Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Trials for Sodomy

The Worst of Crimes: Homosexuality and the Law in Eighteenth-Century London
by Netta Murray Goldsmith

During the eighteenth century we first get an insight into the lives of ordinary gay men – unfortunately due to evidence given in prosecutions brought by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. The Societies became inactive after conducting a virtual pogrom during 1700 to 1730, but left a legacy of judicial and popular prejudice. Goldsmith reviews all the trials for sodomy between 1730 and 1751, focusing on the practicalities of the legal process and evaluating the evidence. Her work summarises the current state of our knowledge concerning the "mollies".

A major consequence of the anti-gay crusade was that blackmailers flourished. The meat of Goldsmith’s book is the extraordinary account of an apparent attempt to blackmail Sir Edward Walpole, wealthy son of the powerful Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and younger brother of the famous dilletante Horace Walpole. In 1750 an Irish lad, John Cather, visited Walpole’s London house, hoping for employment. Though welcomed over several months, one day Cather was violently ejected. Shortly afterwards, Walpole was informed by a lawyer that a bill of indictment was being prepared against him for a sodomitical assault upon Cather. Walpole refused to strike a deal, and was duly charged. Before the trial, Walpole hired an undercover detective – an actor who played women’s roles – to infiltrate the "gang" of Cather and his associates. The plot thickens, and Goldsmith unravels a complicated story with clarity and skill.

Goldsmith speculates that Walpole, noted for preferring a bachelor society (since the death of his mistress ten years earlier) and for helping working-class young men get a start in life, was indeed bisexual. However, Walpole was acquitted, and proceeded to prosecute six men for blackmail. One man was hanged, one escaped from prison, and four were given severe prison sentences and fines. But most of the men in this blackmail "ring" didn’t know one another; all the evidence against them came from witnesses paid by Walpole; unscrupulous means were used to persuade Cather to make a "confession", which the jury were not told he had retracted. Goldsmith suggests that justice was not done, for the real conspiracy was that organised by Edward Walpole.

(This review was originally published in Gay Times, Jund 1999, pp. 90–91. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

Return to Reviews and Critiques
Return to Gay History and Literature