In 1892 6 Jewish men were put on trial Austrian city of Lemberg. They were accused of trafficking Gentile women into prostitution or sex slavery, including to the brothels of Istanbul The eastern borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been a centre for lurid stories of white slavery that both titillated and horrified the European public. They helped to fuel a global moral panic about sex trafficking and white slavery that led to the conclusion of an international agreement in 1904 by which countries committed themselves to action to deal with the problem.
In London, the Metropolitan Police put resources into combatting white slavery and appointed officers with special responsibilities in this area, This is the background to the extraordinary story told here by Julia Laite.
Lydia Harvey was a 16 year old New Zealander who, at the beginning of 1910, was trafficked to Buenos Aires to work in the city’s brothels and then, after her traffickers had attracted the attention of the authorities, taken to London where, for a few weeks, she solicited for clients on the streets of the West End until the summer evening when a prospective client turned out to be a police officer. It was this encounter that has meant that Lydia Harvey is remembered in the historical record. It is a faint trace but the author, who came across Lydia’s story when researching an earlier book, has used it to give her a voice.
The book has seven chapters, each devoted to an actor in the drama. There is Lydia herself, the policeman who found her in Piccadilly, and the New Zealand journalist who heard of her story and fought for her to be able to return home (the governments of the United Kingdom and New Zealand had been involved in an unseemly squabble over who was responsible for the £28 fare for an economy berth back to Wellington). There is the rescuer, Eilidh McDougall, who took care of Lydia and found her a place in a safe house as she waited to give evidence against her traffickers, Antonio Carvelli, the Italian French trafficker and his Australian wife Veronique White (herself a sex worker and complicit in the trafficking of several women including Lydia). The final chapter ties up the loose ends and picks up Lydia’s story after her return to New Zealand up to her death in 1919 at the age of just 26.
The book is an exercise in micro history, building up from the intersecting stories to a picture if a rapidly globalising world where the telegraph and the steamship had made the world a smaller place, and where opportunities for travel and adventure had opened up. There were, of course, opportunities to make money from commercial sex. Carvelli had become an international sex entrepreneur. A talented musician, he had early realised there was easier money to be made from theft and deception and then’ later, from sex, starting out in the goldfields of Western Australia where he met Veronique White, the sex worker who became his wife and accomplice.
Globalisation also created the conditions that made young women vulnerable to trafficking. It was, for example, the opportunity to travel and a sense of adventure that led to Lydia Harvey accepting the offer from Carvelli and White of a steamship ticket to Buenos Aires, capital of an Argentina that was one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The story has many contemporary echoes, particularly the moral panic about trafficking and racialised narratives about traffickers or groomers. The victims, or at least the victims campaigners cared about, were white. The traffickers were also mostly white but, for the purposes of the white slavery discourse, the wrong sort of white, whether Jewish, as in Lemberg, or Italian as in this story. Laite observes that Carvelli, who entered Australia in 1900 would not have been admitted the following year after the country achieved dominion status and introduced the White Australia immigration policy. Narratives of the ruin of white women, implied that women of colour could not be similarly ruined, while the concept of ruin was used by the proliferating rescue organisations to stigmatise women even as they saved them.
The narratives did not go unchallenged. There were feminists who argued that legislation aimed at protecting or saving women from exploitation could also be used to control them and that women should reject the infantilisation this implied. Neither were women necessarily helpless victims (something reflected too in contemporary narratives about “prostituted women”). They had agency, even in the context of having been trafficked. Lydia, for example, refused to pleasure clients the “French way” (fellatio) as she considered it disgusting. Carvelli did not force the issue.
There was also the uncomfortable truth that many trafficked women had not actually been kidnapped or coerced. Lydia Harvey travelled to Buenos Aires alone, two weeks after Carvelli and White who were to meet her at the docks in Montevideo. It seems too that she was aware that she would be doing sex work, “seeing gentleman” as White had put it, even if she didn’t understand the often-grim reality. Laite discusses the wider issue of why women might choose sex work as a living. One answer is that in a society where women were not expected to enjoy sex and giving a husband his marital rights considered something to be endured, having joyless sex with clients was no worse than the other sex a woman might have but with the advantage of payment.
“Why do it for free when you can be paid?” as Veronique White put it.
Neither was sex work an obviously worse option than the relentless drudgery of maid service that was frequently the only alternative for many of these women. It could also be lucrative. These were issues that contemporary commentators preferred not to address. Not all trafficked women wanted to be rescued anyway. In London Lydia met the trafficked Frenchwoman Victoria Bricot who, while being deported to France, gave her minders the slip after they reached Paris and returned to working for Carvelli,
The dominant narrative had it that women needed protection, that they were safe at home, and that restrictions on their movements etc were necessary for their physical safety and moral wellbeing. One person who saw through the hypocrisy of this was Eilidh MacDougall who was only too aware of the extent of the sexual abuse of young women in the home, by close family members. She witnessed with anger and frustration how trials of abusers resulted in acquittals because women were routinely not believed. This too has contemporary echoes.
Lydia Harvey has been given a voice, or as much of a voice as she can be, on view of the slim archival traces she has left. These traces are significantly less than those of the other actors in her drama. Had she not been picked up Detective Inspector Anderson on a July night in 1910 she might have disappeared back into North Soho, to be sold from pimp to pimp, and never reached the historical record. As it was, the decision of Carvelli to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a three month prison sentence meant that she was never called to give evidence at his trial.
The final chapter traces her final years. Back in New Zealand she had apparently lost none of her taste for adventure and soon left for Australia where she performed with a vaudeville troupe, before meeting and marrying an English sailor. Domestic happiness did not last long as, in late 1919, she died of the Spanish Flu. These final years are described on the basis of speculation, what we might imagine Lydia felt, what she might have seen and so on. The remaining record is ultimately too thin to give Lydia Harvey a real voice. In one sense Lydia Harvey becomes a voiceless window into a world of sex and crime, and the moral panics that gripped Edwardian society.
As an exercise in micro-history, in the telling of the stories of six people whose lives intersected for a few months in 1910, and considering the economic and political forces that created the circumstances in which they met, this is a fascinating book and, as alluded to above, raises issues that are of contemporary concern. Nonetheless, the author does not quite succeed in giving Lydia Harvey a voice. For that, the archival record is too sparse. This, however, enables the book to reflect a deeper underlying reality of many women’s’ lives. This extraordinary story was a story worth telling and Laite has ensured that Lydia Harvey will not be forgotten.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LYDIA HARVEY BY JULIA LAITE
PROFILE BOOKS 2021
ISBN 978 1 78816 4 43 6