People in History: The Burney Collection

256px-Die_Br%C3%BCcke_zu_London People in History: The Burney Collection

London Bridge, ~1735

As part of my Master’s dissertation, I examined instances of the word “sodomy” in the Burney Collection, a database of seventeenth and eighteenth-century newspaper archives named for its curator, the Rev. Charles Burney. My studies focused on the years 1730-1770, and left me with a wealth of short, fascinating articles which I’ve kept hold of ever since, looking for the right time and place to share them.

Mother Clap’s molly house — a tavern for sodomites — was raided in February 1726, resulting in the arrest of forty men. Over subsequent months of the same year, more molly houses were raided. Despite the taverns having rooms with beds available to their patrons, none of the men arrested had been caught in compromising positions (although more than a handful were discovered with their breeches undone), and most were released without charge.

Molly houses thrived in London in the early eighteenth century, their patrons a distinctive sight. Many cross-dressed, and couples would emulate opposite-sex pairs, calling each other “husband” and “wife.” Many houses had a Chapel, or “Marrying Room,” in which vows were exchanged before friends, although not the clergy. Most such rooms had a double bed for the consummation of the “marriages” performed therein. Inhabiting as they did a grey space somewhere between contemporary gay bars and brothels, the dissolution of the molly houses provided a wealth of scandalous and salacious detail when the owners were brought to trial. Stories of sodomites, their customs and habits, could always be guaranteed to sell newspapers.

Prospect_of_Bridewell People in History: The Burney Collection

The Bridewell, London

Regarding the law: at this time, British law criminalised acts, not identities. It would be another century or more until the passing of the notorious Labouchere Amendment criminalising “gross indecency.” The laws of this period recognised “sodomy” (the penetration of the anus by penis, with ejaculation) which carried the death penalty, or “attempted sodomy” (the intention to commit such, up to and including penetration without proof of ejaculation), for which a man could be imprisoned and/or pilloried. Rarely were the age of the parties taken into consideration — I have before me a brief article from the Whitehall Evening Post of Saturday, 9th September, 1749, noting that a man “between fifty and sixty years of age” had been committed to the New Gaol for “committing sodomy with a boy about eleven years old.” The boy was sent to the Bridewell, a house of correction.

In some instances, the law allowed no exceptions. The Laws relating to the Governance of His Majesty’s Ships, Vessels, and Forces by Sea (1746-47) contains the following regulation:

If any person in the Fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery, or sodomy, with man, or beast, he shall be punished with Death, by the sentence of a Court-Martial.

This at a time when there were plenty of boys on board those ships. One, at least, fell foul of the Bill, as was reported in Lloyd’s Evening Post on 27th July, 1761:

Monday were executed on board the Princess Royal at the Nore, George Newton, a Guernsey man, and Thomas Finley, for sodomy. The latter, a boy of between 13 and 14, had been quite out of his mind ever since Wednesday last, when the Death Warrant was read to them.

One “Crown Lawyer” wrote to the Gazetteer on 3rd August 1772 to note that “if the patient [receptive partner] in sodomy be within the age of fourteen, it is no felony in him, but in the agent only.” That may have been the official legal position, but it wasn’t always followed to the letter, as seen above, and it didn’t necessarily match public opinion, either. Another correspondent to the paper on the same day considered the conviction of Captain Robert Jones, a man of previously exemplary character sentenced to death for sodomy, to be unsound because “he was found guilty on the sole evidence of a child not 13 years of age… and as that child must be considered an accomplice, such evidence was never before deemed of itself sufficient to convict.”

While distressing, these examples were mercifully rare. Over 691 records of legal proceedings, 607 of them (88%) didn’t mention the ages of the parties at all. Under 13s accounted for just 25 reports, and 13-19s, 29. More interestingly, 153 reports concerned blackmail.

256px-Microcosm_of_London_Plate_062_-_Pillory%2C_Charing_Cross_%28color_restored%29 People in History: The Burney Collection

The pillory at Charing Cross, London

“Swearing sodomy” against a person, or threatening to do so, was surprisingly common, given the penalty for being a victim of forced sodomy could be just as severe as being the perpetrator. When a blackmailer was found out, they, too, suffered harsh punishment. One man was reported in the Whitehall Evening Post on 3rd March 1750 as being convicted of extortion after swearing sodomy against a gentleman; he was sentenced to “stand three times on the pillory, to pay a fine of 50l [£50, or about £10,000/$15,000 in today’s money], and to suffer four years imprisonment.” Another blackmailer on 10th March of the same year was sentenced to three years imprisonment, to stand twice on the pillory, and pay a fine of 50l.

The pillory was a favourite sentence for convicted blackmailers and attempted-sodomites alike. Although a lesser sentence than death, sometimes the crowd threw significantly more than rotten vegetables at the helpless soul tied in the stocks, and whether or not the convict survived often depended on the whim of the mob. The London Evening Post reports a pilloried man “so severely handled by the populace, than he expired soon after he was taken out.” (2nd April, 1763)

Other men took their fates into their own hands, choosing suicide over public ruin and the mercy of the courts. The General Advertiser  reports “a man very genteely dressed”, arrested for attempted sodomy, “in the morning was found dead, having hanged himself in his handkerchief.” (12th March, 1750) On 13th July 1751, the General Evening Post reported another case, of “a young gentleman, in order to avoid the shame… found means to put an end to his existence by a rope.” The case against him had been dismissed, but “not without the strongest suspicion of his being guilty.”

