1811: Thomas White and John Newbolt Hepburn of the Vere Street Coterie

1 comment March 7th, 2011 Headsman

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.

Brits whose sexual palate ran beyond the stiff upper lip braved the force of the law to frequent molly houses, private clubs catering to homosexuality, cross-dressing, and the like.

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,Homosexuals,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers

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1833: Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, sodomite

13 comments August 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1833, Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls was hanged in London for sodomy.

Sodomy — “buggery,” in the more evocative British phrase, often bowdlerized in court records as b-gg–y or the like — was a capital offense in England until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to “merely” life imprisonment.

The London Courier reported the event:

Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.

The popular broadside on the case was scarcely more sympathetic. [Here’s another version of the gallow lit]

Even though once or twice a year someone would hang for it and the scandal would send family fleeing his name, Old Blighty still had a vigorous underground gay scene in the 19th century. While Lord Byron was enjoying the easier same-sex access of the Ottoman lands, a friend wrote to him, “that what you get for £5 we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.” (Cited here)

Quite accidentally, the senseless destruction this day of a respectable veteran helped set the put-upon gay underground upon its long march towards mainstream acceptance.

A first-person narrative written* in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.**

It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:

Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.

The author — whose identity is still debated† — continues writing more or less autobiographically of Byron’s life, and using his illicit desires and lifestyle (with digressions into historical precedent) to defend homosexuality as ultimately natural and harmless.

The tree we plant will, when its boughs are grown,
Produce no other blossoms than its own;
And thus in man some inborn passions reign
Which, spite of careful pruning, sprout again.
Then, say, was I or nature in the wrong,
If, yet a boy, one inclination, strong
In wayward fancies, domineered my soul,
And bade complete defiance to control?

Though law cries “hold!” yet passion onward draws;
But nature gave us passions, man gave laws,
Whence spring these inclinations, rank and strong?
And harming no one, wherefore call them wrong?
What’s virtue’s touchstone? Unto others do,
As you would wish that others did to you.
Then tell me not of sex, if to one key
The chords, when struck, vibrate in harmony.
No virgin I deflower, nor, lurking, creep,
With steps adult’rous, on a husband’s sleep.
I plough no field in other men’s domain;
And where I delve no seed shall spring again.

Look, how infected with rank disease
Were those, who held St. Peter’s holy keys,
And pious men to whom the people bowed,
And kings, who churches to the saints endowed;
All these were Christians of the highest stamp-
How many scholars, wasting over their lamp,
How many jurists, versed in legal rules,
How many poets, honoured in the schools,
How many captains, famed for deeds of arms,
Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!
Nay, e’en our bard, Dame Nature’s darling child,
Felt the strange impulse, and his hours beguiled
In penning sonnets to a stripling’s praise,
Such as would damn a poet now-a-days.
To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent; and, at once confess,
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent, and, at once confess;
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.

Statesmen, in your exalted station know
Sins of omission for commission go;
Since ships as often founder on the main
From leaks unstopped as from the hurricane.
Shore up your house; it totters to the base;
A mouldering rot corrodes it; and the trace
Of every crime you punish I descry:
The least of all perhaps is sodomy.

I stand a monument, whereby to learn
That reason’s light can never strongly burn
Where blear-eyed prejudice erects her throne,
And has no scale for virtue but her own.

* Don Leon circulated initially in manuscript form, and was not published in England until years later — a known printing in 1866, and possibly another lost edition from before 1853.

** Here lagging well behind France, which had burned only a bare handful of homosexuals under monarchist anti-sodomy laws in the 18th century, and decriminalized homosexuality full stop in 1791. In Philosophy in the Boudoir the Marquis de Sade preened casually triumphant over the bad old days while Lord Byron was still a boy.

We wonder that savagery could ever reach the point where you condemn to death an unhappy person all of whose crime amounts to not sharing your tastes … Nature, who places such slight importance upon the essence that flows in our loins, can scarcely be vexed by our choice when we are pleased to vent it into this or that avenue.

† Candidates include parliamentarian William Bankes, who was arrested for sodomy in 1833 but acquitted later in the year; fellow MP John Cam Hobhouse; and playwright and Byron-idolizer George Coleman.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Sex,Soldiers

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