A Brief History
On November 27, 1835, 2 Englishmen were hanged for the crime of sodomy (Section 15, Offences Against the Person Act of 1828) and a third man was convicted of being an accessory, receiving a sentence of 14 years “penal transportation.” (Not to be confused with “penile transportation!” Penal transportation means being hauled off to a penal colony.) The law the men were charged under had replaced the Buggery Act of 1533.
James Pratt (age 30) and John Smith (age 40) were allegedly engaged in intimate homosexual acts when the building’s landlord and the landlord’s wife witnessed their “depravity” through the keyhole of the door. (Is this not voyeurism?) The man that actually leased the room, William Bonill (age 68) was out securing ale for the 3 friends during the alleged act. Since Bonnill was not caught in the act, he was only charged as an accessory.
Although the magistrate that brought the charges successfully pursued conviction of all 3 men, the magistrate petitioned for commutation of their sentences on the grounds that their illegal acts did not hurt any other person or cost anyone else any monetary or real damages. Further, Magistrate Wedgewood argued that rich people could dally in homosexual bliss with no problem securing privacy for their acts, whilst poor people and working people were far more likely to be caught in the act.
Of the 17 condemned people awaiting execution at this time, 15 were granted clemency on November 21, 1835, but Pratt and Smith were not, even though the others were convicted of more serious crimes such as attempted murder, robbery and burglary. Pratt and Smith were duly hanged at Newgate Prison on November 27, 1835, and thus became the last men in England executed for sodomy. Bonill was shipped off to Tasmania where he died in 1841.
While modern society still struggles with sexual issues, such as which bathroom a transgender, transsexual, or transvestite person could and should use, at least we are no longer hanging people for what they do in their own bedroom with consenting adults. On the other hand, in 10 countries people can still be executed for homosexual acts to this day! (Including African and Arab Muslim majority countries as well as Afghanistan and Iran.) Of course, in other countries where homosexuality is openly legal and officially accepted, horrible unofficial sanctions such as the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida, USA gay nightclub in June of 2016 still take place, as do acts of individual bullying and even murder, even though the US and other countries officially consider violence against homosexuals “hate crimes.”
In 2016 there are still 72 countries (plus a few other governmental districts) that outlaw “sodomy,” often with prison time attached to violations, although England and Wales repealed such laws in 1967. (Scotland repealed sodomy laws in 1980, and Northern Ireland in 1982, although the Channel Islands took up to a decade longer!) United States sodomy laws in the individual states (14 remaining at the time) were struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 2003.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should there be any such laws against “sodomy” to outlaw homosexual acts? Feel free to give us your opinion on this topic in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Stewart, Alan. Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England (Princeton Legacy Library). Princeton University Press, 2014.
Trumbach, Randolf, ed. Sodomy Trials: Seven Documents (Marriage, sex, and the family in England, 1660-1800). Garland, 1986.