SPEAKING ITS NAME : The Importance of Being Straight


It is impossible to discuss Oscar Wilde, and his downfall, without also discussing sodomy laws, which were still on the books in most Western countries until quite recently. ‘A sodomy law is a law that defines certain sexual acts as sex crimes. The precise sexual acts meant by the term sodomy are rarely spelled out in the law, but are typically understood by courts to include any sexual act deemed unnatural. Such laws have roots in antiquity, and are linked to religious proscriptions against certain sex acts’ {LGBT Project}.  These acts are not necessarily homosexual, but heterosexual couples who have engaged in oral or anal sex were much less likely to be targeted by sodomy laws, particularly if married. ‘Sodomy laws were first derived from religious references, which throughout history have seen sodomy and homosexual behavior as sinful’ {Criminal Laws}.  What had been tolerated, even celebrated, among the Greeks and Romans, by the Middle Ages became peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum – ie the horrible crime not to be named among Christians {Dudgeon}.  In those days, the penalty for sodomy, known in England as ‘the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind’ {Fordham University}, was usually death.

Wilde was fortunate, at least, that he was not born several decades earlier, when buggery was still a hanging offence in Britain. The last men executed were James Pratt and John Smith in 1835. Smith ‘not having the fear of God before his eyes, nor regarding the order of nature, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, on the 29th day of August, in the sixth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord, William and Fourth, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, with force and arms, at the parish aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of the said court, feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, had a venereal affair with one James Pratt, and did then and there, feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally know the said James Pratt, and with him the said James Pratt did then and there feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, commit and perpetrate the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal of all human kind, against the form of the statute in such case made and provided, against the peace of our said lord the king, his crown and dignity’ {quoted in Norton}.  They were sentenced to death; and William Bonill, whose room they had used and were spied on by the landlord, was sentenced to 14 years Transportation {Jeffers}.

A magistrate named Hensleigh Wedgwood, who committed the men for trial, later urged clemency for Pratt and Smith. He wrote: ‘There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor. It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without’ {quoted in Executed Today}.

The condemned men were visited by a young reporter named Charles Dickens, who euphemistically wrote: ‘the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt.’ He continued: ‘The other two [Pratt and Smith] had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. “The two short ones,” the turnkey whispered, “were dead men”’ {Dickens, quoted in Norton}.  A Visit to Newgate was published in Dickens’ first book Sketches by Boz.

Smith and Pratt were publicly hanged outside Newgate Prison, on 27 November 1835, before a large crowd {Jeffers}.


William Thomas Stead (1849-1912) was born in Embleton, son of a Congregational minister. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, young William was encouraged to be a journalist by his friend John Coppleston, who gave him work on the Northern Echo. {} By 1871, Stead was the editor, in 1873 he married Emma Lucy Wilson and they would have six children {Spartacus}.

In 1880, the Steads moved to London, he took over the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead became a pioneer in investigative journalism; to his detractors it was “muck-raking sensationalism” {Arnold p217}, to his supporters he was a social reformer. “I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands, to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed” {Stead, quoted in Mulpetre}.  Social issues he wrote about included women’s rights, universal education, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, atrocities committed in Bulgaria and home rule for Ireland {Spartacus}.

By far the most controversial issue Stead tackled was prostitution; his allies were early feminist Josephine Butler {Arnold 216} and the Salvation Army’s Bramwell Booth. In 1885, he ran an expose’ about young girls being forced into the sex trade called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, comparing them to ancient Athenians sacrificed to the minotaur. He detailed the horrendous abuse they were subjected to – even rape. ‘”But do the girls cry out?” “Of course they do. But what avails screaming in a quiet bedroom?”’ {Stead 1885}

He then told the story of Lily, ‘A Child of 13 Bought for 5 Pounds.’  In fact she had been procured by Stead, with the connivance of former working girl Rebecca Jarrett, to show how easily it could be done.  She was examined by a midwife to prove virginity, then chloroformed, but otherwise unharmed {Mulpetre}.  She was trafficked overseas, to show how easy this was, but then kept in a Salvation Army home in France {Smythe}. ‘It was a lurid tale, told with a thunderous moral outrage’ {Luckhurst}.

Certainly there was a massive conflagration of public outrage!  The Gazette had never sold better, causing near riots.  There was a massive demonstration in Hyde Park, protestors carried white roses for purity, and young girls in white marched under a flag ‘The Innocents, Will They Be Slaughtered?’ {Arnold 219}  The Criminal Amendment Act, ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’, had stalled in the House of Commons for four years.  Now with the force of public opinion, it was passed on 14 August 1885.  This raised the age of consent to 16 and made procurement a crime.

