Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Writhing Bedfellows

The Gay Love Letters of Thomas J. Withers and James H. Hammond

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

When the following letters were written, twenty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson Withers (1803–1866) was studying law at South Carolina College. He married in 1833 and was to become a journalist, lawyer, and judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals until his death in 1866. James H. Hammond, aged nineteen at the time of the letters, was to become one of the prominent men in the antebellum South, serving as governor, congressman and senator for South Carolina, and active supporter of the pro-slavery argument and considered to be the likely heir to John C. Calhoun. He was a lusty young man, as indicated by the letters, and rumours of an incident in 1843 involving his brother-in-law's four teenage daughters eventually forced him into political retirement. Male bonding was pronounced in the Old South but no letters of a remotely comparable nature – camp and sexy – have been discovered for this period in American history. The letters are liable to a wide range of interpretation, but they do suggest that homosexual experience between men could be nonchalant and unexceptional. The letters were re-discovered in 1978 by the American gay scholar Martin Duberman, who has written of his battle to get permission to publish them – the South Caroliniana Library suggesting, for example, that the text be published without any indication of the names of the correspondents – and how he was finally compelled to publish them in opposition to the guardians of the American heritage.


Columbia, South Carolina
May 15, 1826

Dear Jim:
          I got your Letter this morning about 8 o'clock, from the hands of the Bearer . . . I was sick as the Devil, when the Gentleman entered the Room, and have been so during most of the day. About 1 o'clock I swallowed a huge mass of Epsom Salts – and it will not be hard to imagine that I have been at dirty work since. I feel partially relieved – enough to write a hasty dull letter.
          I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole – the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling? Let me say unto thee that unless thou changest former habits in this particular, thou wilt be represented by every future Chum as a nuisance. And, I pronounce it, with good reason too. Sir, you roughen the downy Slumbers of your Bedfellow – by such hostile – furious lunges as you are in the habit of making at him – when he is least prepared for defence against the crushing force of a Battering Ram. Without reformation my imagination depicts some awful results for which you will be held accountable – and therefore it is, that I earnestly recommend it. Indeed it is encouraging an assault and battery propensity, which needs correction – & uncorrected threatens devastation, horror & bloodshed, etc. . . .
                              With great respect I am the old

September 24, 1826

My dear Friend,
          . . . Your excellent Letter of 13 June [untraced] arrived . . . a few weeks since . . . . Here, where anything like a systematic course of thought, or of reading, is quite out of the question – such system leaves no vacant, idle moments of painful vacuity, which invites a whole Kennel of treacherous passions to prey upon one's vitals . . . the renovation of spirit which follows the appearance of a friend's Letter – the diagram of his soul – is like a grateful shower from the cooling fountains of Heaven to reanimate drooping Nature. Whilst your letters are Transcripts of real – existing feeling, and are on that account peculiarly welcome – they at the same time betray too much honesty of purpose not to strike an harmonious chord in my mind. I have only to regret that, honesty of intention and even assiduity in excition [execution?] are far from being the uniform agents of our destiney [sic] here – However it must, at best, be only an a priori argument for us to settle the condemnation of the world, before we come in actual contact with it. This task is peculiarly appropriate to the acrimony of old age – and perhaps we had as well defer it, under the hope that we may reach a point, when 'twill be all that we can do —
          I fancy, Jim, that your elongated protuberance – your fleshen pole – your [two Latin words; indecipherable] – has captured complete mastery over you – and I really believe, that you are charging over the pine barrens of your locality, braying, like an ass, at every she-male you can discover. I am afraid that you are thus prostituting the "image of God" and suggest that if you thus blasphemously essay to put on the form of a Jack – in this stead of that noble image – you will share the fate of Nebuchadnazzer of old. I should lament to hear of you feeding upon the dross of the pasture and alarming the country with your vociferations. The day of miracles may not be past, and the flaming excess of your lustful appetite may drag down the vengeance of supernal power. – And you'll "be damn-d if you don't marry"? – and felt a disposition to set down and gravely detail me the reasons of early marriage. But two favourable ones strike me now – the first is, that Time may grasp love so furiously as totally [?] to disfigure his Phiz. The second is, that, like George McDuffie [a politician], he may have the hap-hazzard of a broken backbone befal him, which will relieve him from the performance of affectual family-duty – & throw over the brow of his wife, should he chance to get one, a most foreboding gloom – As to the first, you will find many a modest good girl subject to the same inconvenience – and as to the second, it will only superinduce such domestic whirlwinds, as will call into frequent exercise rhetorical displays of impassioned Eloquence, accompanied by appropriate and perfect specimens of those gestures which Nature and feeling suggest. To get children, it is true, fulfills a department of social & natural duty – but to let them starve, or subject them to the alarming hazard of it, violates another of a most important charzacter. This is the dilemma to which I reduce you – choose this day which you will do.

SOURCE: The letters are among the Hammond Papers, South Caroliniana Library, Columbus, SC, and were first printed by Martin Duberman in his article "'Writhing Bedfellows' in Angebellum South Carolnina," in the Journal of Homosexuality (Fall/Winter, 1980-81), and subsequently reprinted several times.

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