James Pratt and John Smith
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James Pratt (1805–1835), also known as John Pratt, and John Smith (1795–1835) were two London men who, in November 1835, became the last two to be executed for sodomy in England. Pratt and Smith were arrested in August of that year after being convicted of having sex in the room of another man, William Bonill.
James Pratt was born in 1805 and worked as a groom. He was married and lived with his wife and children at Deptford, London.[Note 1] John Smith was born in 1795 and was from Southwark Christchurch, He was described in court proceedings and contemporary newspaper reports as an unmarried labourer, although other sources state he was married and worked as a servant.
William Bonill, aged 68, had lived for 13 months in a rented room at a house near the Blackfriars Road, Southwark, London. His landlord stated that Bonill had frequent male visitors, who generally came in pairs, and that his suspicions became aroused on the afternoon of 29 August 1835, when Pratt and Smith came to visit Bonill.
The landlord climbed to an outside vantage point in the loft of a nearby stable building, where he could see through the window of Bonill's room, before coming down to look into the room through the keyhole. Both the landlord and his wife later claimed they both looked through the keyhole and saw sexual intimacy between Pratt and Smith, so the landlord broke open the door to confront them. Bonill was absent, but returned a few minutes later with a jug of ale. The landlord went to fetch a policeman and all three men were arrested.
Trial and execution
Pratt, Smith and Bonill were tried on 21 September 1835 at the Central Criminal Court, before Baron Gurney, a judge who had the reputation of being independent and acute, but also harsh. Pratt and Smith were convicted under section 15 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1828, which had replaced the 1533 Buggery Act, and were sentenced to death.[Note 2][Note 3] William Bonill was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to 14 years of penal transportation. A number of witnesses came forward to testify to the good character of James Pratt. No character witnesses came forward to testify on behalf of John Smith. The conviction of the three men rested entirely on what the landlord and his wife claimed to have witnessed through the keyhole; there was no other evidence against them. Modern commentators have cast doubts on their testimony, based on the narrow field of vision afforded by a keyhole and the acts (some anatomically impossible) the couple claimed to have witnessed during the brief length of time they were looking.
The magistrate Hensleigh Wedgwood, who had committed the three men to trial, subsequently wrote to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, arguing for the commutation of the death sentences, stating:
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.
Although Wedgwood was a deeply religious individual, he contradicted the prevailing view that gay sex was harmful. He also cited the injustice that only poorer men were likely to be caught having it. Even if a rich man was arrested, he would have the resources to post bail money, and then flee abroad.[Note 4] However, despite this degree of sympathy, Wedgwood described the men as "degraded creatures" in another letter.
On 5 November 1835, Charles Dickens and the newspaper editor John Black visited Newgate Prison; Dickens wrote an account of this in Sketches by Boz and described seeing Pratt and Smith while they were being held there:
The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had 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 was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his 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, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall.— "A Visit to Newgate"
The gaoler who was escorting Dickens confidently predicted to him that the two would be executed and was proven correct. Seventeen individuals were sentenced to death at the September and October sessions of the Central Criminal Court for offences that included burglary, robbery and attempted murder. On 21 November, all were granted remission of their death sentences under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy with the exceptions of Pratt and Smith. There had been previous reprievals of men sentenced to death for sodomy, such as Martin Mellet and James Farthing who had been condemned in 1828 but were instead transported to Australia. But this was not granted to Pratt and Smith despite an appeal for mercy submitted by the men's wives that was heard by the Privy Council.
Pratt and Smith were hanged in front of Newgate Prison on the morning of 27 November. The crowd of spectators was described in a newspaper report as larger than usual; this was possibly because the hanging was the first to have taken place at Newgate in nearly two years.[Note 5]
The report of the execution in The Morning Post states that when the men were led onto the scaffold the crowd began to hiss, and this continued until the moment of their execution. Possibly this indicated the crowd's disagreement with the execution, or it may have indicated disapproval of the men's alleged acts. James 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.
