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The First Female Flash Mob

To set off their drab prison garb, the mob dressed up in bright scarves and gaudy jewelry, smuggled in through a thriving underground economy.
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The stomping grounds for the first female flash mob might seem an odd choice for the latest addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List as a site selected for "outstanding universal value." But after spending the last six years trying to uncover the accurate history of the skinny, pock-marked women who dared to rejoice in spite of their chains, this selection made perfect sense to me. I explore this largely neglected piece of women's history in "The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia's Convict Women," which came out this month from Berkley.

The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania along with ten other convict sites in Australia recently joined an honored list that includes the Statue of Liberty, the Acropolis, and Auschwitz.

My research journey started with a chance meeting in a post office in Launceston, Tasmania in 2004. Tasmanian artist Christina Henri, whose work honors the female convicts, happened to be in the same line and out of the blue said: "I have a story I want to tell you." She told me about the women at Cascades who the British government had deported for stealing food or clothing. I knew I had to write about them when I learned how they survived.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, twenty-five thousand girls and women were transported from the British Isles to Australia to serve as "tamers and breeders" in a land where men outnumbered women nine to one. The euphemistically-named Cascades Female Factory was one of the prisons that housed transports upon arrival in Hobart Town, the capital of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania). The human cargo - nearly all desperately poor and the majority arrested for petty theft - were punished with a minimum of seven years indentured servitude and exiled for life. Twelve thousand miles from their homeland, many walked away from their masters on the heels of mistreatment or abuse. They were summarily punished with hard labor back at the stone washtubs inside Cascades, a damp converted distillery dubbed "the valley of the shadow of death" by newspapers of the day.

Standing along the female factory's stone washtubs with freshly-cropped hair, the women had been forced to sew large yellow C's on their jackets and stood ankle-deep in muddy water for twelve-hour shifts. Communication was forbidden. Yet whispers went viral the moment the matron turned her head and details were confirmed for the next Flash Mob event, usually something specially designed to torment their keepers.

Locked inside over-crowded hammock-strewn wards, the prisoners sang raucous songs at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night, intent on waking the superintendent who slept in a comfortable bed at the far end of the fortress. He made the long, cold walk across the yard in his nightshirt to silence them and to ferret out ringleaders, but on cue, the mob fell silent, only to start up again as soon as the grumbling bureaucratic reached his quarters. Why? Because they could, just like flash mobs today.

The Colonial Times Hobart Town newspaper first reported flash mob shenanigans in February 1840 and described "tricks, maneuvers, and misconduct" that "baffled the exertions of every person appointed to control and correct them." The rowdy gang was christened for its "flash" language, the jargon of thieves.

Without the benefit of email or texting, this lively band of renegades managed to baffle and surprise their captors, much to the delight of new arrivals just off a treacherous four-month voyage from the docks of London or Dublin. To set off their drab prison garb, the mob dressed up in bright scarves and gaudy jewelry, smuggled in through a thriving underground economy. When the sun set, they performed impromptu plays and danced with wild abandon under the moonlit cliffs of Mount Wellington. Sometimes, they discarded their dirty duffel shifts and danced naked, knowing full-well that the red-faced overseer would stand mouth agape before he could even consider their latest punishment.

The women deemed expendable by their own government had good reason to be insubordinate. Fewer than 2 percent were violent offenders and 65 percent were transported upon their first offense to "lands beyond the seas." In total, 162,000 women, men, and children were deported from 1788 to 1868 - most for crimes of poverty.

Injustice was a way of life for women who had pilfered small items to live another day. Once in Van Diemen's Land, women who had been raped by their masters were returned to Cascades, and punished with six months hard labor for the crime of pregnancy. The Flash Mob responded with outrageous and well-planned outlaw justice. Their chief nemesis may have been the prison preacher, Reverend William Bedford who the inmates called "Holy Willie." By day, he berated the women for their wanton ways. By night, the married father of three, who was charged with the women's moral redemption, abused many of them. One fine morning as he waddled down the chapel steps, his recalcitrant congregation took matters into their own hands, "debagging" the holy hypocrite and attempting "to deprive him of his manhood."

During another service, Flash Mob charter member Ellen Scott could take no more of the predator's preaching. She raised her shirt (the poor did not wear underwear) and slapped her bare bottom as Holy Willie teetered in front of an amused congregation. It was the ultimate working class insult, delivered with cheeky impropriety. Shorn hair and solitary confinement seemed a small price to pay for the plucky Irish lass who had been deported from Limerick, Ireland for stealing a watch chain.

The first female flash mob was a subculture, an event sponsor, and a lifeline for those more sinned against than sinning. As the colorful characters stirred up mayhem and merriment, prison walls were no deterrent. They devised schemes to meet paramours in town, including smuggling love letters inside chickens that were delivered to corrupt wardens. Finding elation and the will to survive in those who dared to dissent, heroes emerged, like Ellen Scott and "Jemmy the Rover" who escaped over the prison walls dressed in men's clothing and who lived for a year as a timber cutter before she was caught.

The Cascades contingent lived large in spite of their lot in life. Defiance was their religion and solidarity their sustenance. After serving punishments that far exceeded the scope of their crimes, these fiery lasses embraced their overdue freedom. They fell in love, raised families and went on to found a society that led the world in women's rights. These wild women of Australia would settle for nothing less than equality.

For nearly a century, their history was covered up or ignored. Today, 22 percent of Australians and two million in the UK share convict ancestry. During my last visit to Australia, I had the pleasure of staying with descendants of the women who wore the tin ticket. Together we followed their ancestor's convict trail from the Cascades Female Factory to the day they held a Certificate of Freedom. I can't help but wonder if the humor and exuberance for life, that permeates the Aussie culture, finds some of its roots in this convict past where "mateship" meant everything.

Yes, the first female flash mob and all the women at Cascades have earned their place on the UNESCO list. And I salute their inner rebel, that spark that fueled the fire of hope and may have been just enough to pull them through.