A pickpocket’s minor offence against society reveals a much worse ‘crime’ against humanity.

220px-hangin_outside_newgate_prison

“This morning John Smith and John Pratt expiated their heinous offence, by forfeiting their lives on the scaffold in front of Newgate”.

                       The Standard, Friday, November 27, 1835

So ran the first line of a news report in the London press on 27th November 1835. We are not told what it was that the pair had done to merit a death sentence but we can be fairly sure that the paper’s readership did.

However the details of their offence were probably not revealed; the court case at the Old Bailey carries only their names, ages and sentence with the nature of their offence rendered with letters missing:

b–g–y

Smith and Pratt were prosecuted for being homosexual and a third man, William Bonill, was charged and convicted as an accessory*.  The papers reported the last hours of the men in Newgate. Pratt was reluctant to confess his sins to a dissenting minister who visited him in the condemned cell, sending him away before calling him back to ‘make his peace with God’.

A crowd turned out to see them ‘turned off’ as was usually the case with these public displays of ‘justice’. Smith went to his death calmly but Pratt had to be helped onto the scaffold outside Newgate gaol. The executioner ‘adjusted the ropes and caused the plank to fall which closed the world upon them’.

One of those watching the execution was Thomas Palmer. Palmer was a young lad who seems to have been unmoved by the gruesome spectacle he was witnessing. While others stood and doffed their caps as Smith and Pratt had their necks broken in public, Palmer ‘dipped’ the pockets of a gentleman. He removed a pocket book (a wallet) but it had nothing of value in it.

He wasn’t quick enough however, to avoid capture by one of the officers keeping watch over the crowd. He came before the magistrate at Guildhall on the following day to be charged with picking pockets, there was no report of what happened to him so I suspect he was either reprimanded and discharged or sent to prison for a week or two.

Pratt and Smith had been caught in August at Bonhill’s house in Southwark. They were the last men to be hanged for sodomy in England and the only two persons hanged outside Newgate gaol between 1834-6. The pair had been prosecuted under Lord Landsdowne’s Offences against the Person Act (1828) a wide ranging piece of legislation that included confirmation of the death penalty for rape (abolished in 1841) and for shooting, stabbing or wounding (repealed in 1837).

The death penalty for buggery was finally removed from the statute in 1861 (although no one was hanged for it after Pratt and Smith). If this seemed enlightened it certainly wasn’t. In 1885 new legislation made it easier to convict men of ‘indecency’ when sodomy could not be proved. This was the act that caught Oscar Wilde and prematurely ended his life. At his trial in 1895 the judge (Mr Justice Wills) handed down a two year prison sentence but declared it: “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and added that the case was “the worst case I have ever tried”. Wilde died within three years of his release, his health health adversely affected by the conditions he experienced in Reading gaol.

In 1967 homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales, this was extended to Scotland in 1980. Following a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights decriminalization followed in Northern Ireland in 1982. It took until 2001 for the laws about consensual sex to be applied to heterosexual and homosexual men equally, when the age of consent was lowered to 16; again this took an intervention from Europe to achieve.

The arrest of Thomas Palmer (my jumping off point for today’s blog from the Police Courts) revealed an event that marked a watershed in the LGBT rights in this country. Hopefully the vast majority of people in the UK would be disgusted, not at the actions of Pratt and Smith as many were in 1835, but at a state that executed people in public for being gay.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 28, 1835]

  • Bonill was not hanged but instead transported to Australia for 14 years
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