On 9 May 1726, five men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of having committed homosexual sex acts, which became punishable by death in Henry VIII’s reign and would remain a capital offence until 1828. The men had been some of the 40 individuals arrested during a raid on Mother Clap‘s molly house in London few months earlier, thanks to the self-loathing and loathsome former “molly” turned police informant and “queer-bait”, named Mark Partridge. For an excellent history of Mother Clap’s establishment and the trials, check out Rictor Norton’s website on 18th century homosexuality. It is brilliant.
Mollies and molly houses didn’t disappear despite the routine raids and judicial murders, of course. Homosexual men and women have been around since the dawn of our species and they WILL, like almost all humans, risk everything for a chance at companionship, love, and acceptance … or even the profound sexual satisfaction of having one’s needs actually met. And be assured they really were risking everything. Not only had criminals learned it was lucrative to hustle and then blackmail the man with whom one dallied, but the police (under pressure from moral arbiters) had began to use officers to entrap unsuspecting mollies. Even if a man was able to bride his way out of arrest, or at least out of the jail and away from the gallows, his life was often hardly worth living after exposure. To be known as a molly would ruin both the man and his family, cast suspicions on all his acquaintance, and doom him to ostracization.
Then there were many would pay the ultimate price for their sexuality, condemned to die by a culture that turned a blind eye to young girls – girls not even in their teens yet — working in brothels or becoming the mistresses of prominent men.
Although Jane Austen would probably cut off her hand than write about such doings, the Regency era was rife with sexual scandal of the homosexual kind. It became almost routine for Regency politicians (or their supporters) to accuse one another of being sodomites, among other slurs.
In 1810 there was a very famous case, regarding the so-called Vere Street Coterie, that was reported in every paper in the country, and Austen would have almost certainly heard of it. Police raided a molly house called The White Swan, arresting 27 men but only prosecuting 8 of them:
Six of the convicted men, who had been found guilty of attempted sodomy, were pilloried in the Haymarket on 27 September that year. The crowds who turned out to witness the scene were violent and unruly, throwing various objects (including rotten fish, dead cats, “cannonballs” made of mud, and of course, vegetables) at the convicted men. The women in the crowd were reported as being particularly vicious. The city provided a guard force of 200 armed constables, half of them mounted and the other half on foot, to protect the men from even worse mistreatment. A man and a boy, John Hepburn (46) and Thomas White(16, a drummer boy), were convicted of the act of sodomy, despite not being present at the White Swan during the night of the raid. The pair was hanged at Newgate Prison on 7 March 1811.
In 1811, hot on the heels of the Vere Street scandal, a coachman named James Byrne, accused Percy Jocelyn, Lord Bishop of Clogher, of committing ‘unnatural’ acts with another man:
Clogher denied the facts, and prosecuted Byrne for bringing false charges against him. Byrne was tried and convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison, preceded by three floggings. He nearly died as he was severely whipped at cart’s tail through the streets of Dublin on the first two occasions. The third flogging was rescinded when he agreed to withdraw his accusation.
It should surprise no one that Byrne was telling the truth, and Bishop Clogher would have been happy to have let the man be whipped to death rather than be revealed as a homosexual. On 19 July 1822 the Bishop was caught bare-assed in the act of buggering a young soldier named John Moverley.
by the end of the following week, everyone knew that the principal actor in the affair was the Lord Bishop of Clogher, grandson of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, brother to the 2nd Earl of Roden, uncle to the 3rd Earl of Roden, and the scandal became the talk of the town. Clogher was noted as a member of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a revival of the earlier Societies for Reformation of Manners. His hypocrisy did not pass unnoticed by the authors of illustrated broadsides, pamphlets, and even epigrams:
The Devil to prove the Church was a farce
Went out to fish for a Bugger.
He baited his hook with a Frenchman’s arse
And pulled up the Bishop of Clogher.
Every clergyman in England was a bit suspect in the years following, not unlike the jokes and suspicions that fell on Roman Catholic priests after the news broke of systemic pederasty and child molestation by some men of the cloth. It makes Mary Crawford’s jeers at the expense of the sanctity of the Church and clergy in Mansfield Park a little more understandable, no? Austen wrote Mansfield Park soon after the Vere Street and Bishop Clogher scandals, so I am surprised Mary’s disdain was presented in such a negative light; she would have been far from alone in her suspicions of clergymen’s moral superiority.
The Bishop, being a rich and well connected man, got away with it of course. Only poorer homosexuals were pilloried and hanged! The hypocritical clergyman scarpered off to France:
The Bishop did not disguise his name while in Paris, nor did he change his mode of dress; he was often seen strolling the Boulevards and dining at Very’s the Restaurateurs in the Palais Royale. He was cordially received by French society, and lived in the cottage vacated by the Dublin poet Thomas Moore
Bishop Clogher would eventually move to Scotland, where he lived under an assumed name and worked as a butler, dying at the ripe old age of 79.
Meanwhile, mollies and molly houses continued to proliferate and the public continued to shriek about their deviant behavior and persecute any molly without the wherewithal to buy his way out of trouble under the table throughout the Regency period and beyond.