Why Gay Pride is Essential: Stories from the Early 18th Century Gay Subcultures
When we think of LGBTQ+ figures throughout history, our attention is drawn to the unapologetic activism of Marsha P. Johnson, the iconic literature of Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing’s innovations in technology, and Judith Butler’s critical contributions to queer theory. These brave pioneers excelled in their respective fields and have contributed greatly to the increasing equality for queer people in the West. It is crucial to remember and respect our history, to honour our brothers and sisters of the past, not just during pride season but all year round. Admittedly, my knowledge of queer history was subpar: I answered the question of our history by saying “we have existed since the earliest days of humanity.” Whilst absolutely correct, this assessment of queer history filled me with a sense of emptiness. A rift formed between me and my ancestors and from it poured an insatiable curiosity. – I needed to discover more.
In Britain, homosexuality was punishable under the Buggery Act of 1563. Homosexual men caught having sex were charged with sodomy or attempted sodomy. Homophobia Early Modern England was deeply rooted in Christian tradition and xenophobia, as Jews and ‘Turks’ were accused of bringing homosexuality into Britain. In fact, the terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’ were derived from the Biblical tale of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, and there is a wealth of evidence that suggests the English government were fearful of their country falling to sin in the same manner. Sodomy was thus punishable by hefty fines, imprisonment, execution, or hours at the pillory. The public did not treat homosexuals kindly at the pillory. A stage was erected in towns and cities where criminals would be locked into stocks. The public could watch the criminal be whipped and spectators could throw food, rocks, and dead animals at the convict.
Whilst it is interesting to note the origins of homophobic laws, I was more interested in discovering the personal history of our queer ancestors, to discover how they lived, what jobs they worked, where they socialised, and who they socialised with. I was shocked to find the earliest records of a flourishing gay subculture as early as the 1700s in London. London’s gay subculture at this time was only frequented by homosexual men. Whilst there were lesbian subcultures active in France, lesbians within England had not yet formed their own societies. Immersed in the bawdy underbelly of 18th-century society, the men of London’s gay subculture were known as ‘mollies’ and gathered in ‘molly houses.’ These establishments were illegal and often were set up in private accommodations or were hosted under the guise of a legitimate gin shop or coffee-house. Two of the most popular molly houses were run by Mother Clap, a straight woman with an eye for profit, and another on Tottenham Court Road was run by a man named Julius Caesar Taylor. Although not confirmed, Caesar may have been a freed black slave, as it was a trend for slave masters to name their slaves after Roman generals and classical leaders. In these establishments, most frequented on Sunday nights, the mollies would sing bawdy songs and consume alcohol. These liberated spaces allowed mollies to communicate in ways considered to be effeminate or camp, such as by talking in women’s voices, using women’s handheld fans, and greeting each other with kisses. When a new molly entered a molly house for the first time, they were christened with a molly nickname. After their name was assigned, they were baptised by having a glass of gin thrown in their face. Some notable examples of molly nicknames were Fanny Murray, Miss Selina, Princess Seraphina, Kitty Fisher, and Black-eyed Leonora. Inside the molly houses, aside from drinking, singing, and (of course) sex, the mollies regularly undertook a variety of rituals. In the molly houses, there was often a room reserved for mock marriages. These marriages were illegitimate and did not always carry the same commitment as a heterosexual marriage. Some mollies would ‘marry’ for one night whilst others would ‘marry’ in a romantic relationship. For example, in 1727 or 1728, a wedding took place between Moll Irons and an unnamed molly who was a butcher. Their wedding was attended by two bridesmaids, Princess Seraphina, and Miss Kitten. Mock births were also a common ritual in molly houses. Mollies involved in the ceremony would pretend to give birth to a wooden baby, which would then be baptised. These rituals were carried out to mock heterosexual norms and were not seen as a desire to recreate them.
It is important to note that there were few accounts of mollies dressing as women. On the 28th of December 1725, a group of 25 Molies were arrested at a molly house for ‘disrupting the peace.’ The mollies were adorned in masquerade garments and some of the party were dressed in women’s clothing, but female garments seemed to be reserved for special rituals such as the mock birthing ceremonies. While most mollies identified as men, there is evidence that Princess Seraphina appeared in what we would now call drag. At masquerade balls, Princess Seraphina was able to adorn female clothing and utilise female mannerisms without other attendees discovering her biological sex. Rising to popularity in the 1720s, the balls provided a place for members of society to mingle and allowed people to act immorally under the guise of anonymity. It is likely that other men cross-dressed at the masquerades and remained undetected. It was probable that Princess Seraphina would have continued their female escapades unnoticed if not for their appearance in court in 1732 under their male name: John Cooper. Cooper was held at knifepoint by Thomas Gordon, who demanded Cooper to swap his clothes with Gordon’s ragged clothes. Gordon threatened to charge Cooper with sodomy if he reported the robbery. Bravely, Cooper attained a warrant for the arrest of Gordon. In their trial, a washerwoman who had overheard the altercation supported Cooper’s testimony. However, a multitude of witnesses revealed to the judge that Cooper was also known around the area of Drury Lane as Princess Seraphina. Mary Poplet made a statement about Cooper/ Seraphina in court: ‘
‘I have known her highness a pretty while… I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all around her Forehead; and then she would flutter her Fan, and make such fine curt’sies, that you would not know her from a Woman.’
