The Dognapping of the Century
Elizabeth Barrett only looked away from the busy London street for a moment as she stepped up into a carriage. It was a perfect autumn morning on the first of September 1846 and Elizabeth, 40, was out running errands with her sister Arabel, 33. They had brought along Elizabeth’s small brown spaniel, Flush, who had trotted gamely beside them as they shopped. When the outing was over and the carriage pulled up on Vere Street, the ladies climbed aboard while Flush waited patiently beside the wheels.
Once she was seated, Elizabeth called, “Flush!” Flush did not spring into her lap as expected. Elizabeth and her sister frantically searched underneath the chassis and scanned the bustling streetscape for any sign of him. But he was gone. In only a moment, Elizabeth’s beloved dog had vanished without a trace.
During the tense ride back home to their house at 50 Wimpole Street, in the fashionable neighborhood of Marylebone in Central London, Arabel comforted her devastated sister. She promised they would find Flush. But Elizabeth was inconsolable, pale with shock. London was notorious for its dog-stealers, who operated as a collective to capture household pets for profit. The tragic practice was sometimes fatal for the stolen dogs. Elizabeth would later learn that she and her sister had been shadowed from the moment they left their house that morning — tracked as they went from Bond Street to Vere Street, where the thieves finally found their opportunity to grab the dog from beside the carriage’s wheel.
Elizabeth, who had suffered chronic illness since she was sixteen and was in near-constant physical pain, frequently had to pause while walking to sit down and catch her breath. Standing five feet and one inch tall, she was a petite, gaunt woman with “a very little voice.” Perhaps her stature or her gender made her seem an easy target. Contemporary reports of this operation emphasize the group’s victimization of single or vulnerable-appearing women.
But the dog-stealers did not know how much of a force Elizabeth truly was. Despite her long and debilitating illnesses, she had written her way to astounding success. Her most recent collection of verse, simply called Poems, had been released to acclaim, and she would soon become a contender for Poet Laureate. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated The Raven and Other Poems to her in 1845. Celebrated for her sonnets and her long masterpiece Aurora Leigh, she is now perhaps best remembered in popular culture for the lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Elizabeth also had a powerful reserve of inner strength. Nobody could have predicted how she would turn the robbery of her beloved dog into a triumph over oppression in her life.
When they arrived to the massive five-story townhouse on beautiful Wimpole Street, Arabel continued trying to calm her distraught sister, predicting that they would be contacted with a ransom note. She guessed that the price would be no more than a manageable ten pounds. The sisters briefed one of their eight siblings, 28-year-old Henry. Henry hated the restrictive confines that came with life in their household, and fantasized about joining the military. He had managed to secure greater freedom than many of his siblings — just one year earlier, he and their brother Charles John went on a sailing trip to Egypt. When Henry heard Flush had been stolen, he hurried from the house, knowing just where to go; he had to find a mysterious man named Taylor. He knew this because Flush had been stolen before. Twice.
Small spaniels had been fashionable pets in Britain among the elite since the days of King Charles II two centuries before. The Victorian era (especially the latter half) witnessed a rocketing interest in the keeping of dogs as pets, as well as in the breeding and showing of dogs — supported by a growing leisure class with interest in status markers. This expanding bourgeoisie was responsible for an entire industry of breeding, with many varieties of dog becoming expensive and harder to acquire. This phenomenon was known as “dog fancying.”
Flush first came into Elizabeth’s life as a much-needed companion. Elizabeth suffered from lung problems and a mysterious disorder that caused her constant head and spinal pain. An increasing reliance on laudanum for pain management debilitated her more, as did her largely confined life. When fellow writer Mary Russell Mitford’s dog sired puppies, she thought a pet would be a boon to Elizabeth’s spirits. Elizabeth wavered, worrying about “knowing… so little about dogs” and whether any dog could suit her melancholic and sickly existence. But Elizabeth soon relented, vowing to welcome the puppy.
Elizabeth also worried how a dog would fare being mostly closed up in a London home, and no wonder: her own experience spoke volumes. After a childhood in the countryside, Elizabeth now lived in an urban environment under the strict rules of a father who dictated narrow social opportunities and activities outside their domestic circle.
When Flush arrived, he was terrified of loud, bustling London — and of the other two dogs in the Barrett house, Catiline and Resolute, the giant hounds belonging to Charles John and Henry. But even as a little pup, Flush was not one to cower. A little tyrant, he yapped at everyone and everything in the household, determined to seem tough at all costs. He was a beautiful dog with floppy, silken ears and golden eyes, and quickly became a crucial part of Elizabeth’s life. For the first few months, he refused to leave her side. But soon he acclimated to his new life and to walks around town, which also carved out an acceptable excuse for Elizabeth to start going out into the world.
