The American Child-Juggler

The Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, 1874; Wikipedia-Alhambra Theatre

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An Act from Richard Risley's Japanese Troupe

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While George Clarke’s investigations of crimes against children dealt principally with situations involving infants and unborn children (see 'The Chieftain' pp. 126-133), he also pursued one possible case of attempted child abduction. This had its own original features, involving an American circus performer, one of whose speciality acts was juggling children with his feet! 

On 17 August 1869, Henry Hales, an employee of the Morning Star newspaper, had witnessed in Piccadilly a man trying to get a young girl to come with him, apparently against her will. The 12-year-old girl, Maria Mason, stated later in court that the man had offered to buy her clothes and to take her to The Alhambra, the famous music-hall in Leicester Square.  Hales accosted the man, who gave his name as Risley but provided a false address.  Hales persisted in trying to track the man down and wrote letters that were published in several national papers in the hope of getting more information about Risley. As a consequence, the man in question was identified as Richard Risley Carlisle, an American circus performer (stage name: ‘Professor Richard Risley, athlete and performer on the flute’) who regularly visited Europe; on this occasion as manager of a Japanese Troupe of Acrobats. Tracked down to Nottingham, Risley was arrested there by Clarke on 31 August 1869, and brought to London where he appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court. Charged with assaulting Maria Mason, Risley was committed for trial at the Old Bailey. According to Clarke’s evidence, Risley had told him “if I did touch the child I had no bad intention; I am fond of children, and I might have spoken to her in a fondling manner”.1

At trial, the formal charge against Risley was “unlawfully attempting to take Maria Mason, a girl under the age of 16, out of the possession of her father”.2 Risley’s defence team, which included the well-known Victorian advocate, Montagu Williams, sought to undermine Hales evidence, with some success because he had published letters in the press about the incident he had witnessed.  Maria Mason emerged as an apparently reliable witness but the prosecution was not helped by the fact that one of Maria’s sisters (with whom she frequently lived) was working as a prostitute, and another sister, subpoenaed by the defence, contradicted some aspects of the child’s evidence.  The fact that Maria Mason did not often live at home, also did not help her cause as, strictly-speaking, she was not ‘taken out of her father’s possession’.  Ultimately, Risley was found “not guilty” by the jury who did not need to retire to reach this conclusion.  Risley was released to the sound of loud cheers in the court.3 His next visit to Europe was to prove a financial disaster.  He suffered a breakdown, was institutionalized and died in May 1874.4

Notes: 1.The Times 2 September 1869. 2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Richard Risley (t18691025-903) 3. The Times 27 October 1869. 4. Circus Historical Society Inc.:www.circushistory.org/Thayer/thayer30.htm

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