James Pratt and John Smith, the last men to hang for Sodomy in England – Date of Execution: 1835
Although anal sex between consenting male adults is now legal in the UK, this was by no means always the case. Astonishingly, homosexual activity was a criminal offence right up until 1967, when the law was amended so that men over the age of twenty-one could legally engage in gay sex in private. Back in the 1800s, homosexual acts potentially carried the death penalty, which was the sentence meted out to James Pratt and John Smith, the last men to be executed for engaging in the act of buggery (anal sex, also called sodomy). Not only does this seem inconceivable today, evidence available at the time of the trial suggests that it is highly unlikely that the two men engaged in the activities on which they were convicted. The story of James Pratt and John Smith serves as not only a chilling reminder of the attitudes to homosexuals which existed in the not-too-distant past, but also the way in which a conviction could be based on the flimsiest of evidence.
The background to the alleged crime
Sources tell us that James Pratt left his family (he was a married man with children)in Deptford in order to go to looking for more lucrative labouring work than he could find in the local area. By the time he got as far as Holborn, he was described by his aunt as drunk. She implored him to stay with her until he sobered up, but he ignored her pleas and continued onwards, meeting another labourer, John Smith, at a pub in Blackfriars, as well as an older man, William Bonhill. Bonhill invited them both back to his lodgings, which is where the “crime” is said to have taken place.
Witnesses to “the crime”
The key witnesses to the alleged homosexual activity were the landlord of the lodging house and his wife. Sources indicate that they didn’t like Bonhill as a tenant, not least because of the number of pairs of men he frequently entertained in his room. When the landlord saw Bonhill with yet another male couple, he decided to spy on him, catching the three of them engaging in general horseplay and enjoying themselves. Later, his wife spied on the trio through the keyhole, telling her husband that Smith and Pratt were engaging in a variety of sexual activity. The landlord also took a peek at the keyhole, allegedly seeing the same activities as his wife. Bursting into the room, he claimed to have seen the men in a “compromising position”. Bonhill was not present at the time. The landlord called the police and the two men were charged with buggery.
Both men were remanded in Newgate prison, facing trial on 21st September 1835. Despite both men pleading not guilty, they were convicted on the testimony of the landlord and his wife; both were sentenced to death. Bonhill was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony for his part in the proceedings. The men remained in Newgate gaol until their execution by hanging on Friday 27th November 1835.
The conviction stood, despite a lack of evidence
The conviction was based on the testimony of the landlord and his wife, who clearly had a motive for stating that an unlawful act had taken place, as they wanted Bonhill out of their lodgings. Commentators both at the time and subsequently have questioned the accuracy of the accounts given, as the witnesses were unclear on certain key details surrounding the alleged acts. In addition, it would have been difficult to see all that the couple claimed they had witnessed through the keyhole, due to the restricted view that would have been available. Notwithstanding the shakiness of the evidence on which the conviction was based, it remained upheld, despite the fact that a number of other death sentences which had been handed out in late 1835 were commuted.
Why was Pratt and Smith’s conviction upheld?
To understand why Pratt and Smith’s homosexual activity (if it occurred) was viewed as such a heinous crime that only death was a suitable punishment, it is necessary to understand the context in which homosexuality was viewed. Forbidden by the bible and viewed as an “unnatural act” and grave sin, homosexuality was viewed as a crime against Christianity itself. Given the major influence which the church exerted in all spheres of life at the time, it is unsurprising that homosexuality was viewed not just as illegal, but also as something which was morally unclean. It was taught that men who engaged in homosexual activity would go to hell – a threat which many people at the time would take literally. So abominable was the nature of buggery considered, that the judge (Recorder) presiding over the trial asked that the men appear for sentencing separately to other prisoners (some of whom were convicted of murder and similar serious crimes), so that they would not contaminate the others due to their moral weakness. In a letter to a friend, Smith even admits that he has committed a terrible sin and feels that he has, “…disgraced himself as a christian…” – adding weight to the evidence that this was seen as a religious sin of the highest order. Given the depth of profound belief in the innate evil of homosexuality which was prevalent at the time, it is sadly no surprise that leniency was not displayed in the sentencing and subsequent appeals process. In addition, the men were labourers: they didn’t have sufficient funds to purchase private accommodation. Richer homosexuals tended to escape detection and prosecution, as they could afford the luxury of private space.
Smith and Pratt were executed less than two hundred years ago. Despite the fact that they were the last men executed for the crime of buggery, laws making homosexual activity illegal remained in place right up until recent times: the law against the act of buggery was not repealed until 2003! Their story serves as a timely reminder of how recent advances in gay rights have been and how important it is that these are upheld and reinforced in the future.