Image of two men kissingHomosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

Newspaper Reports, 1796

HIGHLIGHTS: A blackmailer is sentenced to death; a man blackmails his business partner; a servant blackmails a Baronet; a man sues his wife for calling him a sodomite.

Saturday 19 March 1796

Salisbury, March 14. At the Assizes for Wilts, sentence of death was passed on Isaac Phillips, convicted of extorting twenty guineas from the Rev. James Lediard, by threatening to accuse him of an unnatural practice; & on Wm. Wild, John Lewis, and James Cutts, for stealing an ewe sheep, the property of Mr. William Large, of Purton. – The latter were reprieved. – Phillips was left for execution.
          The trial of Phillips excited to an uncommon degree the attention of a very crowded Court, and the animated and pathetic address of Mr. Gibbs, who opened the prosecutor's case, spoke home to the feelings of all who heard him. – He lamented that the crime of which the prisoner stood charged, though not unfrequent in the metropolis, had found its way into the country; and if not checked, would expose the characters and dearest rights of the respectable members of the community to be ruined by any dark assassin capable of acting as the prisoner had done. (Staffordshire Advertiser)
          [The same report is printed in the Chester Courant for Tuesday 22 March 1796, which adds the following paragraph:]
          The Judge in summing up the evidence, pontedly declared there did not appear the least pretence for the most distant imputation on the prosecutor's character, that he was convinced (and the whole court manifestedly concurred with him) that the prisoner's infamous story was the effect only of his own invention, and fabricated for the sole purpose of extortion, for which he is likely to pay the forfeit of his life; as the Judge has left him, and him alone, for execution. (Chester Courant)

Monday 21 March 1796

Salisbury, March 14. At the assizes for Wilts, sentence of death was passed upon Isaac Phillips, convicted of extorting twenty guineas from the Rev. James Lediard, of Devizes, by threatening to accuse him of an unnatural practice; and on Wm. Wild, John Lewis, and James Cutts, for stealing an ewe sheep, ahd property of Mr. William Large, of Purton. – The three latter were reprieved. – Phillips was left for execution. (Reading Mercury)

Saturday 2 July 1796

Tuesday Edward Major was indicted for sending Mr. Augustine Rayner a threatening letter, with an intent to extort his money or goods, under a charge of his having attempted to commit an unlawful and unnatural crime. The prosecutor, Mr. Augustine Rayner, was first examined. He stated that the prisoner and he engaged into partnership together, about two years ago; that they conducted business together about twelve months; they then dissolved the partnership, and having adjusted their accounts, there appeared a balance of 50l. due from the prisoner; but, as the prisoner was worth little or nothing, the prosecutor came to a settlement, and took, in lieu of all demands, the prisoner's promissory note for 9l. 10s. 10d. dated the 16th of last September. On the 1st of June he received the threatening letter in question, which he swore was in the hand-writing of the prisoner. The letter was in the following words:–

SIR, I received the letter respecting the bill which I gave you when we parted; and as you know I have it not in my power to pay it, and if I had, it is an unjust demand, I have only to add, that if you do not immediately return it to me, as an acknowledgement for the obscene offence of —— attempted on me the 22nd of August last, I have been advised and am determined to prosecute you, according to the utmost rigour of the law, that, “that which was done in secret may be revealed upon the house's top.”