The effectiveness of Princess Seraphina’s disguise suggested they had been adorning women’s clothes for a number of years. Her mastery of female mannerisms alludes that her highness’ disguise possibly ran deeper than just a performance and may reveal one of the earliest instances of transgressive gender identity in Britain.
The information we know about the gay subculture of the early 1700s ironically comes from accounts of those who tried to police homosexuality. During the late 1690s, The Society for the Reformation of Manners was established to restore moral order to the population. Venereal diseases such as syphilis were rampant, so the main aim of The Society was to police what they regarded as immoral sexual behaviour and reduce transmission. By 1698, the society had made their first arrest of a gay man: Captain Edward Rigby. He was apprehended on Guy Fawkes night after propositioning William Minton for sex in St James’s park. Unknown to Rigby, who had already been tried and acquitted for charges of sodomy, this encounter had been arranged by a leading member of The Society. Minton, acting as bait, lured Rigby to a public house where officers of The Society were stationed to collect evidence. As Rigby tried to initiate a sexual encounter with Bray, the officers barged into the room and arrest Rigby. He was sentenced to a year in prison, fined one thousand pounds and was ordered to spend two hours on the pillory. This arrest was widely reported, and Rigby fled the country after his release.
The successful arrest of Rigby had attracted much public attention and had given The Society extensive press. The entrapment of homosexuals continued throughout the 18th century, and agents of The Society would frequent areas around the capital that were known locations where gay men walk and proposition each other for sex, such as the Royal Exchange, St James’s Park, and various bridges around London. In a 1707 campaign, The Society arrested over 40 gay men in a single week. Three of these men committed suicide before trial, including the woollen draper Augustin Grant, who hung himself in his cell.
Attacks on homosexuality also persisted independent from The Society. In 1726, Mother Clap’s molly house was raided by the police. Mother Clap’s establishment and the location of various other molly houses were disclosed to the authorities by the molly, Mark Partridge. Partridge aided the police after an argument with his lover, Mr Harrington. As a result of the raid on Mother Clap’s house, three men were hanged, two men were sent to the pillory, one man died in prison, and many named and unnamed individuals were forced into hiding. Mother Clap, also known as Margaret Clap, was also tried. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment, a fine of twenty marks, and to stand in the pillory at Smithfield. Being pelted and abused so severely at the pillory, Mother Clap fainted multiple times, fell off the pillory once, and was sent to Newgate prison in convulsive fits. It is not known whether she survived her two-year prison sentence.
The accounts of executions and public humiliation of gay men in England is diabolical. As I continued my research, I was horrified to read of the atrocities against gay men during the Dutch purges. Between 1730-1731, the States of Holland informed every town that the crime of sodomy was punishable by death and the names of those prosecuted would be revealed. Anyone discovered housing a known homosexual would also be executed, their corpses burnt, or thrown in the sea, or would not receive a proper burial. Upwards of 250 men were summoned for crimes of sodomy. 90 of these men failed to appear, fleeing the country, and at least 60 men were sentenced to death. In Amsterdam, Pieter Marteyn, James Sohn and Johannes Keep were strangled and burnt. Maurits van Eeden and Cornelis Boes – both eighteen at the time – were submerged alive in a barrel of water and then drowned. Many other men were thrown into the sea attached to weights, hung, strangled, and burnt. At Zuidhorn on the 24th of September 1731, at least 21 men were executed. Gerrit Loer, Hendrik Berents and Hanz Berents were all scorched alive, hung to death, and their bodies were then burnt to ash. Eight teenagers aged 16-19 were also strangled and then burnt. Jan Ides, a boy of 18, upon hearing his sentence, said to the court: “I forgive you for the sin which you have committed against me.” The simple, yet powerful words of Jan Ides struck a chord within me. We must do all we can and more to preserve the history of our brothers and sisters who died in the name of ancient ‘justice.’ We must not forget the suffering people like Jan Ides and the countless other oppressed queer communities mentioned above.
The story of the 18th-century subculture serves as a great testament to the hardship and oppression queer people in England and Europe faced. Yet, in the face of death, persecution and humiliation, our queer ancestors continued to thrive, party and love in the illicit underbelly of 18th century London. I hope that this snapshot tour has encouraged you to look further into queer history, and if anyone ever asks you why we celebrate pride, maybe link them to this article.
I credit all the information present in this article to the work of Rictor Norton and his publication: Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830. Norton’s work expands upon the points I discussed in this article and continues the story of the subculture beyond the 1730s over the span of a century. It is the holy grail of 18th century queer studies!!!
I would also recommend reading into the following books:
Louis Crompton: Homosexuality and Civilization
David Higgins: Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600
David F. Greenberg: The Construction of Homosexuality