Solving Problems With The Same Thinking That Created Them

The biggest irony surrounding homosexual rights and the 18th century was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment changed thinking in literature and art and science and government, practically everything except homosexual rights, particularly in Great Britain and America. In actuality, social rights in Great Britain and America became stricter, whilst at the same time much of Europe was losing its stranglehold on moral laws.

In Britain, The Society for the Reformation of Morals, and other societies like it, made the early part of the 18th century disastrous to homosexual freedoms. The social restrictions, and morality laws, that would come to be synonymous with the Regency through the Victorian period began at the end of the 17th century. By 1724, the Society’s attack on immorality had progressed to raiding of molly houses in London.

Margaret Clap ran one of the most popular, and most famous, molly house in London from 1724 to 1726. In 1726, her molly house was raided resulting in the arrest and execution of Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright for sodomy. A year later, a “thief-taker” (kind of like a plain clothed detective, but not really) was convicted of attempted sodomy. Charles Hitchen, who wasn’t the nicest man history remembers, had abused his position to extort bribes for ignorance. He was a known homosexual, and the Society desperately wanted an arrest. It wasn’t until March 1727, however, that they got one.

Hitchen was caught at a molly house (history suggests he was turned in by one of the men he’d bribed rather than arrest), and charged with sodomy and attempted sodomy. He was acquitted on the charge of sodomy (most likely because of his position), but convicted on the charge of attempted sodomy. He was ordered to pay 20 pounds, stand in the pillory for one hour, and remanded to prison for six months. Because of Hitchen’s position, newspapers printed details of the trial, the sentence, and announced the time and place of his pillorying. He was put in the stocks at Katherine Street End in the Strand on 26 April 1727. The crowd was massive, and they showed no mercy. He was beat so viciously that he was taken down far before his hour was up for fear of his life, and remanded directly to Newgate. Whilst in prison, he suffered infection from the beating, and complications from prison life (read:cruel treatment/rape). When his prison term was over, he was stripped of his title by the Board of Alderman on the grounds of conviction of ‘moral indecency’ and his failure to perform his duties whilst in prison. He died shortly after his release.

Between 1730 and 1764, widespread panic in the Dutch Republic resulted in “purging” of “immorality.” Trials for sodomy, prostitution and adultery were held almost every day, with the vast majority of those tried for sodomy convicted and executed.

In 1745, Charles Stuart returned to Scotland in an attempt to reclaim the British throne. Although George I, and now George II, had dealt with risings in various strength since The Fifteen, none of them were an actual danger to the Hanoverian throne. In 1745, Charles Stuart, along with an army of French, Irish, Catholic Highlanders (which was, to be fair, a huge number of Highland clans) and a small Lowland force, proved the last great attempt to reclaim the Stuart crown. Stuart, called Bonnie Prince Charlie by supporters and The Young Pretender by everyone else, landed at Glenfinnan with his army. Stuart’s timing was not random. When he landed at Glenfinnan, a huge percentage of the British army was on the Continent, or in the American colonies, fight what history would call the War of Austrian Succession. Stuart amassed his followers and marched south to Prestonpans (about 175 miles). Initially, Stuart’s army won a series of victories against a surprised and unprepared British army. Once the Jacobite army reached Derby (over the English border) the British realised the threat Stuart posed and recalled several division from the Continent. and put under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. Realising that the British now had enough troops to pose a problem, the Jacobite’s fled north to Inverness. On 16 April, 1746, the British Army caught up with the Jacobite Army at Culloden. The Jacobite forces were slaughtered, and Stuart fled with a bounty on his head. He wandered the moors of the Highlands throughout the summer of 1746, evading capture, until he eventually set sail back to France from near Mallaig. He landed in France in September, and spent the remainder of his life in exile.

