THE FIRST PUBLIC DEBATE ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY IN ENGLAND
Letters and Editorials in the General Evening Post concerning the Case of Captain Jones, 1772
NOTE: The following letters and editorials from the General Evening Post relate to the conviction and subsequent pardon of Captain Robert Jones for sodomy. For an introduction and overview of the affair, see The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England.
21-23 July 1772
To the Editor of the GENERAL EVENING POST.
THE late conviction of Captain Jones at the Old Bailey (the whole force of the evidence against him considered) is a circumstances of so alarming a nature that I cannot help giving you my sentiments upon it.
That our penal laws cry loudly for amendment is a truth so manifest, that little need be said upon the subject, nor can there possibly be a stronger instance produced, in my opinion, than the present case; in which the single oath of a boy, no more than twelve years and an half old, without the smallest collateral proofs, condemns to death a man, who through his whole life has been universally esteemed and regarded by a numerous and most respectable set of acquaintance.
Committed on the Wednesday, the bill found against him on the Thursday, and brought to trial on the Saturday following, without having it in his power (by the rapidity of the process) to avail himself of the character those friends were ready on oath to give him, of always having acquitted himself as a man, particularly at the Siege of the Havannah, and other places, and in every transaction of his life with honour, and as a good soldier, nor in no one instance of his life ever gave the smallest cause to suspect he belonged to those vile miscreants who are a disgrace to human nature.
I mean not, Sir, to cast the smallest reflection upon the Jury, nor the humane and able Judge who presided at the trial: they could not by the letter of the law act otherwise than they did. What I wish to dwell upon is, that the evidence of the boy, however strong it may appear, is entirely unsupported, and is denied in the most solemn manner by the unhappy man, even since his condemnation.
The boy appears to have known infinitely beyond what it can be supposed a youth of that tender age should honestly know. He gave his evidence only becoming a veteran in sin, and with a degree of hardiness and effrontery that bespoke him determined in his purpose. How should a boy of his age, I would ask, be able to make the distinctions he did (decency will not permit me farther to explain) unless properly tutor’d?
However, I am far from supposing his friends, who are all of them as far as I can learn respectable people, to be at all accessary in forming any conspiracy with the boy: they, I apprehend, pin their faith upon what he says. He himself may be a confirmed C[atami]te, and set on by some diabolical person or persons, for reasons which do not nor cannot at present appear.
That boys are capable of confederacies of the most dangerous nature, is evident from the astonishing instance of the boy of Bilson in Stratfordshire, too long here to relate, but which had nearly taken away the life of an innocent person.
I call God to witness that I detest the crime, and the perpetrators of it, as much as any one; nor would I lift my pen in defence of a man who I was convinced was guilty of it: but is it not a most dreadful consideration to think that you or I, Sir, or any man, may have his life sworn away by any abandoned wretch unsupported, as I have said before, by other corroborating evidence?
A LOVER OF JUSTICE.
(General Evening Post)
21-23 July 1772
A correspondent observes, that there is something remarkable in the Hon. Mr. Justice W[alli]s attracting the Ladies attention in trying prisoners for s[odomy], rapes, &c. About two years ago, the learned Judge was about to try a prisoner for a rape at Gloucester; he observed the ladies seemed very unwilling to leave the Court; upon which he acquainted them of the impropriety of their presence: some of them indeed had the decency to retire, others stayed. He again expostulated with them on the indecency of staying, but without effect; when the facetious Mr. S (the Judge’s clerk) told his Lordship he might proceed in the business, as all the modest ladies were gone. This smart repartee had the desired effect, and they all retired immediately. (General Evening Post)
23-25 July 1772
To a LOVER of JUSTICE.
SIR, July 24.
IT is with pain I sit down to answer your letter, which appeared in the General Evening-Post last night. A man of humane feelings reluctantly writes against a fellow-creature unhappily under sentence of death! yet when the welfare of the community, and the cause of virtue are concerned, and both at stake, genuine humanity distinguishes between real and false mercy. A love of justice overcomes pity, and stifles the dictates of compassion for a single object, when that compassion to one man would be CRUELTY to multitudes.
You found your plea for Captain Jones’s meriting pardon on the injustice of his being convicted on the evidence of a single witness, and that witness a boy of only 12 years and an half old. You insinuate, that because boys have been found capable of dangerous confederacies, a boy’s oath should not have sufficient weight to take away a man’s life.