The dog, Elizabeth soon reported to Mary, grew so spoiled that he would turn up his nose at any “unbuttered bread” and developed a strong penchant for muffins. Elizabeth’s father even developed a habit of sneaking him cake. Within a month, Flush was having two baths per week, and at least one full brushing each day. In a poem she wrote about him in 1843, titled “To Flush, my Dog,” Elizabeth called him her “loving friend” and described how he would rest beside her bed while she was sick, and would hasten to comfort her if she cried. Flush provided Elizabeth with a loving relationship that was her own to foster and protect.
All the while, the phenomenon of dog stealing grew so problematic that the Metropolitan Police formed a committee to address it in 1844. The London dognapping ring capitalized on the rising classes’ expendable income and ballooning dog ownership. The Fancy, as some called it, was an efficient and tightly run network of thieves whose criminal activities were superintended by associated middlemen — a feature that protected the identities of the thieves, and protected the roles of those middlemen as likely conspirators. Most of the stolen dogs were small breeds considered “ladies’ dogs,” such as poodles, spaniels, and terriers. The dog-stealing operations had hubs in working class neighborhoods where London’s wealthy rarely entered.
A few years earlier, journalist Henry Mayhew estimated that there were as many as 141 individual dog-stealers operating in London, with 45 of them considering dognapping to be their main profession. Around the same time, one estimate put the industry’s income as 4,000 pounds, which would be approximately (US) $600,000 today. It was, in the words of Police Inspector Joseph Shackell, “a regular system of plunder,” but one very difficult to trace, leaving behind mostly circumstantial evidence.
Well-off owners such as Elizabeth who were inseparable from their pets would be shadowed through the city by the dog thieves, followed home, and stalked for an opportunity to nab their quarries. To attract dogs, thieves usually used smelly pieces of meat, often fried and treated with a sedative, such as opium. Occasionally female dogs in heat were used as bait. Once a dog was taken, the family would be contacted and given an opportunity to pay. A famous professional dognapper, Chelsea George, after bagging a dog, would make posters claiming that a dog had been found. He’d keep a flyer and sell the dog to a “dog dealer,” showing the flyer as proof that the dog was missing. Then the dealer would announce the discovery of the dog, collecting the reward from the owners.
Flush was nabbed for the first time in September 1843, seeming to vanish with a single yelp while on a walk. The Barretts plastered signs around the neighborhood, and Elizabeth’s brothers spoke to a gunmaker named William Bishop who tipped them off about a Mr. Taylor, a shoemaker, “one of the three great agents of the [dog-stealers].” Alfred, one of the Barrett siblings, was a lively young man, fourteen years younger than Elizabeth, and nicknamed “Daisy” by his siblings. He called on Taylor, who told him the Barretts had already doomed their dog.
Alfred asked why. Taylor spat: “Precisely because of your handbills. You have been so ill-advised as to make the affair known; the police are on the alert: and in all such cases, the custom of the Fancy is to send off the dogs in question instantly, either abroad or into the country. It is a fatal step, to make a loss known to the police.” A journalist for New Sporting Magazine wrote that dogs that were advertised for or reported as stolen were immediately “destroyed,” then buried or thrown into the river. Alfred begged Taylor to help. Taylor eventually agreed to inquire about Flush. “If he is still in London and in the hands of the Fancy, you shall come with me and receive him at another place.”
The Barretts had just sat down to dinner that night when Taylor came to their door. “Give me five pounds, and come in a cab with me to the place,” he instructed Alfred. Elizabeth had convinced Alfred to agree to whatever price Taylor named. Alfred went to the dining room to entreat their father for money. But “at the proposition of ‘five pounds’,” Elizabeth later wrote, her father “arose in indignation, got up from dinner to thunder thunderbolts against the agent of the Fancy, told him that he was a rascal, that he (Papa) would give not a farthing more than two sovereigns unless he gave himself (the agent) into the charge of the police; & that as to the dog, it & he might go!”
Turning to leave, Taylor smiled at everyone. “You’ll never see your dog again,” he said.
“Papa” was Edward Moulton-Barrett, who had owned several large plantations in Jamaica and who could be a harsh taskmaster to his twelve children — significantly more so after the death of his wife. He was a striking man with dark hair and large eyes like Elizabeth. He was always impressed by Elizabeth’s talent and intelligence, calling her “the Poet Laureate of Hope End,” the rural estate where they lived during Elizabeth’s childhood. Educated in French, Greek, Latin, Italian, and Hebrew, Elizabeth had dreamed of being a female Homer, penning an epic war poem when she was only twelve. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women helped her label the social frustrations she felt — exhaustion and anger at the economic and academic limitations against women, which left her feeling “a steady indignation against Nature who made me a woman.”