On Tuesday night, one Lambeth, a prisoner in the Fleet, prevailed on one Isted, a farmer, who was likewise a prisoner there for smuggling (after drinking to great excess) to commit the act of sodomy, in which they were detected by another prisoner, and taken into custody; and about three o’clock yesterday morning, the farmer reflecting on the heinousness of his crime, cut his throat and died in about two hours….

— London Evening Post, 18th June 1751

Suicide might seem an extreme reaction to social disgrace, particularly if the men involved weren’t of particularly high social standing, but the public mood was a dangerous thing. As we’ve seen, men were killed on the pillory, and even without a victim to attack, crowds could be stirred to a frenzy. Lloyd’s Evening Post records an instance, “Last Thursday evening the effigy of a copper-man, belonging to the printing house at Stratford, Essex, was burnt in triumph between three fires, by upwards of five hundred women… for that detestable sin of sodomy; who expressed great satisfaction, and voluntarily declared, that were it their husband they should be served the same.” (22nd September, 1760).

Sodomie_-_executie_van_monniken_te_Gent People in History: The Burney Collection

Execution of sodomites by burning, Ghent, 1616

This turn towards the bloodthirsty can be traced to Continental Europe. The 1730 Dutch “purge” of sodomites is well documented, and the freedom afforded by the Napoleonic Code was still seventy years away. Both Read’s Weekly Journal and the Public Advertiser reported on 3rd December 1753 the execution by burning of a man convicted for sodomy in Krakow. “This crime is held in such abhorrence, that the population beheld the execution with great satisfaction, and when the pile was lighted, asked it as a favour of the judges that he should not be strangled before he was thrown into it.”

There isn’t time in this post to do more than make passing reference to some of the major observations which can be drawn from these collected reports: notably, sodomy was a crime pertaining to a specific sexual act which was always illegal, and therefore carried no consideration of age or consent. Neither being raped or coerced (by somebody older/richer/more powerful) nor consenting was considered a defence, and the receptive partner usually received a harsher sentence. Although there is some evidence of a patchy framework of laws designed to protect children, they were at best haphazardly applied. The language of the reports is also interesting. Adjectives such as “heinous” and “detestable” abound, along with religious semantics of “sin” and “abomination.” From these newspaper articles, we can start to understand how and why male-male sex became entangled with what would later be deemed paedophilia; how consensual relationships became synonymous with rape and abuse. The illegality of anal intercourse was absolute: it simply didn’t matter if a partner consented or was held down screaming, if one was thrice the age of the other, or had bought their consent. We are still, three hundred years later, fighting to untangle those distinctions, if not in law, then in the public consciousness.

I’ll leave you with one last report, which differed from the others in a number of ways. It details the execution of two men caught engaged in consensual sodomy. Although it describes the act itself as “detestable,” a stock phrase, the description of the men themselves is surprisingly sympathetic, as was the manner of their execution. It offers a tantalising glimpse at the possibility that even as early as 1753, there were those who regretted that such executions had to occur.

Bristol, Sept. 15 — Wednesday last, about one o’clock in the afternoon, Richard Arnold and William Crutchard were executed on St. Michael’s Hill, for the detestable crime of sodomy. During the time they were under sentence of death, they were visited by several clergymen of the Church of England, and other religious people. They behaved in a very decent manner, but refused to discover their accomplices, answering in general, that they had confessed their guilt to God, and therefore thought it unnecessary to repeat it to man. When come to the place of execution, they pray’d and sung about half an hour, when the cart drew under the gallows, and Arnold kiss’d Crutchard’s hand. After a few private ejaculations [words], they giving a signal (by throwing the tufts of flowers from them) the cart drew away, and they were soon launched into eternity.


Born on this day: Eli Lieb (36, American), singer-songwriter; Ivan Massow (48, English), entrepreneur and former Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; Kristy McNichol (53, American), actress; Graeme Obree (50, Scottish), former world record-holding and world champion professional cyclist; and Michael J. Willett (26, American), actor.

Died on this day: Mark Bingham (1970-2001, American), PR executive and founder of the Bingham Group, passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. Bingham was one of four passengers who retook the plane and preventing it from reaching its intended target, the White House. The plane crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board; Freda Du Faur (1882-1935, Australian), mountaineer; Mychal Judge (1933-2001, American), chaplain to the New York Fire Department, and first official casualty of the 9/11 Twin Towers attack; Nils Johan Ringdal (1952-2008, Norwegian), author and historian; Victoria Carmen White (1982-2010, American), model, shot dead. A man was tried for her murder and bias intimidation, but acquitted.


Quick Note: AJ and I are at the UK GLBT Fiction Meet in Bristol this weekend. If you’re about, come say hi! We haz swag…. 😀

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