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WHIPPING TOM – THE PHANTOM SPANKER OF OLD LONDON TOWN

Posted on: June 4, 2014

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The city streets have always been awash with nutcases, and the streets of 17th century London were haunted by a man who liked to indulge in what the French call “le vice Anglais”, smacking bottoms. For a long while he evaded capture, and then, to add insult to injury, he spawned a copycat assailant 40 years later.

Whipping Tom – as he was nicknamed – liked to lurk around the alleyways of Fleet Street, The Strand, and Holborn areas in the 1680s, dressed all in black. When he spotted a lone victim he would let out a cry of “spanko!” and turn up the garments and inflict a beating on his victims. For a long time this public menace evaded capture, and an angry populace either blamed the law for their laxness in capturing him, or assumed that the phantom spanker had supernatural abilities, in order to be able to flee the scene of his crimes so effectively. Women took to arming themselves with penknives and scissors. Gallant men came forward and offered to disguise themselves as women to try and trap the fiend, but there is no record of Tom being fooled by these suspiciously gruff-voiced wenches.

But eventually he was caught, and was found to be a haberdasher from Holborn, who was brought to trial for his crimes, although no record of it is purported to exist. Some have speculated that he may have been hanged for his crimes, which considering people were hanged for just about anything in those days wouldn’t be terribly surprising. Whipping Tom was publicly cited as “the enemy of milk wenches’ bums everywhere”.

But it is thought that Whipping Tom was to spawn a copycat assailant 40 years later.

In the autumn of 1712 a man was assaulting women with a birch-rod in and around Hackney, than a fairly rural village. His plan was to attack a 100 women before Christmas, but he was halted at 70. He was called Thomas Wallis, and he unrepentantly believed that women needed chastisement to teach them the error of their ways. If this didn’t happen, he reasoned, men would become their slaves. Perhaps needless to say it is rumoured that Tom had once been wronged in love. Thomas was tried for lifting women’s clothes and viewing their nakedness, “and exposing many a pretty female’s backside to the extremity of the wind and rainy weather”.

The justice on sad Tom was priceless. He was sentenced to be birched in Bridewell twice a week by two strong-armed maids, who were instructed not to stop until the blood ran on his back, and that this punishment was to be carried out for a whole year. If Tom thought his problems were over at the end of that year he was in for a shock. When he was released from Bridewell he had to run the gauntlet of 200 “maids, wives and widows” in Cheapside.

An online dictionary has Whipping Tom down as “one conspicuous for whipping others”.

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