In his intense devotion to his family, Moulton-Barrett was both frightening and riveting — professionally, both a patron and a judge; at home, both a supporter and a jailer. “Always,” Elizabeth later wrote, “he has the greatest power over my heart, because I am one of those weak women who reverence strong men.” As the large family grew to adulthood, the family patriarch who had been elected Sheriff of Hertfordshire twice restricted his offspring from moving out or getting married, under threat of being disinherited. They all relocated to the house at Wimpole Street in London. Moulton-Barrett’s grip tightened even further after two of Elizabeth’s brothers both died tragically in 1840. Samuel died while on a business trip in Jamaica, and then Edward, whom Elizabeth affectionately referred to as “Bro,” drowned in a sailing accident, an excursion his father had only begrudgingly permitted at Elizabeth’s insistence. By her mid-thirties, Elizabeth physically deteriorated, the stress of these tragedies compounding her other health problems.
Waiting for her father to rule on Flush’s fate after that first shocking theft, Elizabeth couldn’t sleep, imagining her beloved pet with his throat slit. The next morning, without her father’s knowledge, she sent three sovereigns to Bishop, the gunmaker, begging him to get the word to Taylor that they would pay up. Elizabeth had access to a small but steady fund of money flowing from her literary earnings and some investments. Taylor contacted the Barretts again, and Elizabeth’s brother Henry met Taylor at a public location to trade the money for the dog. Taylor handed over the battered Flush, who now had a mild leg injury.
Taylor left them with a chilling revelation: he said the thieves had been watching Elizabeth with her beloved Flush for two years, waiting to make their move. “Well sir,” Taylor wheedled Henry before he left, “if you lose your dog again whether in London or the country, come to me and I will recover him for you.”
Flush’s next dognapping came a year later, in October 1844. Elizabeth engaged Taylor once more, and this time he hiked the recovery price up to six pounds. He told her it would be ten if he ever found her dog again. Elizabeth managed to keep this theft a secret from her father, and begged her friends not to let him know, since he would explode with rage if he knew that Flush had been taken because he had gone for a walk without his leash.
And now it was happening for a third time. Henry, who had rushed out of the house to find Taylor, came back and reported to Elizabeth that Taylor said he had already learned about Flush’s disappearance, and promised that he would stop by the house that evening to deliver some news. Elizabeth yet again could not stop thinking about poor Flush, who had no idea where he was, or what was going to happen to him — and of course could not know how resolved she was to locate him. There was another unknown, just as precarious: how Edward Moulton-Barrett would react if he found out.
Later that afternoon, with no further word, she wrote a panicked letter to another of the country’s great poets, Robert Browning, telling him of the morning’s disaster. Browning was, in a way, the source of an additional stress in her life. With Browning, Elizabeth had been plotting a dramatic escape from her father’s lifelong authority, a plan that now hung in the balance.
“He found himself in complete darkness… he made out a few shapes in a low dark room — broken chairs, a tumbled mattress. Then he was seized and tied tightly by the leg to some obstacle.” This description of Flush in captivity comes from the novelist Virginia Woolf, who in 1933 penned an experimental novella, Flush: An Autobiography, inspired by her interest in Elizabeth’s feminist contributions.
In her pastiche, Woolf explores the social confinement of women through the metaphor of the imprisoned Flush, brokenhearted and alone among the dognappers. “Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and a heavy hand beat him over the head… He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour.” Of his lost existence back with Elizabeth in Wimpole Street, Woolf marks Flush’s grief: “The whole of that life and its emotions floated away, dissolved, became unreal.”
Taylor did not keep his promise to come to the Barrett house the night of that third and latest dognapping. The atmosphere felt ominous. A dog at a neighbor’s property howled and moaned without stopping, seeming to command Elizabeth to think of Flush. Elizabeth went to bed feeling powerless and nervous, racked with self-doubt. “I belong to that pitiful order of weak women,” she wrote to Robert Browning in despair, giving in to society’s caricatures, “who cannot command their bodies with their souls at every moment, & who sink down in hysterical disorder when they ought to act & resist.” She added to him that she had begun to question whether she was strong enough to carry out the secret elopement to Italy. “I am afraid for myself,” she told him, “of breaking down under quite a different set of causes, in nervous excitement & exhaustion.” She felt her emotional and mental state tied to little Flush’s. “All this time he is suffering,” she wrote, “and I am suffering.”