Stead would pay the price for his agitation.  When the parents of “Lily”, really Eliza Armstrong, found out what had happened to their daughter, they were filled with anger {Arnold 219}.  The conspirators were charged with kidnapping: Booth was acquitted, Jarrett and the midwife received 6 months and Stead a 3 month sentence {War Cry}.  He enjoyed the martyrdom of this, later written up in his paper, and even retained his prison uniform {Arnold 220}.

The new law would be disastrous to the men least likely to prey lecherously on young girls – ie homosexuals.  In 1861, Queen Victoria had abolished the death penalty for buggery.  However it was still a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act, carrying a sentence from ten years to life. {Houston}  What made convictions difficult is that they required a very explicit burden of proof {McKenna p106}.

Before this Criminal Amendment Act 1885 passed, an amendment was introduced by Henry Labouchere, a journalist and politician {Fordham}.  Reportedly he was concerned about the increase in male prostitution {McKenna 105}, known as rent boys or Mary-Anns.  Fleet Street, Holborn and The Strand were the areas they operate, and some public houses around Charing Cross carried signs reading: “Beware of Sods” {Arnold 258}. ‘Labouchère’s amendment was, however, more insidious, for it extended punishment to any homosexual act between men (ie. short of buggery), defined as “gross indecency.” It also made the prosecution of homosexuals easier by not requiring evidence of penetration.’ {Neumann}

“Any male person who, in public or private, commits or is party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour”. {quoted in Fordham}

It was not long before the Labouchere Amendment was known as the “Blackmailers’ Charter” {McKenna 241}.    So Oscar Wilde’s fate was sealed, 10 years before his conviction for Gross Indecency.  This was long before he met Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar’s homme fatal, long before the Marquis of Queensberry ripped off the boxing gloves he recommended, in order to deal with the man he believed had corrupted his son.

As for Stead, he would continue to campaign on various issues, such as women’s suffrage and the Boer War.  In 1912, he was due to attend a conference in New York’s Carnegie Hall {Bio}.  Tragically his ship was the ill-fated Titanic; Stead was one of the most famous British casualties {Luckhurst}, his body was never found {Bio}.

The attitude Stead had to homosexuals seemed to be that, as men, they were in a much better position that vulnerable young girls – “a young rascal who is very well able to take care of himself” {Stead}.  As seen in his article below, he did not see the act itself to be nearly as wrong as the harsh penalties handed down to Oscar Wilde, Alfred Taylor and other men.


The Conviction of Oscar Wilde

Originally published in The Review of Reviews, vol. XI, June, 1895

While France has been manifesting her returning allegiance to the ideal and the divine, England has been engaged in a very different task, although, may be, it was equally an indication of the aspiration of mankind after a higher and purer life. The trial of Oscar Wilde and Taylor at the Old Bailey, resulting in their conviction and the infliction of what will probably be a capital sentence—for two years’ hard labour in solitary confinement always breaks up the constitution even of tough and stalwart men—has forced upon the attention of the public the existence of a vice of which the most of us happily know nothing. The heinousness of the crime of Oscar Wilde and his associates does not lie, as is usually supposed, in its being unnatural. It would be unnatural for seventy-nine out of eighty persons. It is natural for the abnormal person who is in a minority of one. If the promptings of our animal nature are to be the only guide, the punishment of Oscar Wilde would savour of persecution, and he might fairly claim our sympathy as the champion of individualism against the tyranny of an intolerant majority. But we are not merely animal. We are human beings living together in society, whose aim is to render social intercourse as free and as happy as possible. At present, fortunately, people of the same sex can travel together, and live together in close intimacy, without any one even dreaming of any scandal. Between persons of the same sex suspicion of impropriety or the thought of indecency has been so effectually banished that the mere suggestion of the possibility will seem to most an incredible absurdity. Between individuals of opposite sexes no such free unfettered communion of life is possible. That, however, is the goal towards which we ought to progress; and it would be a fatal blunder at the very moment when we are endeavouring to rid friendship between man and woman of the blighting shadow of possible wrong-doing, were we to acquiesce in the re-establishment of that upas shade over the relations between man and man and man and woman.