          The prisoner in his defence said, that the prosecutor had not dealt fairly with him when in partnership; and that on balance of accounts, he did not owe the sum for which the note was passed. He also stated, that the charge was true.
          Henry Roebottom said, that he knew both the partners; and that about nine months ago, the prisoner told him of an attempt of the nature mentioned; upon which the witness informed Mr. Rayner of what he had heard, and Mr. Rayner said, he had suspected that the prisoner would spread such a report.
          Mr. Justice Buller summed up the evidence with accuracy. He said, that as the letter was proved there was but one question of fact arose. – Whether the charge made by the prisoner were or were not true? and if it should be found to be fact, a question of law would arise, whether, upon the construction of the statute under which the prisoner was indicted, that fact would constitute a justification. In hiw own opinion, it would not; and upon this ground, that if improper conduct had passed between the two men, he who was abused ought to have recourse to the laws of his country immediately, and not to treasure up the injury as an engine for the purpose of extortion. However, if the jury should be of opinion, that the fact was true, he would reserve that point of law for the opinion of the judges, as it had not hitherto been judicially determined. The learned judge next examined the evidence, adn seemed decidedly of opinion, that there were not sufficient grounds to believe such a fact. There was, he said, another point of law, which, if the prisoner should be foundguilty, he would also have to submit to the opinion of the judges. The act under which the prisoner was indicted, was the 30th of Geo. II. which stated, “that whoever should send any letter, threatening to accuse any person of an unnatural crime (and for which, if convicted, such person would be liable to transportation, pillory, or other infamous punishment), with a view to get his money, goods, wares, or merchandize, should come within that act.” The question was, whether the promissory note in question may be considered within the meaning of that act? The promissory-note had been given as a security for money due, which had not been received, and the payment of which the prisoner wished, by letter, to evade.
          The Jury found the prisoner Guilty, and delivered it as their opinion, that there was no foundation whatsoever for the threat.
          The verdict was recorded, subject to the opinion of the Judges, on the second point of law, as stated by Mr. Justice Buller. (Hampshire Chronicle)

Saturday 30 July 1796

At the late assizes for the County of Nottingham, one Benjamin Cutler, formerly servant to Sir George Bromley, Bart. was tried before Mr. Baron Perryn, upon an indictment grounded on the Act of Parliament of the 30th of Geo. II. for sending a threatening letter to Sir George's Steward, for the purpose of extorting money from Sir George by threatening to accuse him of an unnatural crime: on this indictment he was found guilty, and sentenced to six months imprisonment in the county gaol. From the above instance, and from some late trials at the Old Bailey, it would seem as if this crime was become frequent, and therefore calls down all the severity of the law to check it; the learned Judge, in passing sentence on Cutler, after enlarging in the most pointed terms on the enormity of his offence, which was attended with several aggravating circumstances, clearly shewing a concerted plan to extort money in this sort of way, told him, he fully merited the severest punishment the law had provided, such as transportation, pillory, and whipping; but he would shew him more humanity than he deserved, and especially by not setting him in the pillory, as it might endanger his life, and therefore ordered him to be imprisoned. (Staffordshire Advertiser)

Thursday 18 August 1796

At Exeter assizes, an action was tried to recover from the defendant damages for defamatory words.
          It was stated by the witnesses, that in the absence of the defendant John B****, a dispute took place between the plaintiff and the wife of the latter, in which the lady, among other defamatory expressions, charged the plaintiff with being addicted to unnatural practices.
          The Counsel for the defendant said, that his client was a very unfortunate man on many accounts. In the first place it was his misfortune to have a wife, whose tongue no Court of Law could ever silence. At the time the defematory words were spoken he was 100 miles off, at a place where he had been to pay a debt his wife had contracted without his privaty, and the first thing he received on his return was, a copy of a write for defamatory words spoken in his absence. It was certainly punishment enough for the defendant to be compelled to live with such a woman, and as no human power could controul her tongue, it would be extremely hard to oblige him to pay for what he could not prevent, and for which there was no earthly remedy. The plaintiff, he observed, had not, in consequence of the defamatory words, received the least injury [in claims against his] reputation; and there was no pretence to all for damages.
          The learned Judge observed, that in an action for defamation, it was not necessary for the plaintif to prove an actual injury sustained to entitle him to damages; no body could tell the nature or extent of such an injury, independent of the feelings of the calumniated party, at which a calumny like the present might be productive. The jury found a verdict for the plaintiff – damages 50l. (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette)

Saturday 10 December 1796

Yesterday Alexander Leake, a man of 53 years of age, was tried upon a capital indictment, for the actual commission of the unnatural and abominable crime of ——. The nature of this case obviously precludes us from stating the particulars of it; suffice it to say, that such evidence was brought forward in support of the charge in the indictment, as induced the Jury, after deliberating upwards of half an hour on the case, to pronounce the prisoner Guilty. – He afterwards received sentence of death. (Staffordshire Advertiser)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Newspaper Reports, 1796", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 17 October 2014 <>.

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