Elizabeth had first heard from Robert Browning in a letter of admiration. After achieving success in both poetry and theater, the production of Browning’s eighth play turned into a mess and his ambitious experimental poem Sordello was panned. He had been restless and dissatisfied when he read some praise of his works in a journal article Elizabeth had written. She complimented his poetry again in one of her poems. The gratified Robert wrote a heartfelt letter to her. “I love your dear verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” his note from early 1845 began.
She was six years older than he was, and they were thrilled with one another. They wrote to each other of their frustrating family lives (they both lived with parents) and their interests in ancient Greek epics. On May 20, 1845, they finally met in person when he visited Wimpole Street and she received him in her rooms. Browning found her lovely, with “a smile like a sunbeam,” and she thought he was handsome. Shortly after their meeting, he wrote to her with a declaration of love, but his forwardness shocked her. Robert, mortified, asked her for the letter back and disposed of it. But their relationship was salvaged — they continued to write and to meet. He’d call upon her 91 times over the next year and a half, much to the perturbation of her other constant companion, the protective and suspicious little Flush, who railed and yapped at the sight of him.
Doctors had told Elizabeth that she needed to avoid another savage London winter if she wanted to improve her dire health. Even with her health at stake, her father forbade any such trip. Elizabeth was at the mercy of whatever her father commanded. As the literary scholar Susan M. Squier has pointed out, in Victorian patriarchal society, women and pets were similarly, unnaturally confined to contained domestic spaces which removed their autonomy. In this way, Edward Moulton-Barrett was Elizabeth’s constant captor, just as Taylor would be three times over for little Flush.
On September 25, Robert took a leap of faith and offered himself up as her knight errant. “You are in what I should wonder at as the veriest slavery,” he wrote, “and I who could free you from it, I am here scarcely daring to write… I would marry you now and thus.” She burst into tears when she read his letter. She wrote back frantically, nervous that her health would become a burden to him. She promised him that if she survived one more winter, then they could marry. “Henceforward” she wrote, “I am yours for everything but to do you harm — and I am yours too much, in my heart…”
After an unseasonably mild winter, she and Robert began to plan their elopement, making budgets and working on investments that would allow them both to sustain. They aimed to marry in London and then sail for Italy immediately by way of France, combining a desire for a dramatic change of scenery with the doctor’s urgings. Elizabeth’s two younger sisters, Arabel and Henrietta, knew of the plans, keeping them secret from their father, who did not seem to suspect a thing. Elizabeth’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson, knew more than anyone in the household, but was sure not to give anything away, even though such secrecy would have put her at risk of losing her position. Elizabeth and Robert only had to make it to the fall until the pair, as well as brave little Flush, would be free of the stranglehold of London forever.
Now in the face of the dognapping on Vere Street, Robert pleaded not to let the crisis derail their plans, offering Flush’s capture as a metaphor for the fragility of their future together. “Do not let our happiness be caught up from us, after poor Flush’s fashion — there may be no redemption from that peril.” Taylor’s greed, Robert pointed out, was robbing Elizabeth of confidence, and even her spirit. “Instead of stealing your dog, he determines to steal your character.”
Further news of Flush did not come until the next evening. Taylor arrived, puffing on a cigar. He confirmed that the dog was being held by the Fancy at a location in Whitechapel, the impoverished dockside neighborhood in London’s East End. According to the thieves, so Taylor reported, Flush had been a very difficult dog to nab. He had been so terrified and desperate that he had to be gagged and dragged into another nearby coach with a rope. Elizabeth felt too afraid to give in to anger. The shoemaker advised that Elizabeth would likely have to pay ten pounds to guarantee Flush’s safe return — an amount equivalent to about one thousand pounds or $1,300 US dollars today. She could not access that kind of money on short notice, and the clock ticked. She had heard a story of a local woman who had attempted to negotiate the price of the return of her kidnapped dog, and for her audacity had her dog’s head mailed to her. Dogs who went unclaimed, New Sporting Magazine reported, were killed “for their skin” or transported abroad to be sold. She had to act.
Taylor assured them that he was on his way to a meeting with the cartel, and he would negotiate the final payment and then come back to their house. Elizabeth gave her brother Henry, who was to handle the talks, one mandate: “Get Flush back, whatever you do.”
Later that night, Taylor came back. Elizabeth, who was upstairs, didn’t know that he was in her house. Henry greeted him — as did her father. Taylor boasted good news: the organization would accept a discounted ransom of six pounds and six guineas (with a gratuity of a half-guinea for himself) in exchange for the dog. Edward Moulton-Barrett commanded Henry to refuse the deal and Taylor left. Her father had asserted unwanted control over Elizabeth’s life yet again. She learned only the next morning that her best chance of having her beloved dog safely returned to her was wiped out without her having any say in the matter.