At the same time it is impossible to deny that the trial and the sentence bring into very clear relief the ridiculous disparity there is between the punishment meted out to those who corrupt girls and those who corrupt boys. If Oscar Wilde, instead of indulging in dirty tricks of indecent familiarity with boys and men, had ruined the lives of half a dozen innocent simpletons of girls, or had broken up the home of his friend by corrupting his friend’s wife, no one could have laid a finger upon him. The male is sacro-sanct: the female is fair game. To have burdened society with a dozen bastards, to have destroyed a happy home by his lawless lust—of these things the criminal law takes no account. But let him act indecently to a young rascal who is very well able to take care of himself, and who can by no possibility bring a child into the world as the result of his corruption, then judges can hardly contain themselves from indignation when inflicting the maximum sentence the law allows. Another contrast, almost as remarkable as that which sends Oscar Wilde to hard labour and places Sir Charles Dilke in the House of Commons, is that between the universal execration heaped upon Oscar Wilde and the tacit universal acquiescence of the very same public in the same kind of vice in our public schools. If all persons guilty of Oscar Wilde’s offences were to be clapped into gaol, there would be a very surprising exodus from Eton and Harrow, Rugby and Winchester, to Pentonville and Holloway. It is to be hoped that our headmasters will pluck up a little courage from the result of the Wilde trial, and endeavour to rid our Protestant schools of a foul and unnatural vice which is not found in Catholic establishments, at all events in this country. But meanwhile public school boys are allowed to indulge with impunity in practices which, when they leave school, would consign them to hard labour.

Taken from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/reviews/wilde.php



Arnold, Catharine (2010) City of Sin: London and Its Vices. Simon & Schuster: London.

McKenna, Neil (2004) The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. Arrow Books: London.

Robbins, Ruth (2011) Oscar Wilde. Continuum International: London & New York.

Sodomy Laws

Houston, Larry (2013-14) Homosexuality in Great Britain: Section One; Homosexuality in Great Britain Section Two: Legislation; Homosexuality in Great Britain: Section Three: Scandals. Retrieved from: http://www.banap.net/spip.php?article156

Dudgeon, Jeff (2012) Jeff Dudgeon MBE on the 30th Anniversary of Decriminalisation of Same-Sex Relations. Faith and Pride. Retrieved from: http://faithandpride.org/2012/10/29/jeff-dudgeon-mbe-on-the-30th-anniversary-of-decriminalisation-of-same-sex-relations/

Fordham University. (2016) The Law in England, 1290-1885. Internet History Sourcebook. Retrieved from: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/englaw.asp

Laws (2015) Sodomy. Criminal Law. Retrieved from: http://criminal.laws.com/sodomy

LGBT Project Wiki (2016) Sodomy law. Wikia. Retrieved from: http://lgbt.wikia.com/wiki/Sodomy_law

Neumann, Caryn (2002) The Labouchère Amendment (1885-1967). GLBTQ. http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/labouchere_amendment_S.pdf

Pratt & Smith

Executed Today. “1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain”. Retrieved from: http://www.executedtoday.com/2012/11/27/1835-john-smith-james-pratt-buggery-dickens-visit-newgate/

Jeffers, Regina (2013) 1835~Last English Execution for Buggery: James Pratt and John Smith. ReginaJeffers’s Blog. Retrieved from: https://reginajeffers.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/1835last-english-execution-for-buggery-james-pratt-and-john-smith/

Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Last Men Executed for Sodomy in England, 1835”, Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 12 September 2014 Retrieved from: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1835last.htm

Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Trial of James Pratt and John Smith, 1835”, Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 12 September 2014 Retrieved from: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1835prat.htm

Ryan, Father Frank (2015) Pratt & Smith – Last UK men hanged for sodomy. Peter Tatchell Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/lgbt-community/pratt-smith-last-uk-men-hanged-sodomy

Wikipedia (2016) James Pratt and John Smith. The Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Pratt_and_John_Smith

25 of the Worlds Most Beautiful Rainbow photography examples. Retrieved from: http://webneel.com/beautiful-rainbow-photography

W T Stead

Biography (2016) William Thomas Stead. Bio. Retrieved from: http://www.biography.com/people/william-thomas-stead-283820#titanic

Encyclopedia Titanica (2016) Mr William Thomas Stead. Retrieved from: http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-thomas-stead.html

Jarrett, Rebecca (c1928) Rebecca Jarrett’s Narrative. The Salvation Army Heritage Centre. Retrieved from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/related/narrative.php

Luckhurst, Roger (2012) WT Stead, a forgotten victim of Titanic. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/titanic-anniversary/9195793/WT-Stead-a-forgotten-victim-of-Titanic.html

Mulpetre, Owen (2012) The Great Educator: a Biography of W.T. Stead. W.T. Stead Resource Site. Retrieved from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/bio.php

Simkin, John (2015) William Stead. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd. Retrieved from: http://spartacus-educational.com/Jstead.htm

Smythe, Mervyn (2016) W. T. Stead and the RMS Titanic. The Salvation Army. Retrieved from: http://my.salvos.org.au/inspire/articles/w-t-stead-and-the-rms-titanic/

Stead, William Thomas (1885) The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. W.T. Stead Resource Site. Retrieved from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/mt1.php

Stead, William Thomas (1895) The Conviction of Oscar Wilde. W.T. Stead Resource Site. Retrieved from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/reviews/wilde.php

The War Cry (1928) The Passing of Rebecca Jarrett. Quoted in W.T. Stead Resource Site. Retrieved from: http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/related/passing.php


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