Death sentences in 1800s were hardly ever carried out, despite claim in author’s book Outrages
Richard Lea – The Guardian
Naomi Wolf has acknowledged the error caused by a misunderstanding of a historical legal term. Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer
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.”
While Wolf only quotes the “death recorded” verdict in Silver’s 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.”
Wolf’s 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 Sweet’s “important correction”, but rejected the idea that it challenged the main thrust of her book. “Outrages doesn’t 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.”
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 don’t 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”.