Taylor — probably John Taylor of High Street — was indeed a shoemaker, and was in all likelihood far more than the middleman for bandits that he claimed to be. His name appears in accounts of dognappings throughout the city, to the point of suggesting he was a chief conniver in the industry. In fact, Taylor loomed so large in the London imagination that he was fictionalized by W. H. Ainsworth in Ainsworth’s Magazine’s serialized novel “Revelations of London.” The story sets the stage with a dingy room bursting with purebred dogs, and towering among them, illuminated by the glow of the fireplace, is “Taylor,” their cheerful, devious keeper. “Before the fire, with his back turned towards it,” writes Ainsworth, “stood a noticeable individual, clad in a velveteen jacket, with ivory buttons, a striped waistcoat, drabknees, a faded black neckcloth, tied in a great bow, and a pair of ancient Wellingtons ascending half-way up his legs, which looked disproportionately thin when compared with the upper part of his square, robustious, and somewhat pursy frame.”
Ainsworth depicts Taylor with a “broad, jolly, and good humoured” face “with a bottle-shaped nose, fleshy lips, and light grey eyes, glistening with cunning and roguery. His hair, which dangled in long flakes over his ears and neck, was of a dunnish red, as were also his whiskers and beard.” Though he went by his last name professionally, Ainsworth claims that his nickname was “Ginger.”
His chokehold over the dog owners of London seems particularly clear from his representation as nearly superhuman in his pet-grabbing abilities: Ainsworth dramatizes him as having two King Charles spaniels in each of his coat pockets and two Blenheim spaniels under each arm, while somehow also holding a pug. There are two other dogs, a Skye Terrier and a poodle, at his feet.
The real-life Taylor’s petty manipulations reached the status of infamy because, as scholar Philip Howell has ascertained, the Fancy forced the worried owners of missing pets to do something gut-wrenching — treat their beloved animal companions as objects and determine their monetary value, or “[put] a price on love and affection.” Dogs were suddenly exposed as property to be acquired by humans for enjoyment, which meant that the private domestic world and its corresponding pleasures were suddenly opened up to the harsh scrutiny of capitalism.
It is a testament to Taylor’s clever orchestrations that he was both an underground celebrity and a professional mystery, all while somehow managing to remain outside the scope of the law. Part of this lack of accountability was that Taylor avoided presenting himself as being an actual thief. But most of his ability to evade consequences involved the ambiguity of the laws themselves. While Taylor was operating, it was considered a felony to demand compensation for the recovery of stolen property. But dogs were not yet legally considered property, a loophole Taylor exploited for every pence it was worth. The 1845 dog-stealing bill which had been proposed to Parliament was revised again and again as M.P.s struggled to figure out how to sufficiently define the crime in order to police it.
Elizabeth needed a plan. She knew what she was not going to do. “I am not,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert Browning, “going to leave Flush at their mercy.” Robert swore to Elizabeth that he would “give all I ever am to be worth in this world to get back your Flush for you,” writing to her to describe the showdown that would take place if he met Taylor. He would refuse to pay the ransom and if Flush’s head were cut off for it — Robert said — then he would cut off Taylor’s head as payback. “Be as sure as I stand here and tell you,” Robert fantasized telling the bandits, “I will spend my whole life in putting you down, the nuisance you declare yourself — and by every imaginable means I will be the death of you and as many of your accomplices as I can discover.”
Gallant Robert, as it happened, was sick and bedridden that week. The poet wasn’t about to take the battle to the streets of London. Unintentionally, he motivated Elizabeth’s plans by praising her passivity. He promised that Flush would be rescued without her having to “recover him directly.” “I ‘shall not recover him directly’, you think!” she wrote back. “But, dearest, I am sure that I shall. I am learned in the ways of the Philistines. I knew from the beginning where to apply & how to persuade.”
Robert’s suggestion of Flush’s passivity also riled up Elizabeth. He suggested that Flush was not fazed by his abduction and imprisonment; he was “no better than the rest of us,” he wrote, likely giving “blandness and waggings of the tail” to the dognappers.
“Never think it!” Elizabeth exclaimed, taking the idea personally. After all, her dog was brave and spirited. This was a dog who had triumphed over his early fears of the city and intimidatingly large hounds. “If he could have bitten, he would have bitten — if he could have yelled, he would have yelled.” With the days passing, the time they had left to spend on planning their elopement was dwindling. If Flush’s fate remained unknown, it was impossible to imagine Elizabeth leaving the country, and if Flush were killed, who knew if she would recover emotionally.
