined the circus, entertaining the masses as a horse rider.

With the circus not paying much, Mata needed to earn extra to support herself, so made up the rest by posing as an artists model and dancing on the side.

And it was this dancing that would be her making.

When told audiences that when she’d lived in Indonesia she had trained with local dancers.And it was these ‘exotic’ moves she bought to Paris.

Mata Hari dance
Presenting Mata Hari

Mata Hari was born and Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was all but dead.

Mata was a Princess of noble Indian birth, raised in Indonesia and trained from childhood in the ancient art of dance. Her near naked dances weren’t for titalation – they were sacred religious acts.

Now this is obviously entirely horse shit concucted by Magaretha…but damn it sold tickets!!

Soon Mata was an independently wealthy woman, a huge achievement in this period.

via giphy

With money came men. Dazzled by Mata’s beauty and mystery, Europes most powerful men flocked to her side. With the ability to speak multiple languages, as well as a fast wit and ambitious streak – Mata had her pick.

She chose military men. Girl apparently had a type. Mata Hari stand

As WW1 dawned Mata was reaching her late thirties. With younger imitators snapping at her heels, she slowed down on the dancing and instead supported herself as a courtesan, sleeping with some of Europes military mights.

She hopped from country to country, living a lavish strings free life. But when wartime hit this had to change.

Well….it should have changed.

Mata continued flitting from country to country (thanks to her neutral Netherlands passport) she slept with high ups from across Europe, no matter what side they fell on.

Now I think we can all agree: this was not a smart plan.

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via giphy

Ok now here’s the thing: this next part is a bit of a cluster fuck. See some historians think Mata was a spy, some don’t and some think she was passing on information on the odd occasion but wasn’t a spy.

See what I mean…cluster fuck. So let’s just focus on the concrete facts here!

We know that Mata had access to all kinds of information from pretty much every major player in WW1 (because she was in the bed of pretty much every military higher up)

In 1916 Mata was detained during a jaunt to London and taken to Scotland Yard for questioning. The British had been tipped off by French Authorities that Mata was a German spy, an accusation she refuted under interrogation.

Extract from Mata Hari’s interrogation (released in 2016 you can find the whole thing in the National Archives)

But Britain and France weren’t convinced and at such a delicate time in global politics, these weren’t exactly people you wanted gunning for you.

Though not concrete, there was anecdotal evidence to support the spy theory.

In 1914 the Germans supposedly offered Mata money in return for secrets of those she bedded and the French had put forward a similar offer.

So was Mata a spy? A double agent? Just trying to see what she could get?

Who knows at this point there are so many different theories and strings to keep track of!        

So with the spy theory still hanging over her, Mata was released from Scotland Yard.

Free? Sadly no.

The heat was too much and Europes political powerhouses from all sides were keen to get their hands clean of the embarrassing tangled web that had become Mata Hari.

The French intercepted a (almost definitely purposefully leaked) German message detailing the actions of spy H21. The French figured this spy was Mara Hari and so on February 13th 1917 French officers marched into her Paris hotel room and arrested her.

‘I am innocent….someone is fooling me’

Mata Hari’s trial was, at best, a joke. At worst a formal slut shaming exercise.

Mata admitted to taking German funds to spy, but argued that she hadn’t actually carried out these acts. She just took the money.

The French weren’t having this and claimed that her actions directly resulted in the deaths of up to 50,000 men.

I think it’s worth noting here that at this point the war was not going well for the French. They were suffering massive losses and their men were turning against them.

The French needed a fall guy. So they created the ultimate villainess.  Mata Hari seating

Not only was Mara Hari on trial for spying but her lifestyle was on trial. Her accusers claimed she regularly bathed in milk at a time when there wasn’t enough for French children to drink. Her bed hopping and sensual dancing proved her lack of morals, which itself was proof she would be happy to spy.

There was never going to be a good outcome of this for Mata. And there wasn’t, she was sentenced to death.

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Picture of Mata Hari whilst incarcerated

On October 15th 1917 Mata Hari woke at dawn in a small corner of France. She wrote two letters; one to her daughter Non. Then she dressed and was led outside to where a firing squad were waiting.

Mata refused a blindfold and stood unbound, staring directly at her executioners. Shots were fired and she fell. Her final curtain call.Mata Hari side

Mata Hari’s story is one that shows just how easily manipulated history can be.

Once held up as an example of loose morals and villainy, documents released to time in with the WW1 centennial show a very different story. One that is still being pieced together.

Personally I don’t think she was a spy. I do think she was privy to a silly amount of information from all sides and I think she occasionally leaked this information to whatever side she was with at the time.

But this isn’t Hollywood. Mata Hari wasn’t a master spy. She was just a person, who had flaws and made some really shitty choices that she paid the ultimate price for.

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Check out Pam Shipman’s book, Femme Fatale which gives even more background on Mata’s early life.

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