Tag: 18th

18th century gangs threatened to out men as gay unless they paid

Portrait of Sir Edward Walpole, Kt., 18th century, (1915). Artist: Edward Edwards

Edward Walpole, the son of prime minister Robert Walpole, was accused of sodomy by a gang.

Bands of extortioners targeted men – including the son of a prime minister – and extorted them for cash in the 17th and 18th centuries, researchers have discovered.

Middlesex University London found that there was a “trend” of gangs of three to five people who prowled London’s cruising spots, coercing men into compromising positions before giving them an ultimatum: Pay us money, or we turn you in.

The threat was made all the more terrifying by the punishment the victims might meet if they declined –  the death sentence for homosexuality.

A paper written by Dr Paul Bleakley and published in the journal Springer Link stated: “Court records suggest a trend of London blackmailers setting out to extort men for money, threatening to charge them with homosexual offences if they did not pay the price demanded.

“In fear of the threat to their reputation or severe punishment, if found guilty, many of the victims reluctantly acceded to the demands of the extortionist.”

“There was greater potential for success when extorting men with a reputation to protect,” it added.

“In the cases of opportunistic blackmail, the victim was usually unknown to their blackmailer and targeted only because they were in the right place at the wrong time.”

Their playbook was one of jumping on men while urinating or even breaking into their homes to accuse them of sodomy.

Often, gang members would work together, one being the accuser while the rest acted as “witnesses” to create what researchers said was a “climate of fear” that compelled the victims to give away their money.

“Often there was a scenario where one person would lure someone into a sexual act or what seemed to be a sexual act before three other people would jump out and start yelling, creating a scene and an intentional climate of fear so the victim is more willing to do whatever it takes to silence them and stop the situation getting worse,” explained Dr Bleakley.

“At this time there was no official police force as the Met Police did not come into existence until 1829, so we’re talking about a legal system where people would bring their own claims to court.

“So if they were extorted or blackmailed they had to find the person responsible and sue them.

“It was a hard prospect to explain why you were in these known cruising sites such as St James Park or by the river in the dead of night.”

In one high-profile plot, Edward Walpole, the son of prime minister Robert Walpole, was accused of sodomy by unemployed servant John Cather in 1750, according to court records.

Detectives found that Cather was part of a six-strong group that were bullying Edward into extortion, saying they would drop the charges if given the cash.

Combing court proceedings between 1674 to 1913 at the Old Bailey, London’s top court, university researchers found cases of gangs even attempting to extort money from lawmakers.

MP Humphry Morice was railroaded by Samuel Scrimshaw and John Ross in 1759, according to court documents seen by the researchers. The pair demanded money from Morice or else be accused of queer sex.

‘Miss Kitten’ would target men and demand money

For men in 18th century London, the name “Miss Kitten” jolted fear and unease.

From well-heeled areas such as St James’ Park to the Highway, a “disreputable” stretch of road snaking around the city’s financial district, queer cruising spots were targeted by the likes of Miss Kitten as part of countless gangs’ sprawling money-making schemes.

Miss Kitten, real name James Oviat, was fined, pilloried and sentenced to three months in prison in 1728 for accusing men of sodomy.

He would corner men in St James’ Park and accuse them of “behaving very indecently”, the paper stated, before brusquely demanding money.

Oviat met his downfall when an accused man fought back, countersuing him. Judges, knowing Oviat’s track record well, remarked that “his old acquaintances in Newgate Prison expressed a surprise that he had been so long from among them”.

John Bollan, in 1724, approached a man urinating the river in Tower Hill. Grabbing his genitals, Bollan and the victim were then swarmed by “witnesses” – the rest of the gang – who demanded he hand over money.

Being queer would not be decriminalised for more than a century to come, however a new law meant that extorting money from someone for being gay became a crime.

An Act for Allowing the Benefit of Clergy 1823 made it a crime to “maliciously threaten to accuse any other person of any crime, punishable by law with death, transportation or pillory, or of any infamous crime, with a view or intent to extort or gain money”, the paper added.

“The same fears homosexual men were experiencing in London in the 1700s were very likely similar to what people faced in 1966,” said Bleakley, reflecting on when homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1967.

“There’s a very long history of persecuting the LGBT community, particularly gay men, and while extortion may seem unfathomable today, in a historical context tolerant attitudes are far less common.”

Happy November 18th, the Queer Holiday that Should Be

Happy November 18th, the Queer Holiday that Should Be

Happy November 18th! Today is the anniversary of the historic 2003 ruling that made Massachusetts the first U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry. It also marks the 2003 repeal of the U.K.’s anti-LGBTQ Section 28 law. Additionally, it’s the “Massaversary” of when my spouse and I legally wed (though we celebrate our true anniversary in April).?

Rainbow cake

Although same-sex couples in Massachusetts could not marry until May 17, 2004, state Chief Justice Margaret Marshall had issued her groundbreaking ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health six months earlier, on November 18, 2003. My spouse Helen and I didn’t intend to have our wedding on this historic date, however. We had been living in New York but were moving to Massachusetts, driven by a new job offer that Helen had just gotten. Her new Massachusetts employer covered health insurance for employees’ spouses of any gender, but had stopped covering it for unmarried same-sex partners after marriage became legal for them (a short-sighted move, but that’s a whole other discussion). We therefore planned our wedding in about two weeks, since I was staying home with our son at the time and needed health insurance through her employer. We only realized the coincidence of the date when our justice of the peace mentioned it.

But yes, we were one of the many couples to use the quote from Marshall’s decision as part of our ceremony. We still view our original anniversary, in the spring, as our “real” one, with this being simply the occasion that the state caught up with what we’d known for 10 years. Still, we try to mark the day as a milestone (though not the beginning) of our lives together.

Over in the U.K., November 18, 2003, also marked the repeal of the Section 28 law that had since May 1988 forbidden “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” It had been the fear-driven response of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Additionally, this week marks Trans Awareness Week, a time to both celebrate trans identities and (for us cisgender folks) learn more about how to honor and support them.

Even if it’s not your anniversary today, then, take these other occasions in queer history as a reason to celebrate (and do so again on May 17). We could all use an excuse to do so in a year like this. (And to eat cake—because if you know anything about my household, you know there will be cake.)