Gin, Hogarth, and the Horrible Crime of Judith Dufour

Gin addiction in eighteenth century England was a national scandal. Gin is a distilled alcohol flavored with juniper berries. The drink originated in The Netherlands and had been introduced by William of Orange into the country in the late seventeenth century. In 1690, intending to find a market for poor-quality grain, the English government put a high import tax on foreign liquor while at the same time making it possible to make and sell gin without a license. This made gin cheaper than beer. The result? By 1750 one in four houses in the St. Giles section of London was a gin shop. Gin shops were houses of ill-repute and often had prostitutes and fencers of stolen items working out of them as well.

In 1736, the government passed the first Gin Act, which was supposed to make distributors pay a fifty pound license. Mostly, however, the act drove the making and selling of gin underground without abating the problem. A second Gin Act in 1751 had a little more success, but it wasn’t until the government passed a Sale of Beer act in 1830 which removed the tax on beer, that gin lost its stranglehold on the poor.

During the height of the London Gin Craze, William Hogarth, the artist and social commentator, produced and published two engravings contrasting beer and gin. In Gin Lane, a pawnbroker haggles in the corner, a man fights with a dog over a bone, an ex-soldier dies in the foreground, a woman forces gin down the throat of a baby (to keep the child quiet), the coffin maker does a brisk trade, and there’s a house literally falling down in the background. In contrast, the happy people in Beer Street are fat and their buildings are being repaired. 

By far the most striking image in Gin Lane, is the nursing mother dead center of the illustration. She’s so drunk on gin that she doesn’t notice her baby falling presumably to its death as she takes snuff. It’s a melodramatic scene, but one that’s probably based on a real one: the case of Judith Dufour. In 1735, Judith took her two-year-old toddler to the local workhouse and left the child there. She returned a few days later and claimed the toddler—and his new clothes. She then strangled her child, left the naked body in a ditch, and sold the clothes for sixteen pence…which she spent on gin.