A JUDGE warned a woman she faced 12 months in jail if she was again caught using profane and abusive language after giving her husband a spray in Barnard Street.
Mary Filbin escaped punishment 150 years ago this week for the foul-mouthed tirade, which her husband Francis probably deserved.
Three witnesses said Mary called Francis an "old Vandemonian" - a term for a convict transported to Tasmania - "and other adjectives and nouns not generally to be found in dictionaries", according to an 1871 account in the Bendigo Advertiser.
The courts took bad language seriously back then.
The then 49-year-old Mary was among a steady stream of people hauled into police courts across Victoria for profane, abusive or insulting language.
People were often jailed or fined, though the 12 months Mary was threatened with would likely have been considered steep for such a case, the Australian National University's Amanda Laugesen said.
"Usually it would be a couple of months for this kind of charge" or a fine, she said.
Dr Laugesen is the author of a new book on our relationship with forbidden words called Rooted: An Australian history of bad language.
She said Mary's case was interesting not only because of what made it typical of the time, but the things that made it unique.
For a start, Mary's lawyer successfully argued the judge should turn a blind eye on based who the profane language was levelled at.
"[The lawyer said] that the defendant was a hardworking woman, who had a large family to support, while her husband was an incorrigible loafer, who would do nothing for his living, but lived on his wife's earnings, and this had naturally irritated the defendant," the Addy reported the day after the court case.
The judge "reluctantly" discharged Mary.
There is something else that Dr Laugesen says is striking about Mary's case, a factor that cuts right to the heart of profanity laws in 19th century Australia.
Mary used the convict word "Vandemonian" at a time when many were trying to forget their pasts.
The word carried a sting modern readers might miss.
"'Vandemonian' would have been considered a term of abuse during the court case," Dr Laugesen said.
It is not clear whether Mary's husband was offended by his tongue-lashing, or just the three witnesses who overheard it.
Francis was certainly an ex-convict transported to Australia. How much of that past he wanted to forget has been lost to history.
Yet was not just convicts who wanted to forget their pasts. By the 1870s, Australia's colonies had developed an unwanted reputation for bad language, violence and lax moral standards.
It was not a reputation they were proud of.
Many people yearned for a level of respectability among their peers. They looked down on rude behaviour and were increasingly interested in "cleaning up the streets".
They were worried about the people - often working class - who exposed their wives and children to bad language, Dr Laugesen said.
"Working class people were not necessarily the only people using bad language but they were more likely to be charged because they were using it in public," she said.
"Much of working class people's social lives were conducted outside of the home. They had smaller homes so they didn't live the private life of middle class people."
Criminalising swearing also reinforced other laws that disproportionately affected working class people, like those about drunkenness.
Swearing's status as a criminal offence could also mean that otherwise well-standing citizens were lumped in with ... well, criminals like Mary.
You see, Mary's 1871 trial was not her first in Bendigo. Nor was it the most serious.
Researchers at the Bendigo Regional Archive Centre know of 12 charges that Bendigo courts dealt with in the years after 1857, the date she and her apparently equally violent husband Francis probably moved to the district.
That included robbery, threats to kill and, in one case, an unfortunate incident in when someone's skull fractured.
They said Mary swung an axe at them, she said they drunkenly stumbled onto the sharp edge of a post during an argument.
The jury found her guilty of a misdemeanor and recommended mercy in that 1864 case. The judge was swayed by police evidence that she was generally of quiet character (which he might not have done if he could have foreseen some of Mary's later cases) and that he felt for her children.
Mary, it appears, often cited her children in arguments to mitigate punishments.
It is hard to know today how 1871's Addy readers would have responded when they opened their papers 150 years ago this week.
Perhaps they saw it as more evidence of society's failing moral compass.
Or maybe they thought it an amusing anecdote about something they were just as guilty of saying in the privacy of their own homes.
Whatever the case, Mary's husband probably deserved a spray.
This story is part of a new, regular Bendigo Weekly history series about our city called WHAT HAPPENED?
Special thanks to the Bendigo Regional Archives Centre, and in particular Vivien Newton, for help researching for this story.
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