Outrages. Photograph: No credit
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 3s 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 wasnt the case.
While Wolf only quotes the death recorded verdict in Silvers case, Sweet challenges the wider argument put forward in Outrages.
I think her assumptions about death recorded have led her to the view that dozens and dozens of Victorian men were executed, and that one of the main subjects of her book, the poet John Addington Symonds, grew up with the fear of execution hanging over his head. I have yet to see evidence that one man in Victorian Britain was executed for sodomy.
Wolfs argument that 1857 saw a brutal turn against consensual sex between men runs counter to most scholars, Sweet continued, who suggest that it was only in 1885 that a less tolerant legal climate developed. She argues that historians have misread this moment and we should see that 1857 was a more significant date. I think she is wrong.
Wolf said she appreciated Sweets important correction, but rejected the idea that it challenged the main thrust of her book. Outrages doesnt purport to be a comprehensive database of eventual sentences served for sodomy, she explained. Its focus is on the reception of news about laws and sentences by a group of friends, as well as eventual arrests of friends of Symonds.
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The book tells the story of how Symonds absorbed information about increasingly long sentences of hard labour and reports of death sentences in the national media, Wolf said. I dont think it takes many reports of a death sentence for a 14-year-old for sodomy, though later commuted, to really scare a 19-year-old gay man. This fear is the focus of my book.
Wolf says she corrected the error right away, and asked my publishers to include the correction in the book; and I thanked Dr Sweet both one to one and in public.