The newspapers of 1816 were not full of reports of sodomy. Indeed, the word is almost impossible to find when doing searches of primary sources. “Unnatural crimes” and “detestable crimes” will find a few examples. Most years of the late Regency period yield only a couple of examples. The only way that the “crime “ was discovered was if there was a complaint by one of the participants, or in the special example of 1816, the crew of a whole ship was suspected of it.
Buggery-Sodomy being the legal term- was to remain a capital crime until 1861, and it was seen as such as reprehensible crime, and so easily the subject of false accusation, that the activity had to be witnessed or confessed to in a very convincing manner to secure conviction. Blackwood’s Law Commentary said that sodomy was such a terrible crime, and so easy to fabricate and lie about, that only the very strongest proofs would be accepted.
John Attwood Eglerton was accused of buggering a groom in July 1816, on the evidence of the young man himself. Despite the utter detestation of the establishment of his crime, John appeared in the same list as burglars and horse stealers. Although he was favoured with a speech by the judge which condemned his actions as “a crime subversive of every idea of virtue and manliness”, it is striking how similar he was treated to those guilty of property crimes during the process. However, the similarity ends with the fact that most of the people indicted with him were eventually pardoned. The draconian punishments of the late regency “Bloody Code” performed a regular pantomime of condemning people to death and then pardoning them. This did not apply to John
“The Jury retired for ten minutes, and returned with a verdict of Guilty. – Death. When the Prisoner heard the verdict pronounced against him, he fell into tears, and begged the Judge to recommend him to mercy on account of his family. (Morning Post)”
He was executed at Newgate on 23 September 1816; and once again the same conventions were used as with other prisoners. He was reported to have died with “perfect resignation” (Cambridge Chronicle) and full penitence for his crimes, as if he had stolen a sheep.
In another of the relatively few conventional cases in 1816, the Reverend William Woodcock was sentenced to four years in the House of Correction. His young partner, aged “around 16” according to the judicial proceeding, was sentenced to three years as a willing participant. Despite arguing with the judge, the capital punishment was not inflicted; it may have been due to the fact that he was a member of the established church and not, like John Attwood Eglerton, a waiter.
The crime was neither reported in detail nor even named. However, a particular event in 1816 allows us to gather more details about the attitudes towards sodomy. A whole ship- the Africaine- was suspected of being a centre of the unnatural crime. The naval authorities had the greatest difficulty in finding those who were guilty. By December 1815, their on- ship investigations had produced 23 people accused of sodomy. This was far too many to be hanging from the yard arm in Portsmouth.
It was found to be very difficult to find a reliable witness, not also implicated , to prove that buggery had taken place. The weight of evidence fell on four men; John Westerman, Joseph Tall , Ralph Serraco and Raphaelo Troyac. The last two men were of Italian origin, and it may not be a coincidence that many in Britain called sodomy ” le vice Italien”-it was believed to have originated from ancient Lombardy. The newspapers at the time thought that this was significant; as was the fact that more than half of the accused were foreign nationals, clearly more inclined to perversion.
It seems clear that the late Georgians thought that “unnatural crime” was actual anal penetration. The treatment of the other sailors seems to confirm that. Sharp distinctions were made between acts. Some, who escaped the capital indictment, were convicted of “uncleanliness”-which most seemed to be mutual masturbation (frigging) or failed penetration. Even this would entitle you to two years solitary confinement in the Marshalsea prison, which had a small Admiralty wing in what was mostly a debtors’ prison.
Kissing and cuddling would earn you a flogging.