The Forty-Five, and its connection to Catholic Highlanders by English society, actually resulted in increased and stricter demands for the purging of immoral vices. The assumption that Stuart’s army was able to make it to English soil because of lack of moral upstanding in Scotland led to increased persecution of Catholics, the Act of Proscription of 1746 decimated the Scottish clan system and by effect Catholicism in Scotland. It also increased persecution of any and all ‘immoral’ acts in Britain. Assuming that purging the country of immorality would lead to increased loyalty to the crown, the Society was revived in the 1750s after a period of stagnation and recognised by George II. In 1787, the Society was replaced by Royal Proclamation with The Society for the Suppression of Vice.

After a series of tax increases in relation to the Seven Years War, and political upheaval, and the belief that they were being ignored, the American colonies revolted against British rule. The result was the independence of the American colonies, and a new form of government for the newly formed America based on an elected leader rather than a monarchy. The American governmental system, and the writings that founded it, would be an impressive force in France a few years later. The system of government set up in the Constitution, would become increasingly important for homosexual rights in America as the world moved into the 19th Century.

In 1785, the first activist argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy in England. Jeremy Bentham argued that homosexual acts did not weaken men, threatened the population, nor did it threaten the institute of marriage, and because the basis of homosexual laws involved that and God, he argued in favour of the liberalisation of such laws. He was ignored, harassed, and even accused of being a sodomite himself. Bentham’s essay, Offences Against Ones Self would be shelved and forgotten.

The end of the 18th century saw two very important legislative successes for homosexual rights: in 1791, Revolutionary France adopted a new penal code, which, amongst other things, did not implement Catholic morality as the basis of its laws. More importantly, there was no law against sodomy, nor any other “indecency acts.” Louis-Michel le Peletier, when he presented it to Constituent Assembly, said that the penal code only punished true crimes, not those condemned by superstition. France would become the first nation since antiquity to make no law against sodomy. In 1794, the Kingdom of Prussia, which had criminalised sodomy in 1620, abolished the death penalty as punishment for a sodomy conviction, commuting it instead to life imprisonment.

Although the 18th century saw increased focus on moral laws, a trend that would continue through the Victorian era, it also saw the French Penal Code. As Europe, and America, raced toward the Industrial Revolution, its ideas about morality and vice stayed firmly entrenched in the Dark Ages.

[Aside: I added in the convictions for attempted sodomy as a point of fact-it shows exactly how far courts were willing to go to prosecute anything that even remotely looked like homosexual acts. To be fair, I’ve not read the court docs (because even I’m not that much of a dork…well, until we hit SCOTUS cases, those I’ve read), so I’ve no clue what ‘attempted sodomy’ was even defined as, and I have zero idea how they’d present enough evidence to secure a conviction.]

[History Note: a Molly House, which I suspect you can glean from context, was a safe space for homosexual men (as long as they didn’t get caught) Although molly houses weren’t themselves illegal, most of what happened above stairs was. They were often disguised at coffee shops, pubs, even clubs with fees to join (depending on the type of molly house). Most of these houses included rooms for patronage use, and most also included prostitutes. Most men in society knew which venues were molly houses, and would warn newcomers to London on which to avoid lest they gain a ‘reputation.’ Although raiding of molly houses during the 19th century was infrequent, it did occur. Molly houses were named thusly because, at the time, ‘molly’ meant an effeminate man (read: gay). Some styles of molly houses would survive, and be used at the basis of gay bars in the 20th century.]

[Note: When possible, I make a point of naming those executed or imprisoned for sodomy or other ‘moral indecent’ acts. In reality, it’s often not possible, since history has forgotten many of their names and simply turned them into statistics. I think it’s important to make sure we realise that these were people, not just facts. It’s easy to think of history as dates and facts and connecting plots, but when dealing with something like anti-gay laws, I think it’s essential to realise that the impact these laws had were, often, the end of a person’s life…simply for being who they were born to be. So yes, I will name those that history has remembered, simply so they will not be forgotten.]

Part IX: Homosexuality, morality, and the 19th Century


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