Sodomy Trials
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The eighteenth century saw several waves of sodomy trials; most of these resulted from large-scale surveillance operations, but there were also some one-off prosecutions, such as that of Richard Branson in 1760. Most of our information about these trials comes from antisodomy propaganda and contemporary court reports. These, by definition, do not present a positive view of homosexual activity; instead they set out to vindicate state prosecutions by representing such behavior as unnatural. Records of sodomy prosecutions are nonetheless useful as guides to eighteenth-century attitudes to sexuality. A series of trials in 1726 is especially interesting, since they may have been initiated when the police came under pressure from crusading groups such as the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. During this period, an informer known as P took consta-bles undercover to popular molly houses, such as those run by Margaret Clap and Thomas Wright, while other officers patrolled well-known cruising grounds. The evidence that the police gathered through P and others led to several much-publicized trials in April and July 1726. Court reports from these show that cross-examinations usually focused on the need to uncover what had happened during, and just before, the alleged sexual activity. Here the empirical resources of the legal system can be seen grappling unsuccessfully with wider philosophical issues such as consent, pleasure, and the individual’s right to privacy. For example, when William Brown was entrapped by an agent provocateur in 1726, he insisted, “I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.” Brown was sentenced to the pillory, plus a fine and a year’s imprisonment, but his statement still has enormous force as a complaint against the state’s unwarranted interference in the lives of its private citizens. Just as important, Brown’s comments provide a rare insight into the interior life of an eighteenth-century sodomite. His desire to organize his sexual life in his own way reflects a wider rejection of existing sexual models combined with a growing insistence that sexual activity could be about individual pleasure as well as procreative duty. This is borne out by the way that witness statements in sodomy trials dwell negatively on kissing, fondling, and mutual masturbation, as well as on anal sex. Such activities yield bodily pleasure without leading necessarily to orgasm, so it is hard to escape the conclusion that eighteenth-century sodomy prosecutions were not just concerned with punish-ing a supposedly inappropriate form of penetrative intercourse but were also a way of regulating sexuality in its widest sense. Although these court reports make grim reading, some comfort can be gleaned from accounts of eighteenth-century sodomy trials. After all, the high number of prosecutions is related to the increased visibility of homosexual meeting places such as public houses, male brothels, and open-air cruising grounds, and although the trials were intended to inhibit the spread of such facilities, this trend toward openness was ultimately irreversible. Vincent Quinn


Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England . London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982. McCormick, Ian. Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of Seventeenth and Eighteenth

Century Writing . London: Routledge, 1997. Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Sub-Culture in England, 1700-

1830 . London: Gay Men’s Press, 1992. See also Buggery; England; English Literature; Mollies; Molly Houses; Sodomy

English painter, illustrator, and author Simeon Solomon was born into comfortable circumstances in London, a respected member of the Jewish community. After study at the Royal Academy Schools (1855-1858), Solomon distinguished himself as an active exhibitor at the Royal Academy (15 paintings), the Dudley Gallery (35 paintings), and the French Gallery (7 paintings) from 1858 to 1872. His early work (1855-1863) develops Old Testament and pre-Raphaelite themes, in particular Solomon’s depictions of biblical subjects of same-sex attraction-David and Jonathan, David and Saul-were suffused with homoeroticism yet within the safe bounds of religious narrative. In his mature work (1863-1873), Solomon depicted classical subjects, often resonating with the theme of sorrowful love, yet set safely within the distant past.