“Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act.”
– Marty Feldman
My first encounter with the Old Bailey Online was quite interesting. I was shocked to find the variety of trials documented. It was very difficult choosing a trial and narrowing down my searches to find one that was both interesting and also that had enough information for me to really understand and appreciate the societal norms 18th century. I ended up choosing the trial of John Ashford and William Curtis, September 29, 1732. This trial was quite astonishing to read, as I could take away many assumptions about society during the 18th century.
On September 29, 1732, William Curtis twenty years of age confessed to having commit sodomy with John Ashford, eighty five years old. Curtis first encountered Ashford when he to went live with and work for Mr. Nutt, who was a printer for The Old Bailey. Six months later, John Ashford arrived and lodged with Mr. Nutt and Curtis as well. Curtis claimed that it wasn’t long before Ashford started kissing and touching him, sexually. He claimed that Ashford soon persuaded him to have sex, and that Ashford offered him money, as well as a small estate of his mothers. Curtis admitted that he accepted his offers, and the two continued to engage in intercourse, frequently. Curtis was paid three shillings a week from Ashford, as well as given presents such as clothes, and wigs. Ashford used these gifts to bribe Curtis to keep his silence about the situation. It took Curtis a year and a half to confess, and he only did so to cleanse his guilty conscience, so he said. Curtis confessed to a woman named Hannah Unwin, and she took it upon herself to involve the court.
Because Curtis did give consent to engage in sexual relations with Ashford, it was difficult for the jury to convict just Ashford of sodomy. Hannah urged the court to convict Ashford of crime, and did this by claiming how she had witnessed Ashford physically abusing Curtis. Hannah claims she had caught Ashford “boxing” Curtis’ ears a couple of times for neglecting him. Hannah also claimed that she heard Curtis refuse to lay with Ashford, because “he had got a stinking breath, and made himself so nasty with taking snuff” (Old Bailey). The court questioned Hannah if she had ever seen the two “go upstairs together” for privacy, and to this she replied “no” (Old Bailey). Hannah had only made accusations based on what she had heard from Curtis, which may or may not have been true to begin with. The court found Ashford not guilty after hearing accounts from his advocates regarding his reputation and background prior to the events how he was a good man, it was also shared by Mr. Corbett that Curtis had been known for being a liar.
The most significant assumption I have concluded about eighteenth century society was that it was very homophobic. After reading the trial several of times, I had found there were many offences committed by both Ashford and Curtis that I believe to be far worse than that of sodomy, which is the act of engaging in sexual relations with a person of the same sex. Eighteenth century society was very heterosexual, and was not at all accepting of homosexuals. They believed it was an “unnatural sin”, “devilish” and “against the order of nature” (Old Bailey) to commit such a crime. Because the court ignored more obvious offenses made by Ashford and Curtis, for example: prostitution or abuse, I can assume that sodomy was one of the worst offenses of the time, aside from treason or murder.
After much speculation of this trial, I have gathered many assumptions about life during the eighteenth century. The age gap between Ashford and Curtis was what struck me the most. I was shocked to find that nowhere in the trial was the dramatic age difference between the two ever mentioned. Because of this, I took from the trial that age difference was never an issue during the specific time period, and that it must have been quite common in relationships. The court did not find it at all disturbing or disgusting that a much older man was having sex with a twenty-year-old boy! Because of this, it is apparent that either there were no laws regarding this during the eighteenth century, or perhaps that the crime of sodomy was worse, and so their age-gap was overlooked.
Another assumption I have gathered from this trial about life during the eighteenth century was that prostitution was either legal, or again, perhaps just not a severe a crime as sodomy, because Curtis admitted to having sex for money and the trial did not present this as an offense. Curtis was accepting of having sex for money, which is an act of prostitution. Curtis gladly accepted the money in exchange for intercourse with Ashford, therefore Curtis was willing to engage in sexual intercourse with him, so realistically, both should have been charged with sodomy, because both were equally involved.
I also found the court to be extremely corrupted. After hearing from Ashford’s advocates, the court quickly found him not guilty. This may have been because society viewed elders’ opinions to be more valuable over that of an adolescent. The court was quick to assume Ashford was not guilty without further investigating into to the case to convict him of any other offences. I found that the court only had only questioned one advocate of Curtis’s, while they questioned four advocates of Ashford’s. Due to this, I found the court to be very biased, and unfair, not taking in to account anyone else on Curtis’s behalf who could have helped his case.
I found this trial shocking because of the offenses that were overlooked for the crime of sodomy. If I were the judge at that time, I would have convicted Ashford of and bribery and abuse, and Curtis for prostitution. The only thing that confused me was why neither Ashford nor Curtis was punished for confessing to be sodomizers. The trial made the act of sodomy seem like it was a very serious crime during the eighteenth century, as they jury overlooked many other serious offenses because of it, so I was surprised to read that neither were sentenced to any sort of punishment. This trial clearly demonstrates how strong society was against homosexuality, and how narrow-minded the people of the eighteenth century truly were. It shows how corrupt and biased the court of the eighteenth century was. Most importantly it shows how other serious offences can be ignored if a “more serious” offence of the time period was committed, like that of sodomy.