Archive for January 7th, 2019

1829: William Maxwell, the last hanged for sodomy by the Royal Navy

Add comment January 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1829, boatswain William Maxwell became the last British Navy sailor ever hanged for sodomy.

He’d been condemned only two days previous by a bare-bones Admiralty court at the Simon’s Town naval base at the Cape of Good Hope; his charge was buggery upon one of the ship’s boys of the 28-gun frigate HMS Tweed. This accuser, William Pack, was supported by four other boys from the Tweed alleging “uncleanness and other scandalous actions in corruption of good manners” which certainly described Pack’s experience as well.

“On the third daay after he joined the Tweed, he summoned Pack to his cabin on the larboard side of the lower deck,” we find in B. Burg’s Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy, which has an extensive narrative of the case* —

and, as the boy explained, “he then throwed me down on the deck. He then hauled my trousers down … He then turned to put his pintle into my backside. I felt him do all this. He hurt me very much.” … The boy continued his testimony by detailing four additional instances when he had been sodomized by Maxwell. The occurrences were all much the same. Pack added only that the boatswain neither used alcohol nor offered him money after he forced his attentions on him.

In an affecting detail that doesn’t appear to have carried any special legal import, Pack had diligently tallied his assaults in chalk on a mainmast hoop.

The other four boys’ allegations fell a bit short of violent rape but still followed a pattern of aggressive approaches by Maxwell shortly after the youth came aboard, with pretty obvious intent. The boatswain wanted to “do a dirty trick with me,” one said. Another euphemized the deed as “poking him about.” Citing fear of flogging or doubt that their claims would be believed, these boys hadn’t reported Maxwell — and indeed the panel pressed all of the witnesses on whether they’d been receiving gifts from Maxwell, suggesting a more reciprocal arrangement.

These private and unmentionable acts formed a difficult class of crime for the judiciary, and Maxwell knew it.** Much of his defense is taken up attacking the credibility of these boys — their questionable and perhaps interested testimony, and legal scholars who by 1829 counseled as one to err heavily towards caution in such difficult-to-prove cases.

He impugned Pack’s testimony, honing in on inconsistencies between different statements during a direct cross-examination that must have been dramatic for all involved. It didn’t work.

The youth of the victims, according to Burg, didn’t particularly exacerbate the crime in the eyes of Maxwell’s judges nor in general throughout the Navy; he wasn’t being read as a pedophile, but as a sodomite who happened to find the ship’s boys the easiest prey. This indeed they commonly were, occupying the very bottom of a ship’s hierarchy, but the same vulnerable stature also cut against their credibility as accusers since it made them liable to threats or cajoling to supply false accusations, or simply to the impetuosity of childish malice. Absent sterling character testimonials from other mariners, they carried scant weight as witnesses even in multiples; in an 1805 case, the judges who convicted a man named Barrett Ambler had put into the Admiralty for a pardon because they disliked “condemn[ing] a man to death, upon the evidence of four boys, the eldest not more than thirteen years of age.”

But no matter the evidence, the time for outright executing same-sexers was coming to an end in Britain. Even in the ranks of the Navy there had been no such punishment meted out since 1816. That was just weeks after (and for actions committed during) the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the ensuing era of peace helped more lenient attitudes take hold permanently — for until Maxwell, no Briton had swung for sodomy in the peacetime Navy in many decades.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of buggery trials was directly related to whether or not England was at war. After the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763), there were few trials and no executions for sodomy. Between 1756 and 1806, as Table 5 shows, fear and assiduous prosecution of sexual deviance was a wartime phenomenon. (Arthur Gilbert, “Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Autumn, 1976))

* I have not been able to locate the original 62-page court record anywhere online.

** He knew it because he’d previously been prosecuted for buggery — in fact, sentenced to death and then spared. Although he had no barrister at his last and fatal trial, he’d enjoyed legal assistance during his previous brush and ably deployed what he learned. It’s hard not to think that everyone’s awareness of this previous proceeding helped to shape the outcome of his second trial.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Milestones,Sex,South Africa

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