Elizabeth challenged Robert’s aggressive sense of justice, his chivalric fantasy of trouncing them, and applied his logic to their love and to their plan to escape to Italy. “You would bear, you say, to receive his head in a parcel — it would satisfy you to cut off Taylor’s in return.”
“Do you mean to say,” she continued, “that if the banditti came down on us in Italy and carried me off to the mountains and, sending to you one of my ears to show you my probable fate if you did not let them have… how much may I venture to say I am worth?… five or six scudi — (is that reasonable at all?)… would your answer be ‘not so many crazie’; and would you wait, poised upon abstract principles, for the other ear, and the catastrophe?… would you dearest?”
“What would I do if you were to be the victim?” Robert replied. “Sacrifice myself… all that belongs to me — but there are some interests which I belong to — I have no right, no more than inclination, in such a case, to think of myself if your safety is concerned, and as I could cut off a limb to save my head, so my head should fall most willingly to redeem yours.”
Elizabeth was thrilled and excited by his response. “I am your Flush,” she explained to Robert. He needed to understand this. “And he is mine.”
When Elizabeth’s brother Henry did not follow her instructions to find Taylor, she fumed. “If people won’t do as I choose,” she decided, “I shall go down tomorrow morning myself and bring Flush back with me.” The men in her life failed her, stunning her with their braggadocio and inaction. She had to take matters into her own hands. Elizabeth wrote a hasty note to Robert. “Flush has not come,” she wrote, choosing rather prophetic words: “I am going on a voyage of discovery myself.”
Despite Taylor’s protestations, Elizabeth saw the shoemaker clearly as the “archfiend,” the “captain of the banditti,” the architect of her misery. In order to save Flush, she would need to outsmart him. She would travel to Whitechapel. There she could gather information about Taylor just as the shoemaker had collected intelligence on her for years.
For a well-heeled Londoner, it was a daunting journey, and for a woman of Elizabeth’s class status, it was rather unprecedented. Henry warned that she could “be robbed and murdered.” Elizabeth mentioned her brother’s concern to Robert, and added with gallows humor, “in which case remember that it is not my fault that I do not go with you to Pisa.”
In Ainsworth’s portrayal of Taylor, which he bolstered by researching testimony given to the House of Commons about the dog stealing trade, the character boasts about the ease of his crimes. “It’s a good business,” Ainsworth’s Taylor, speaking in dialect, tells a fellow rogue, “but it requires a edication… we gets a high price sometimes for restorin’ a favourite, especially vin ve’ve a soft-hearted lady to deal vith… threatenin’ to send first an ear, and then a paw, or a tail, and so on.” He considers himself untouchable. As Taylor’s companion comments with envy, “The law seems made for dog-fanciers.”
Embarking on her journey, Elizabeth brought along a companion: her anxious confidante and maid, Elizabeth Wilson, who was far from thrilled at the prospect of the trip. Whitechapel, which was located directly across the city from Wimpole Street (as if in a mirror image), was, to quote the cockney servant Sam Weller in Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, “not a wery [sic] nice neighborhood.” It was the centralmost area in London’s East End, but more than simply being a working-class neighborhood, it was a riverside slum lined with boarding houses, taverns, brothels, shops, small theaters and music halls, and shacks selling oysters. It was, and would be for the rest of the nineteenth century, home to London’s largest immigrant population, who had arrived seeking inexpensive housing and labor opportunities. By 1840, the vicinity was principally inhabited by Irish immigrants, but was also home to London’s Eastern European Jewish population. Due to grave and widespread impoverishment, as well as low literacy rates, the district would become known for prostitution, beggary, and petty thievery, including pickpocketing — often carried out by children. Whitechapel would later become synonymous with the most terrifying crime spree of the era, the Jack the Ripper murders.
The streets were narrow and lined with busy, dilapidated storefronts. Whitechapel had a garbage problem, and the curbs would have been heaped with oyster shells and other rubbish. In 1835, William Augustus Miles called Whitechapel denizens “burglars, swell-mob ben, common pilferers, and passers of bad coin, who support themselves, and save money for the winter, by thieving and gambling.” Thirty years later, Whitechapel’s reputation had not changed; the journalist George Augustus Sala wrote about a stroll he took through the district in 1879: “Beggars, by dozens. Slatternly, frowsy, drabs of women, wrangling with wrinkled crones, and bating down the price of a bunch of carrots fiercely. Blackguard boys, with painted faces, tumbling head over heels in the mud. The yelling, screeching, howling, swearing, laughing, fighting saturnalia; the combination of commerce, fun, frolic, cheating, almsgiving, thieving, and devilry; the Geneva-laden, tobacco-charged atmosphere! The thieves, now pursuing their vocation, by boldly snatching joints of meat from the hooks, or articles from the stalls… the short pipes, the thick sticks the mildewed umbrellas, the dirty faces, the ragged coats!”