Are you aware of the tendency of your doctrine? If the positive oath of one witness was to be deemed not sufficient for conviction, there is no act of violence which might not be perpetrated with impunity, provided the villain could but find a convenient opportunity to commit the assault unobserved by any other person. How would an highwayman or a footpad be ever brought to justice for robbing single people? A man who had never been suspected of dishonesty would then only have to watch cunningly for a private moment to accomplish the most wicked crime even murder might pass unpunished; for if an assassin met two people, put one of them to death, and the other escaped, that witness, on your principle, ought not to be credited, provided there was no other proof.
In Captain Jones’s case, how was it likely to be possible there could be any other evidence? Is it to be imagined a man would attempt so DETESTABLE a crime before a third person?
Let it be an established rule, that a boy’s evidence is not to be admitted as sufficient proof for conviction, and then, that OBNOXIOUS, BEASTLY, UNNATURAL crime may stalk abroad fearless of punishment!
Every one knows, that a man, however stung by remorse, and desirous of atoning by bringing A MONSTER to the gallows, can never, while in his senses, dream of turning an evidence, because the law justly condemns both to death indiscriminately. A boy, consequently, is the only person who can ever be a witness on such an occasion, because his youth shields him from danger, and because his weakness exposes him to assaults, against which a man could always defend himself.
What has Captain Jones’s character, as an officer, an acquaintance, a friend, or a gentleman, to do with the crime he stands convicted of? Where a man is tried for murder, robbery, or any act of dishonesty, the testimony of men of reputation undoubtedly ought to have weight in exculpating him, since the presumption should always be in favour of the prisoner, and lean to the side of mercy, because it is not probable a man could be long dishonest undetected But in this instance, I may have seen a man act bravely before an enemy with probity in his public conduct with honour as a gentleman, and yet he may privatey have been long addicted to that HORRID crime. I never saw Captain Jones in my life to my knowledge, and yet if I had been ever so well acquainted with him, and had entertained ever so good an opinion of him, I could not be enabled by that acquaintance, or former opinion, to stand forward and declare on oath that I believe him innocent of this crime, after such an evidence had been given against him.
I am ignorant of the boy’s name, and of his friends; but to me it appears very improbable that a boy should thus be capable of swearing so circumstantially and positively to a fact, infernally to take away a man’s life who had never, in any way, injured him, or given cause for resentment.
This country is now degenerating into such an effeminacy of manners such shocking vices have been imported from France and Italy, and such crimes are hourly committing, that the times really call loudly for an example to deter people from the infamous courses which otherwise ought to end in their own ruin, rather than the contagion should be suffered to rage in too extensive a circle. I know no crime that requires an example more than that horrible one for which Captain Jones stands convicted. I fear if every L[or]d in England was to be hanged who merits the gallows, Tyburn would think our Nty [i.e. Nobility] amazingly!
In short, the wisest institutions, the best laws, MAY be perverted to bad purposes yet, because it is possible than an artful, determined, unfeeling monster may swear away the life of an innocent man, it does not follow that a villain should be allowed to be certain that he is secure in committing any trespass against me, and setting no bounds to his malice, provided he takes care to avoid the presence of a third person; and it would not be just to deny the same mercy to the lowest inhabitant of Britain, that is shewn to the greatest Lord The laws must be held sacred the boy must be admitted sufficient evidence against Captain Robert Jones, or a single witness must not hereafter ever be sufficient to convict an highwayman or a murderer. There is no middle course without violating the laws of
(General Evening Post)
25-28 July 1772
We are assured, that in consequence of the great female crouds attending indecent trials at the Old-Bailey, the Judges are for the future determined to prevent the admission of the Ladies.
So much has appeared about a certain Captain, doomed to die for a detestable crime, that men of sense now begin to think publications after a conviction as bad as publications before it, since if the last have a tendency to prejudice a jury, the first have an equal tendency to prejudice the Sovereign. (General Evening Post)
1-4 August 1772
To the Editor of the GENERAL EVENING POST.
NOT from a principle of contaminating the morals of mankind by attempting to defend so unnatural a crime as Capt. Jones, if really guilty, stands justly condemned for, but from a principle of justice and humanity, I submit the following queries to the candid public.
Query 1. Is it natural to imagine that the evidence could suffer the connexion without excruciating pain, such as would get the better of his bashfulness?
