James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant - review by Thomas Grant

Thomas Grant

The Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name

James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder

By

Bloomsbury 317pp £25
 

The subject of homosexuality in the 19th century has become rather contentious in recent years. While researching her 2019 book Outrages, Naomi Wolf misread court reports, leading her to claim erroneously that executions for sodomy continued late into the century. The controversy over the authenticity of Roger Casement’s ‘Black Diaries’ has now shifted to a consideration of whether his sexual activities in Congo and the Amazon are to be celebrated as bodily liberation or condemned as a form of colonial exploitation. Even Oscar Wilde’s status as a gay icon has come under scrutiny.

Now Chris Bryant, indefatigable parliamentarian and prolific biographer and historian, has made his own contribution to the subject. The focus of his new book is the last two executions in England for sodomy. The condemned, James Pratt and John Smith, were two working-class men about whom very little is known. They met together in an upstairs room in a house in Southwark to have sex in August 1835. A prying landlord saw them through a keyhole, called a constable and the two were arrested. They were tried at the Old Bailey just four weeks later. Without legal representation and clearly terrified in the face of the court, they were, inevitably, found guilty. They languished in Newgate Prison for several months, where, remarkably, Dickens met them, producing a vivid portrait of two spectral figures living in the shadow of death. Refused a reprieve, they were hanged in November before a large crowd apparently hungry for spectacle after a lull in executions.

Bryant’s book is an excellent example of micro-history. Facts about Pratt and Smith are thin on the ground and there are liberal sprinklings throughout the book of the ‘we can only speculate’ form of history writing. Nonetheless, Bryant uses their story to explore areas of the past into which few

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter