The Ultimate Criminal Conversation Case

Before the first Divorce Act of 1857 in England, married couples had few options if their marriage went off the rails. One option was for the husband to sue the wife’s lover for criminal conversation. Towards the end of the 18th century, juries were encouraged to award huge payouts as compensation for the loss of the wife’s services and comforts. This is from The Year of the Wombat, on the first and only case of obtaining evidence of a couple misbehaving in this way and it proved to be the last crim.con case:

“The action of a Charlotte Street upholsterer called Lyle against his partner called Herbert, which was heard during August, …was distinguished not only by the patent element of conspiracy but by the first and only introduction of an ingenious device for measuring the incidence of adultery by means of a clockwork attachment to the bedsprings. Having more or less thrown his wife at his business associate Mr Lyle, for a fee of £20, and on a given night the contraption was wired through to the bedroom from a room rented in the next house. The arrangements were so complete that the cheerfully injured husband could watch directly through a hole pierced in the wall, as well as indirectly by means of the indicator, and could finally gin access through the roof and a trap-door to accost the bed’s occupants. He then celebrated his success, on gin and salmon, with the inventor and some invited friends. The subsequent descriptions in court of the workings of the crim-con-detector caused roars of laughter, but the whole entertainment was derisorily rewarded by damages of one farthing. ”

There is also mention of where couples cold escape to misbehave – Hackney coaches were popular, as they had curtains for privacy and apparently if the couple’s timing was right, the gentle rocking actually helped with the action.


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