Pratt And Smith: The Last Men To Be Executed For Sodomy in England

Jan 8, 2024 0 comments

On the morning of November 27, 1835, two men—James Pratt and John Smith—were publicly hanged in front of Newgate Prison in London. Just three months earlier they had been arrested and convicted for the crime of sodomy, which was considered the most detestable and abominable offense at the time.

Homosexuality, or rather “buggery”, has been a crime in Great Britain since the Buggery Act of 1533. This legislation aimed to restrict any sexual activity not directly linked to procreation, irrespective of the genders involved. While the intent was to punish those engaged in non-consensual sexual crimes, the lack of a clear definition for "buggery" in the law led courts to interpret it narrowly, focusing solely on anal penetration. Consequently, numerous men, including those of high standing, fell under the purview of the act, facing severe penalties such as death, imprisonment, or public humiliation on the pillory.

Execution outside Newgate Prison, early 19th century.

The case of James Pratt and John Smith was contentious, with many asserting that the evidence was dubious and the punishment excessively severe. Regardless, these two individuals are remembered as the last to be executed for sodomy in England.

On August 29, 30-year-old James Pratt and 40-year-old John Smith met William Bonill, a 68-year-old man, at an ale house near the Blackfriars Road, in Southwark, London. Pratt worked as a groom, living with his wife and children in Deptford, in southeast London, while Smith was an unmarried laborer, although some sources claim he worked as a servant. Bonill invited Pratt and Smith back to his boarding house owned by Jane and George Berkshire.

The Berkshires claimed later that they became suspicious of Bonill because of the numerous male couples who visited his quarters. Their boarder, it seemed, was allowing men to use his room for “nefarious, sodomitical purposes.” When Pratt and Smith came to visit him that day, his landlords decided to find out for themselves exactly what was going on.

Shortly after the three men arrived, the suspicious George spied into Bonill’s room through a nearby window and saw Pratt sitting on Bonill’s knees and then on Smith’s. George saw the men laughing together and in conversation. When he relayed this to his wife a little later over tea, Jane slipped upstairs and peeped through Bonhill’s keyhole. She returned to tell her husband that she had witnessed sexual acts. He became enraged, went upstairs and also looked through the keyhole. George later told in the courthouse that he had seen “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers [sic] below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.”

Also read: Leendert Hasenbosch: The Gay Soldier Who Was Marooned on a Deserted Island

They immediately burst through the door to confront Pratt and Smith. Caught in a compromising position, Pratt and Smith quickly pulled up their trousers and begged George not to report them to the authorities. But George called the police anyway. Bonill, who was absent at that time, returned a few minutes later with a jug of ale. The cops also arrived and all three men were arrested.

At their trial at the Old Bailey on 21 September 1835, both Jane and George Berkshire testified that they had witnessed Pratt and Smith engaging in sexual acts through the keyhole. They explained how they saw the two men undressing to lay on the floor, and although the act of penetration itself was not visible, they claimed to have seen the tale-tell signs of bodies in motion.

Aside from the sole testimony of the Berkshires there was no other material evidence to support the charge. Yet, an all-male jury found Smith and Pratt guilty of “not having the fear of God before [their] eyes, nor regarding the order of nature, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil”. Judge Baron Gurney, who presided at their trial, sentenced them to death by hanging. Bonill, convicted of conspiring to allow buggery to be committed, was deported to Australia for 14 years. He died in Tasmania in 1841.

Not everyone agreed with the verdict or the sentence. Hesney Wedgwood, the magistrate who had committed the three men to trial, argued in a private letter to Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, that the two men be granted clemency. For Wedgwood, their guilt or innocence was not the issue because, he believed, they were victims of a greater social issue.

It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted.

While being held in Newgate Prison, Pratt and Smith were visited by Charles Dickens, who wrote an account of his visit in Sketches by Boz:

Dickens described Smith and Pratt as being held in “a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall”. One sat with “his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it.” The other had a “pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him”. “They well knew that for them there was no hope in this world,” Dickens continued. The gaoler who was escorting Dickens through the corridors, leaned on to him and whispered that they ‘were dead men.'

On November 27, the two prisoners were taken from their cells and brought to the execution platform in front of Newgate Prison. The crowd started hissing, possibly in disagreement with the execution. Pratt was reportedly too weak to stand, and had to be held upright by the executioner's assistants while preparations were made to hang him. After the hangings, the men were buried in a common grave, with others executed at Newgate, in the City Cemetery, Manor Park, London.

Smith and Pratt were the last two men executed in England for buggery. The Buggery Act was repealed by the Offences against the Person Act 1828. However, buggery continue to be a capital offence until the passing of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which replaced the penalty with deportation or a lengthy prison term. Homosexuality was finally decriminalized in Great Britain by the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967.

# Pratt & Smith – Last UK men hanged for sodomy, Peter Tatchell Foundation
# Central Criminal Court Sessions Paper. 21st September 1835
# The Last Men Executed for Sodomy in England, 1835, Rictor Norton


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