Two hundred years ago, rape was a capital crime and dealt with very severely. However, convictions were rare because of the nature of the questions that the women could be asked and the likelihood, as in other cases, that witnesses would be paid to defame those giving evidence.
There was a case in 1811. William Hodgson was found guilty of the “ravishment” of nineteen year old Harriet Halliday. Her evidence was strong; witnesses had seen her dragged into a stable by Hodgson; a local surgeon had heard her screams, rescued her afterwards and financed the prosecution against Hodgson. Halliday was a servant, and would not have the money to prosecute Hodgson herself; another weakness of the regency justice system.
After Harriet had given her evidence in support of the prosecution she was cross examined by the prisoner’s counsel. In the face of such strong evidence, Hodgson’s defence became aggressive. They called Halliday’s former employer and were about to ask why she had discharged the servant after a mere two weeks work, they were stopped by Baron Wood. The judge ruled this and told it was not relevant to the case. Then the defence asked her whether she had had any “connection” with any boy in the past. Judge Baron Wood then made a novel and important ruling;
The learned judge allowed the objection on the ground that witness was not bound to answer these questions as they to criminate and disgrace herself and said that he there was not any exception to the rule in the case of rape.
The prisoner’s counsel called witnesses and among others a witness to prove that the girl had been caught in bed a year before this charge with a young man
This second piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible and Harriet’s evidence stood. The new rule (called Hodgson) was extended in 1817 to attempted rape and although it did not ban general questions about the women’s lifestyle, it did rule inadmissible specific ones, such as were asked in this case.
The court was utterly aghast at these comments. One lawyer commented that his main method of attack in these cases had been taken away from him. It turned out to be a turning point in women’s legal rights in cases of sexual assault.