Sybil Bruncheon's HIT-OR-MISS HISTORIES!... The HUG-ME-NOT!


            During Victorian times, as advanced as the Victorians (and indeed Queen Victoria herself!) considered themselves to be, there were still aspects of their lives that we in the 21st century would consider to be fairly primitive, and even, dare we say, “barbaric”. A case in point was the treatment of children. Above and beyond the fact that they “were to be seen and not heard”, they continued to be accidents, often unhappy ones since birth control was basically unknown, not understood, and certainly not acceptable, at least among “polite society”. Pregnancy (a word itself considered obscene and never spoken of, again, in “polite society”), was a stroke of very bad luck (but never admitted as such). Most women were expected by their families, society at large, and certainly their husbands (if they could afford it!) to be “fecund” (oh, that word!) and married couples with ten or more children were common even allowing for attrition caused by appalling infant mortality. 21st century people marvel that women at that time could even hold up under the crushing physical and emotional strains of pregnancy, child-rearing, and perpetual housekeeping. As to the lives and expectations of children at the time, they were the disposable tools and appliances of the growing Industrial Revolution and its hazards, and the playthings of a society that frequently neither valued nor protected them from dangers, often grotesque dangers. On those very rare occasions when a miscreant was finally pursued, tried, and convicted of crimes against minors, punishments might be whimsically applied or not at all.

           However, the now widely accepted concept of “Good Touches! Bad Touches!” began at that time, specifically on the night of Friday, June 17th, 1887 at approximately 8:19pm. The victim was 6 year old Moncrief Gantt and he was attending the newly opened Little Lord Fauntleroy Petting Zoo for Exotic Animal Friends. One of the janitorial-persons, a Mr. Jeremy Soamesberry, had surreptitiously lured the child away with promises of a banana-pineapple ice and some “Mrs. Marquay’s Marzipan Bisc-ettes”, a promise he did NOT make good on. While alone with the trusting and remarkably pretty little boy behind the Marsupial Maison, he suggested that Moncrief himself was one of the “animal friends” and should allow himself to be “petted”. The child was willing, very willing, according to the authorities and the court later at trial. He played the role with great aplomb, admitting that he had decided to be not only exotic, but perhaps fairly wild…. It wasn’t clear whether he was some sort of Uruguayan capybara or a huge blue-winged shoebill, or perhaps the unlikely offspring of both. At some point, Mr. Soamesberry’s “petting” had become a little too focused, and Moncrief’s fantastical creature decided that a small bite on the hand was in order… followed by a hearty yelp from his petter but more petting, followed then by a terrifying lunge and much gnashing of baby teeth and fingernail scratches from pudgy little 6 year-old hands. Indeed, once the hysterical shrieks and pleadings for rescue and forgiveness by the mangled janitor had been answered, many of little Moncrief’s baby-teeth were found embedded in Jeremy’s wrist, ankles, and forehead. Onlookers were torn between pointing and screaming…and pointing and laughing. Constables asked if they could have posed photographs with both victim and “beast” taken by the press and later autographed by all participants. Interestingly, Master Gantt was quite adept printing out his name in block letters with a fuchsia crayon, his favorite color. As the ambulance carried away the writhing Soamesberry (actually a Shetland pony cart drafted into service for the emergency) he yowled that he intended to sue Mr. and Mrs. Gantt, and Master Moncrief personally for damages, the possible amputation of his left thumb, and his missing eyebrows. The crowd at that point became enraged, and threatened to turn into a seething mob reminiscent of political catastrophes like the French Revolution or the misunderstandings surrounding the colonies about tea. He was hurried away to hospital in the pony cart with much obscenity and neighing. Sadly, the most convenient hospital was the Quadruped Infirmary where he was stitched back together by a bird veterinarian with little or no anesthetics that worked on humans.

           A week later, he and the Gantts were brought to a high court, where little Moncreif was not only exonerated, but made the London Times weekly choice for Our Gracious Queen’s Hero of Tomorrow. He received a small bronze medal of Her Majesty in profile, a certificate of congratulations and thanks “from the Empire”, and one year’s supply of Mrs. Marquay’s Marzipan Bisc-ettes… in all seven flavors… including ginger and celery!

           Mr. Soamesberry, on the other hand was publicly mocked and excoriated, especially because some of the baby-teeth were still in his forehead for the entire courtroom to see. (Physicians had decided that it was too unsafe to remove them without a proper surgeon on hand…or a carpenter.) He was found guilty by a mixed jury of gentlemen, croquet club members, a furrier, a porcelain scholar, a pastry chef, a circus person (possibly a knife thrower), and someone from Ireland… or Cincinnati. The janitor was found guilty on all charges within 47 seconds of the men entering and suddenly exiting the jury room, and sentenced to a new but supposedly humane punishment suggested by the Queen’s own Privy Council On Weights, Measures, and Corporal Penalties. He was to be confined for six months to the newly designed “Hug-Me-Not”; a full-body suit of tolerable flexibility covered with spikes that would discourage uninvited caressing by sexual deviants, “physicality-felons”, and overly-affectionate holiday visitors, specifically “bosomy aunts on Boxing Day”, and politicians’ wives during ribbon cuttings and pie contests. The unfortunate and now publicly humiliated Mr. Soamesberry was forcefully wedged into the suit in front of a throng of hundreds in Trafalgar Square while ices, candies, and small-scale but frighteningly accurate toy facsimiles of the Hug-Me-Not suit were sold to spoiled little girls of society to inflict on their porcelain dolls…often to the sounds of breakage and subsequent weeping and slaps from angered parents…or passers-by.

            Mr. Soamesberry, a fairly robust man from his labors, had apparently gained a few pounds from his brief stay in Gentleman’s Gaol from the cuisine of the Warden’s wife Edna-Marie, particularly her delicious rendition of kidney, quince and quinine pie. The gaolers had to thoroughly lubricate poor but plump Jeremy with duck fat and shoe-polish to get him finally into the Hug-Me-Not, and he was then paraded through the streets and thence to a specially constructed platform in Piccadilly to be the target of eggs (soft-boiled only, please!), spoiled items from greengrocers stalls or pretzel carts, and suggestive limericks yelled in foreign accents. His sentence of six months was interrupted when a local troop of the Battersea Boy Explorers gave chase and hurled him off a bridge into the Thames. He became an instant celebrity and a millionaire when it was discovered that the Hug-Me-Not could double as a perfectly water-proof diving suit! Of course, there was the unpleasantness of lying in thirty-five feet of filthy brown water and mud and not being found for two days…but he made a fortune from the new national craze of exotic seashell, coral, and sponge collecting… and off his Soamesberry’s Soap & Sponge Salons at “all fine ladies’ emporiums”…. The royal family became avid customers and his products were sold “by Appointment to Her Majesty”…

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