Naomi Wolf’s latest book is essentially a rehash of her PhD thesis. Which does rather need to be called into question itself now. For there’s the most dreadful error underlying her entire evidence base.
Her essential contention is that Victorian Britain became more censorious over gay sex – what back then was called sodomy – and that the love that now speaketh its name was terrorised by the sentence of public hanging. Except that’s entirely the opposite of what actually happened, Victorian Britain became markedly less vicious even as we might argue either way over public censoriousness.
This does rather undermine the case, no?
The feminist author discusses her fears for free speech, older women, and her latest book, Outrages, a study of the persecution of gay men by the legal system in Victorian Britain
Non one’s going to say that Queen Viccie was leading Pride marches but persecution is a relative matter perhaps. It is entirely true that execution for buggery happened. But that was in the Georgian era. For example, just one plucked from the listings:
23/12/1814 James Strangeways London & Middlesex Newgate Highway robbery
James Magennis Burglary
Moonie or Munnes Sodomy
There’s some discussion as to whether sodomy was actually what people were hung for – as opposed to homosexual rape. The crime was just the sodomy, but whether convictions and sentences were handed down and carried out for that, well, argue. Perhaps someone has done the research but I’ve not it at my fingertips here.
There is even said to be – Nick Cohen used to bring it to attention I think – a year in which there were more executions for sodomy than there were for murder. Those who wish to can hunt for it here, here, here and here. It’s certainly possible back in the days of the Bloody Code. Sheep stealing, uttering – a form of forgery really, passing on forged coin and notes I think? – housebreaking, arson, people were hung for all of those things.
But there’s a significant problem with this:
“I could not get over what I found,” she says. “People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830. But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse. In the beginning, there were relatively few executions, and it was relatively difficult to get arrested. If you were, it was usually for rape or the molestation of children. But then there’s a transition, and you see adult consensual men being brought in as couples, and it begins to be more likely they’ll be convicted and given a sentence of penal servitude or worse.” Her voice rises. “Those kids… I cannot get them out of my mind… executed or sent to Australia for the attempt at sodomy.” To take just one example, in 1859, a 14-year old-boy named Thomas Silver was found guilty of having committed an “unnatural offence”, and hanged.
Well, no. Actually, not at all. Again, Whitehall wasn’t the scene of rainbow flags, but hangings for “unnatural offences”? No way Jose. That’s just the most terrible scholarship.
During this nine year period there were 408 executions in England and Wales, comprising 385 men and 23 women.
The period from 1828 to 1836 saw the ending of capital punishment for crimes other than murder and attempted murder. 31.5% of those executed during this time suffered for these two offences. After 1836 only they were the only crimes, in practice, attracted the death penalty.
From 1837 on, all but five of the executions listed are for murder. The five are for attempted murder which remained a capital crime upto 1861.
In the period from January 1868 to December 1899, 988 people were condemned to death of whom 454 were executed, 446 in private and 8 in public prior to abolition of public executions by the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act passed by Parliament on the 29th of May 1868. The total in private comprises 424 men and 22 women all hanged for murder.
Well, doesn’t that just bugger the thesis then? Do note these are for England and Wales. But it’s not obvious that the Celtic cousins north of the border were particularly different on this point. And it would be an interesting allegation to insist they were.
Which leads to this:
It was only published this week, but already the writer Naomi Wolf has admitted an error at the heart of her latest book. Instead of being “actually executed for sodomy” in 1859, as the writer claims in Outrages, Thomas Silver was apparently “paroled two years after being convicted”. Silver, who was 14 when he was convicted, is just one of several cases cited in the book but, according to the writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet, the error stems from a simple misreading of a historical record and raises wider questions about the argument Wolf puts forward. In Outrages, which was published by Virago, Wolf examines the effect of 19th-century legal changes on the lives of Victorian poets such as John Addington Symonds and argues that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 marked a turning point in the treatment of gay people. “People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830,” Wolf told the Observer. “But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse.” According to Sweet, who first challenged Wolf on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas, her error concerning Silver stems from a misunderstanding of “the very precise historical legal term, ‘death recorded’, as evidence of execution, when in fact it indicates the opposite”. The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.” Wolf has committed a “pretty basic error”, Ward added. “If all the people who were mentioned in the Old Bailey records as ‘death recorded’ were subsequently executed, there would have been a bloodbath on the gallows,” Ward said, “yet anyone who has a basic knowledge of crime and justice in the 19th century would know that that wasn’t the case.”
This is why you have tutors etc at university. Those with a rounded knowledge of the subject under discussion who can prevent these sorts of howlers.
“But I come from an academic family, and I’d always wanted to do a doctorate,” she says (Wolf grew up in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, to liberal parents who were utterly unshockable). “I reapplied to finish it – I’m 56 now, so I must have been 48 then – and they let me come back, and the beautiful end to this story is that by this point queer studies and feminist studies did exist at Oxford.” It was the supervisor of her PhD, Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista, author of a book about Victorian homosexuality and the Greeks, who put her on to Symonds. “He gave me these letters,” she says. “I’d never heard of him before that.”
Dr. Evangelista appears not to have that basic knowledge then, eh?
And you can listen to Naomi having this pointed out to her for the first time:
Everyone listen to Naomi Wolf realize on live radio that the historical thesis of the book she’s there to promote is based on her misunderstanding a legal term pic.twitter.com/a3tB77g3c1
— Edmund Hochreiter (@thymetikon) 23 May 2019