Daniel Defoe

On the Public Prosecution and Punishment of Sodomites


Daniel Defoe's comments on the public prosecution and punishment of sodomites appeared in his political periodical A Review of the State of the British Nation (which was published almost every day, and is more or a serial than a journal, as Defoe was its only author). (His remarks are not headed by a title, which is my own.) He was prompted by the great number of newspaper reports that followed the arrest and conviction of many sodomites in October 1707, which had also prompted several satires such as The Women-Hater's Lamentation and The He-Strumpets. He also alludes to the trial of Capt. Edward Rigby and the bawdy song The Women's Complaint to Venus prompted by the trial. The main point of Defoe's argument is that this unprecedented publicity given to homosexuality was a Bad Thing, and that trials and the punishment of sodomites should be done in secret.

Rictor Norton

I have receiv’d several Hints from Persons, who I suppose, expect I should make a good Use of them, intimating that it would be to the Purpose, if I would speak to the foul Cases that have lately sullied our News-Papers, of a Sort of Bestiallity [sic] discover’d among us, and now under the Cognizance of the Law – I have not printed my Letters on that Subject, because some things in them are not very fit for common View.

It is hard to treat of a nauseous Subject, without some loathsom [sic] Expressions, but I shall take Care not to offend the Ears of the chastest Reader, and any one shall be able to read me without Blushes, tho’ I think, we ought all to blush for the abominable Encrease of Vice in this Age – Which certainly owes this Extreme to the Negligence of the Magistracy, in suppressing it in Beginnings less odious.

What shall I say to this unhappy Article, that two new Pieces of Crime are begun among us, which I hope I may say, is new in England as to Practice, and which I hope, shall meet with a vigirous and exemplary Prosecution; Incendiaries and Sodomites.

To rob a House is a Crime sufficient in its self, and our Laws with Reason enough make it as Criminal as Murther, because the Terror it puts Inhabitants to, in its Manner is a Kind of Murther; but to rob a Man’s House, and then set it on Fire, has something in it so barbarous, so inhuman, so particularly villainous, that it wants a large Description; and this too in a populous City, has a Clause added to it of uncommon Wickedness, that makes a Man a common Destroyer, and no Severity can be blamed in a Case so horrid – I speak the freelier of this, because the miserable abandon’d Wretch, who has given us an Instance of it in robbing One Mr. Persode’s House in St. James’s-street, and then setting it on Fire, has suffer’d the Law: And tho’ the Crime is flagrant, I was unwilling to speak my Mind before, because I would not seem to prompt Justice, or advance the Sorrows of the Miserable, let their Crime be what it will.

I come next to our modern Sodomites, and here I cannot but wish, that we could imitate the Dutch in one thing, who in such Cases make both the Trials and Punishments of such Sort of Criminals, to be done with all the Privacy possible, that may consist with Justice; and as the Reasons they have for it are very good, so the Reasons, why I wish it so here, are as good, and much the same.

First, The open Trials of such Cases are accompany’d with so many publick Indecencies, such immodest and obscene Expressions, as are both offensive to the Ears of the Virtuous, and serve but to excite and gratifie the corrupted Appetites of the Vicious.

I refer this to the Memories of the whole Town, when a Paper was printed after the Trial of Captain Rigby for the same Crime, in which was such a Rapsody of filthy and nauseous Language, as was really unsufferable, offensive, and ought not to have been suffer’d to see the Light in a well govern’d and civilized Nation – And what was the End of such a Publication? I know not what might be the Design, but I know, the Consequences were two fold.

1. Good Men abominated it equally with the Fact, blushed for our Magistracy that suffer’d it, and loathed the Sight of it.

2. The vicious, debauch’d Youth made Sport at it, and glutted their vile Inclinations with a double Pleasure; 1st. That of reading it, and 2dly. seeing it – A publick thing, as if that justify’d the debauching their Tongues with the beastly Dialect.

And what can be the End of such Publications now, but to answer the same abominable Design, in which I hope, our Magistrates will not be passive, as it was them?

Again, the publick Prosecution and Punishment of these hellish Creatures makes it but too publick, that there are such Monsters among us; O tell it not in Gath, nor publish it in Ascalon; smother the Crime and the Criminals too in the dark, and let the World hear no more of it.

I remember in these Parts of the World, where I now am; a certain Gentleman Author, the first Letter of whose Name was Mr. Hodges, among Abundance of Reasons which he brought to perswade the People not to unite with England; one was, that they were so wicked, so publickly and authoritatively Criminal a Nation, that it could not be safe to unite with them, lest they entailed National Judgments upon themelves, and should one Time or other be united in Destruction with them.

But what would this Separater [sic] of the People have said now, if he had seen such a black List as now appears upon the Stage of Justice? How could he have exclaim’d against uniting with us now – Nor can you imagine, what Out-cries are now of the so publick appearing of so horrid a Crime among us, and what Use some People are making of it to set the English a-part, for a Nation more wicked than other Nations.

But above all, I think ’tis in its Nature pernicious many Ways, to have this Crime so much as named among us; the very Discourse of it is vicious in its Nature, abominable to modest Ears, and really ought not to be entertain’d, far less should be so openly discuss’d, so publickly try’d in the Courts of Justice, and the Accounts of it exposed as a Subject to the vulgar Discourse of the People.

As for the Persons, I leave them to Justice. I believe, every good Man loaths and pities them at the same time; and as they are Monuments of what human Nature abandoned of Divine Grace may be left to do – So in their Crime they ought to be abhorr’d of their Neighbours, spued [i.e. spewed] out of Society, and sent expressly out of the World, as secretly and privately, as may consist with Justice and the Laws.

SOURCE: Daniel Defoe, A Review of the State of the British Nation, "Miscellanea", Thursday, 27 November 1707, vol. iv, no. 124, pp. 495-6.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Daniel Defoe, On the Public Prosecution and Punishment of Sodomites, 1707", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 8 August 2002, updated 15 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/defoe.htm>.

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