Elizabeth’s cabman, confounded by the packed, winding streets, had to pull over and run into a pub to double-check that he was going the right way. Elizabeth had directed him to go to Taylor’s cobbler shop on Manning Street, but it was one of the more “obscure streets.” A few men advanced on the carriage. Inside the cab, Wilson bristled in terror. A tiny crowd gathered in front of Elizabeth’s window. “Oh, you want to find Mr. Taylor, I dare say!” they commented. They asked Elizabeth to get out of the cab so that they might better assist her.
Wilson begged Elizabeth not to leave the vehicle. She was certain that Elizabeth would be killed, but the poet was steely. She remained inside, but suspected from the throng that had emerged to greet the cab that she was very close to the object of her search. After all, neither she nor the cabman had mentioned Taylor’s name, and no one revealed that they were searching for a dog. Yet the locals behaved as though she had. The men, who assured her they “lived to oblige” her, then asked if she’d like to speak to Mrs. Taylor.
Before Elizabeth could answer, a woman approached the carriage. She was, as Elizabeth uncharitably described her later, “an immense feminine bandit.” She intuited that this woman, too, was involved in the dog-stealing racket. She introduced herself to Elizabeth as the wife of the cobbler, and said that her husband was out.
“Wouldn’t you like to get out and wait?” she asked, saying that Taylor might be back in either a few minutes or several hours. Inside the cab, Wilson yanked on Elizabeth’s gown in terror.
Elizabeth refused to bow to fear. Holding her ground against Mrs. Taylor, she again declined. “It is not necessary that I should get out,” she said, “but it was, that Mr. Taylor should keep his promise about the restoration of a dog which he had agreed to restore.” Elizabeth made clear she expected Taylor to bring the dog to Wimpole Street by the end of the day “and not defer it any longer.”
It was as though Elizabeth had finally channeled, in this single moment, the lifetime’s worth of strength that had already allowed her to transcend a suffocating home life to make a name for herself among the most celebrated authors in the English-speaking world.
In her memoirs many years later, writing about her teenage years, Elizabeth discussed the myth of Phaeton, who transported the sun in his chariot and ended up losing control and dying. Looking back, she considered the precariousness she felt as a girl discovering her own extreme passions, sensibilities that she knew were unwelcome in many social spaces. She wrote that she was afraid she would give into her emotional nature, resulting in outbursts that would cause her to be “hurled with Phaeton far from every human thing.” If her hailed carriage on September 6, 1846 was the chariot she had imagined in her youth, her conduct empowered her rather than threw her asunder.
Parked in the vehicle along the dingy Whitechapel road, Elizabeth stated her terms coolly and defiantly. Her unique passions had brought her to this new place — had motivated her to take matters into her own hands.
Mrs. Taylor tilted her head to the right and left as she stared down Elizabeth through the window. Having shown herself to be undaunted, Elizabeth directed the driver away, as Wilson gasped that they “had escaped with [their] lives barely.” But Elizabeth knew that with her unexpected visit into Taylor’s neighborhood, she had finally made her point: the return of her dog was not up for further negotiation, and she would not sit idly until it happened.
Not long after she and Wilson returned to her family, Taylor arrived at the house on Wimpole Street. He asked for six guineas, promising to return with the dog. Elizabeth, maintaining her power over the situation, had the money brought down to him. But as Taylor was preparing to leave, Elizabeth’s hot-tempered brother Alfred spotted him and swiftly lost his temper, calling the visitor “a swindler, and a liar and thief.”
Elizabeth, who had in that single day made more headway with the bandits than anyone had so far, couldn’t stop Alfred from his tirade. Taylor shouted back that “as he hoped to be saved,” they would never see their dog again, and stormed out.
Virginia Woolf later envisioned Flush’s despair as a bleak prelude to a solitary death. “Then again evening darkened the room; the candle was stuck in its saucer; the coarse light flared outside; hordes of sinister men with bags on their backs, of garish women with painted faces, began to shuffle in at the door and to fling themselves down on the broken beds and tables. Another night had folded its blackness over Whitechapel. And the rain dripped steadily through a hole in the roof and drummed into a pail that had been stood to catch it. Miss Barrett had not come.”
