Monday 27 November 2017

From First to Last : Last

While there are many places around the world where homosexual activity is punishable by death we in the UK think ourselves lucky that the death penalty was lifted in 1861.

A lot of gay men executed in England may never be identified but the final ones have their names perpetuated in the nation’s memory. They were James Pratt and John Smith and they were both executed on this very day in 1835.

There isn’t a great deal of new information I can find concerning the trial as it is covered by various historians online. You can do no better than go to the website of Rictor Norton where you will find a transcript of the trial itself.

Although James Pratt and John Smith both protested their innocence they were both found guilty. Even though their executions proceeded as arranged there were calls for clemency and remission from the death sentence. This article will take a look at those appeals and the people involved in them and their attempts to change the sentence passed down at the trial.

During his sentencing the judge, Sir John Gurney (1768-1945), declared that Pratt and Smith had no hope of lodging an appeal or of being reprieved. Judge Gurney had a reputation for being independent and not susceptible to political pressure. He was, however, very severe in his judgements, particularly early in his career. Therefore his sentence and his opinion on a reprieve were not out of character.

In his later years he mellowed, relatively speaking. There is one court case where he didn’t pass the death sentence on a murderer, which he would undoubtedly have done a few years earlier. In his lifetime Judge Gurney was also known to be an extremely charitable man, giving several hundreds of pounds every year to various worthy causes.

The local magistrate who took the case of James Pratt and John Smith to trial was also charitable. He came from a family with strong humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, the Wedgwoods. Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891) was the police magistrate at the Surrey Magistrates Court in Southwark, the district in which Pratt and Smith were arrested.

Wedgwood had trained as a barrister but never sought a position above that of a magistrate. He resigned this position shortly after the execution of Pratt and Smith, partly on grounds of conscience. He turned to his great passion Рetymology and philology, words. He also became heavily involved in the Victorian craze of Spiritualism and s̩ances.

After Pratt and Smith’s trial Wedgwood wrote to the Home Secretary urging him to commute the death sentence. Even though he described Pratt and Smith as “degraded creatures” he wrote that their crime was also practised by many rich men. Because rich men had the money to pay for secure private premises for their activity, or carry them out in the privacy of their large properties, they escaped the punishment that went to poorer people like Pratt and Smith, whose only crime was that they were caught. Wedgwood wrote that the crime of consensual sex between men does no harm to anyone, and in that respect was the only harmless crime punishable by death.

The Home Secretary who received Wedgwood’s letter was Lord John Russell (1792-1878) who would later go on to become Prime Minister. He was an advocate of parliamentary and social reform and was the chief architect of the Reform Act 1832 which extended voting rights and redistributed parliamentary constituencies to reflect the population movement resulting from the Industrial Revolution. There’s no real evidence of his thoughts about acts of sodomy but his career was dominated by matters affecting the whole of society rather than individuals.

Two surprising people who urged the dropping of the death sentence were the married couple who caught Pratt and Smith having sex in one of their rented rooms, George and Jane Berkshire. They put their names to a petition that was collected by friends of James Pratt. Even the Crown Prosecutor at the trial, Mr. Bonill, added his signature.

Various other documents and letters were prepared for a meeting of the Privy Council to be held in Brighton Pavilion, the residence of King William IV. The Privy Council met regularly to decide which appeals against convictions would receive what was called the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The Council itself was made up of various politicians, officers of state and clergy and it was on their advice that the king would make his decision. Then, as now, the sovereign has little actual choice – the decision of the Privy Council, like parliament, is effectively binding and any sovereign who wants to keep the crown does not challenges them.

The Privy Council met on 21st November 1835 and the cases of 17 men on death row were considered. All but James Pratt and John Smith had their death sentences commuted to either imprisonment or transportation. King William IV’s personal opinions on same-sex relationships are not known, but he was a supporter of Home Secretary Lord John Russell’s parliamentary reforms.

Pratt and Smith were informed of the Privy Council’s decision several days later on the morning of their execution. Presumably, they had already guessed what the decision was when they heard the noise of the scaffold being constructed outside their jail. Hangings were rare in those days and they were the only ones awaiting execution in that jail.

James Pratt and John Smith were hanged simultaneously at 8 a.m. on Friday 27th November 1835. No one knew it at the time, because the death penalty for sodomy wasn’t lifted until 1861, that they had become the last men who would be hanged for a homosexual act in England and Wales.

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