Two centuries ago today, two men were hanged at Newgate Prison for buggery as a result of one of 19th century England’s most notorious anti-gay police raids.
In 1810, bobbies* busted mollies at one such establishment at the White Swan in London’s Vere Street. A press which evidently preferred its nicknames as vanilla as its coition dubbed these apprehended sodomites the Vere Street Coterie.
According to Phoenix of Sodom, a lasciviously queer-loathing account of the Coterie’s misadventures and of “the vast geography of this moral blasting evil” infesting London,
The fatal house in question was furnished in a style most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds were provided in one room – another was fitted up for the ladies’ dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A third room was called the Chapel, where marriages took place, sometimes between a “female grenadier”, six feet high and a “petit maitre” not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of “bridesmaids” and “bridesmen”; the nuptials were frequently consummated by two, three or four couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each other. The upper part of the house was appropriated to youths who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.
It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office; Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many instances, that Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are merely part of the common stock belonging to the house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if possible, more infamous, because more exalted in life.
This intriguing little window into proto- or pre-gay culture opens to us at some cost to its participants, six of whom were confined to the pillory where the mob (“chiefly consisting of women”) bombarded them
with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, and with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles … They walked perpetually round during their hour [the pillory swivelled on a fixed axis]; and although from the four wings of the machine they had some shelter, they were completely encrusted with filth … On their being taken down and replaced in the caravan, they lay flat in the vehicle; but the vengeance of the crowd still pursued them back to Newgate, and the caravan was so filled with mud and ordure as completely to cover them.
Worse was to come.
Not arrested on the initial bust or included on the pillory, a 16-year-old regimental drummer named Thomas White was snitched out by a fellow-drummer for having also been a White Swan regular … and in fact, “an universal favourite … very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie.”
The stool pigeon’s motivation was the usual in such cases: said pigeon was also making a bit on the side from the Coterie, and he had a mind to avoid his own self being completely covered with mud and ordure and dead cats and turnips.
This James Mann’s report to his superior officer, and subsequent testimony to the magistrates, got White and his partner in vice Ensign John Hewbolt Hepburn hanged for sodomy.
Our correspondent in Phoenix of Sodom notes the presence among that “vast concourse of people” who witnessed their deaths several nobles whom he clearly takes to be a vanguard of that homosexual agenda, “the Duke of Cumberland, Lord Sefton, Lord Yarmouth, and several other noblemen.” No word on Miss Sweet Lips or Blackeyed Leonora.
Merrie Olde England would go on issuing hempen discharges to gay soldiers for years to come.
As a footnote, the Rev. John Church, who might be the earliest openly homosexual Christian minister in England, was rumored to have performed gay marriages at the club.
* Okay, technically, “bobbies” didn’t yet exist.