What did Flush experience as he watched other dogs taken away? Woolf imagined terror and dread: “The red setter who had been whining all night beside Flush on the floor was hauled off by a ruffian in a moleskin vest — to what fate? Was it better to be killed or to stay here? Which was worse — this life or that death?”
After the dustup between Alfred and Taylor ended with Taylor’s quick exit, Elizabeth hurried downstairs, ready to return to Whitechapel to “save the victim” and make sure Taylor wasn’t going to revenge himself on Flush. Darkness was falling outside. She was undaunted even as her family called her “quite mad” — causing her to complain later, “I was called as many names as Mr. Taylor.” No one would let her leave.
Only her brother Septimus, a barrister sixteen years younger than Elizabeth, calmed her down by promising to go instead. She agreed to send him as long as he followed her directions to the letter. Shortly after, at eight o’clock, he returned, carrying Flush, “bewildered and frightened” in his arms.
The little dog, dirty and underweight, drank three cups of water from a purple cup and whimpered all night. But he was home safe. Resting, Flush lay on the sofa, as Elizabeth wrote that night, “with one paw & both ears hanging over the edge of it.”
Flush’s harrowing disappearance provided all the more motivation to flee from England. “When we shall be at Pisa,” she longingly wrote to Robert the day Flush went missing, “we shall be away from the London dog-stealers.” Elopement meant that she would be away from her father, too, though this was much more complicated and heartbreaking than escaping the clutches of the dognapper. Earlier in January, she wrote to Robert about Moulton-Barrett’s desire for control, having overheard her father speaking about the subject in front of her sister Henrietta’s suitor. Moulton-Barrett expected “passive obedience, & particularly in respect to marriage,” to which the suitor had blithely asked “if children were to be considered slaves.” A family friend suggested to Elizabeth that Moulton-Barrett had “monomania.”
Elizabeth believed her father loved her, even though she spent her life confounded by his authoritarian rule. But there was no way to convince her father that marriage was acceptable even if Robert were a true gentleman, which he decidedly was not, born to working-class parents.
Robert and Elizabeth secretly married on September 12, 1846, a week after Flush’s recovery — that recovery turned out to be a dress rehearsal for this even more rebellious adventure. Elizabeth snuck out of the house and met Robert at Marylebone Church. After the ceremony, she returned home. They couldn’t alert her father at risk of triggering his fury. Robert offered to take care of all the paperwork they’d need: travel documents, tickets, and so on. But he was so thrilled, he itched to submit a wedding announcement to The Times, causing Elizabeth, incredulous, to wave him off. He also fumbled their travel schedules, not realizing that there was more than one railroad company, and that they didn’t share the same departure times. Elizabeth began to worry that his excitement would expose them, writing to him that if anything went wrong, “[I] shall be killed — it will be so infinitely worse than you can have any idea.” Just as she had taken control over Flush’s rescue, she had to take control of her own escape.
She remained home for a week, going about business as usual. On September 19, Elizabeth, Wilson, and Flush left the house at Wimpole Street just as the whole family was gathered in the dining room for the evening meal. Elizabeth had arranged to take her dinner in her room, as she often did, so she had a large window of time before her family would notice she had gone. They met Robert at Hodgson’s Bookshop, and then all went on to the Vauxhall railway station, bound, eventually, for Italy. Elizabeth never returned.
When Edward Moulton-Barrett eventually found out about their elopement, he never spoke to his daughter again, dispossessing her of her inheritance and refusing to open her letters. He also disinherited two other children (Henrietta and Alfred) who married during his lifetime. Soon after they settled into life in Italy, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Robert, whom they called Pen. In Italy, Elizabeth produced some of her greatest works, including her masterpiece Aurora Leigh. Shortly after leaving London, she affirmed her decision to abscond: “I do consider that in consulting my own happiness I have committed an injury against no one.”
Flush lived happily with the Brownings until he passed away peacefully in Florence on June 16, 1854 at age thirteen. Pen, then five years old, found him the morning he died, and the family cried together. “It has been quite a shock to me & a sadness,” Elizabeth wrote to Arabel. “My head aches so I can scarcely see,” she told a friend. When her son had stopped weeping, he assured his mother that in a year, Flush would be reborn. “He never doubts the prolonged existence of the dog-soul,” wrote Elizabeth to Robert’s sister, adding wistfully, “And he may be right.”
Olivia Rutigliano is a writer whose essays have been published in or are forthcoming from Vanity Fair, Lapham’s Quarterly, Public Books, The Baffler, Lit Hub, CrimeReads, Politics/Letters, and elsewhere, and whose film work has appeared in The Toast and on PBS Television. She is a PhD candidate and fellow in the departments of English/Comparative Literature and Theatre at Columbia University.
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