Query 2. If he found any pain or ill consequences arising from this interview, is it not strange that he should, for the sake of a few halfpence, go again, as it must be attended with worse symptoms?
Query 3. Is it probable, if the fact had been committed, that nature would have been rectified within the space of a week without any assistance from the faculty? And
Query 4. It is humbly submitted to the consideration of the learned Judge, whether the boy should not have undergone a Physical examination?
(General Evening Post)
1-4 August 1772
The revision of our penal laws grows more and more necessary in the opinion of all thinking men; for executions multiply without producing any pulic benefit, and villains seem hardened in proportion to their extermination from society. (General Evening Post)
8-11 August 1772
Last night, about eleven o’clock, a further respite came to Newgate for Captain Jones, during his Majesty’s pleasure.
It is a very injudicious conduct, though a very frequent one, to forget in our horror at particular crimes all regard for the accidental circumstances of palliation which may occur in the case of a criminal. If any such occur in Capt. Jones’s, he is certainly entitled to some consideration; and hunting him to death in the public prints is a palpable outrage offered to humanity.
Much being said about the evidence on which Captain Jones is convicted, it is barely necessary to observe, that this evidence must be either lawful or otherwise; if it is lawful, his conviction is perfectly legal; and if it is not lawful, the Court before which he was tried has his blood to answer for, in suffering the Jury to bring in a verdict of capital criminality.
To convict any man upon the oath of a single evidence is apparently a great hardship; but it would be a still greater hardship to let every man escape against whom there was not two. In many cases it is almost impossible to have more than one; and in such as Captain Jones’s, particulary, it is not probable that conspiracies will be frequent against the subject, because the party must swear away his own character, before he can endanger the life of another, and will scarcely ratify any resentment at the certainty of perpetual infamy. (General Evening Post)
11-13 August 1772
The lenity preached up at present, that the oath of a single evidence should by no means convict a Catamite, is more pregnant with danger than the contrary principle can ever be, to the community. Few will enter into conspiracies against the subject, where even the accomplishment of their revenge must eternally blast their character; but from the horrid complexion of the times we fear, that if one oath is not deemed sufficient for conviction, numbers will gratify their detestable passions with impunity.
An infant may by law take the oaths of allegiance when he is twelve years old; if therefore his testimony of fidelity to the state at large, the most solemn oath he can take, is admissible at such an age, why should not his testimony be equally admissible on all inferior occasions? for the life of the best man amongst us cannot be put in competition with the safety of the public.
An opinion absurdly prevails at present, in consequence of the many conversations about the admissibility of the boy’s evidence against Capt. Jones, that an infant under fourteen is not capitally punishable, and that therefore the boy was not a particeps criminis. Sir Matthew Hale, however, gives us two instances to the contrary; one where a girl of thirteen was burned for killing her mistress, and the other of a boy still younger, who had killed his companion and then hid himself. The hiding was urged as a proof that he knew the difference between good and evil, and he was hanged.
In Holland (about a century ago) a certain detestable crime was exceedingly prevalent; but the wisdom of the state soon put an end to it, by sewing the parties in a sack, and throwing them into the sea. Punishing with inflexible severity terrified the wretches into decency, and there is not now a reputed catamite in the Seven Provinces. (General Evening Post) [This last paragraph probably refers to the pogrom against homosexuals in The Netherlands that took place in 1730-32, rather than ‘a century ago’.]
13-15 August 1772
Though the generality of people are much offended at the mercy lately extended to a certain detestable criminal; all sensible people are still more offended at several letters in the news-papers, exhorting the populace of this metropolis to attempt something like the execution of Captain Porteus at Edinburgh; because the laws have given the Crown a discretionary power of exercising its clemency, and because a discretionary power in the subject to counteract the royal discretion, would be an immediate subversion of the constitution. (General Evening Post)
3-5 September 1772
The pulpits of some churches have lately been much prostituted by vindictinve sermons against the respite granted to a detestable criminal; and the preachers have even dared to say, that the King, in granting that respite, violated his coronation oath. This conduct in the Clergy is very shameful; and though we abhor the criminal’s guilt as much as any of these reverend incendiaries, nothing but the grossest ignorance can assert, that the King has not a legal right to a discretionary exercise of his royal clemency. (General Evening Post)
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (ed.), "The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England: Letters and Editorials in the General Evening Post concerning the Case of Captain Jones, 1772",
Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 19 December 2004
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