The event was sufficiently notable for a printed broadside to be published and sold. This described the men's trial and included the purported text of a final letter that was claimed to have been written by John Smith to a friend. William Bonill was one of 290 prisoners transported to Australia on the ship Asia, which departed England on 5 November 1835 and arrived in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) on 21 February 1836. Bonill died at the New Norfolk Hospital in Van Diemen's Land on 29 April 1841.
Representation in other media
- Both James Pratt and John Smith are central characters in the award-winning stage play Particular Disposition, written by Benjamin Fulk
- The song '45 George Street' by Bird in the Belly tells the story of James Pratt and John Smith
- Sources give varying ages for the two men. The account of their trial in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey states they were 30 and 40 years old. A contemporary newspaper report of their execution (The Morning Post, issue 20273, page 4) states they were 32 and 34 years old.
- In the period from 1810 to 1835, 46 people convicted of sodomy were hanged and 32 sentenced to death but reprieved. A further 716 were imprisoned or sentenced to the pillory, before its use was restricted in 1816. (See: Lauterbach and Alber (2009), p. 49.)
- The sentence of death was mandatory, but under the Judgement of Death Act 1823, Gurney would have had the power to commute it to imprisonment.
- This had happened 13 years earlier in 1822, when Percy Jocelyn, Bishop of Clogher had been arrested with a soldier for having sex in a private room in a London pub. But despite the enormous public scandal, he was able to flee to Scotland and live there in anonymity.
- Pratt and Smith were the only people to be executed at Newgate in the three year period 1834–1836; this partial, temporary moratorium may have been for political reasons and because of a change in the law. Prior to 1834, individuals had been executed for any of 20 different offences; after 1836, only convicted murderers were hanged outside Newgate, until the ending of public execution in 1868. See A history of London's Newgate Prison
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (accessed 27 January 2018), Trial of JOHN SMITH, JAMES PRATT, WILLIAM BONILL. (t18350921-1934, 21 September 1835).
- "Execution". The Morning Post (20273). London. 28 November 1835.
- Cook et al (2007), p. 109.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 26 December 2012), September 1835, trial of JOHN SMITH JAMES PRATT WILLIAM BONILL (t18350921-1934).
- Hamilton, J. A. (2004). "Oxford DNB article: Gurney, Sir John (subscription needed)". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 7 January 2010.
- "Central Criminal Court, Saturday, Sept. 26". The Times (15906). London. 28 September 1835. p. 4.
- Ryan, Frank (24 March 2015). "Pratt & Smith – Last UK men hanged for sodomy". Peter Thatchell Foundation. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
- "The men killed under the Buggery Act". The British Library. Retrieved 15 November 2019.
- Cocks (2010), p. 38.
- Brady and Seymour (2019), p. 50.
- Upchurch (2009), p. 112.
- Lauterbach and Alber (2009), p. 49.
- "Multiple News Items". The Standard (2664). London. 23 November 1835.
- Brady and Seymour (2019), p. 51.
- Cook et al (2007), p. 110.
- "Execution". The Times (15959). London. 28 November 1835. p. 3.
- "A history of London's Newgate prison". www.capitalpunishmentuk.org. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
- Brady and Seymour (2019), p. 49.
- Anonymous, "The Particulars of the Execution of James Pratt & John Smith" (1835), London printed by T. Birt. OCLC 83814830, Harvard Law School Library, Historical and Special Collection
- "Asia voyage to Van Diemen's Land, Australia in 1835 with 290 passengers". Convict Records of Australia. Retrieved 7 March 2014.
- "William Bonill". Convict Records of Australia. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
- "2018 Austin Film Festival and Conference Schedule: Script Reading Workshop: Particular Disp..." 2018austinfilmfestivalandco.sched.com. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
- "Particular Disposition". Playwrights' Center. 3 July 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
- "Episode #11 — Particular Disposition (2018)". The 21st Rewrite. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
- "Austin Film Festival Unveils 2018 Script and Film Competition Winners". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2 June 2019.
- Brady, Sean; Seymour, Mark (25 July 2019). From Sodomy Laws to Same-Sex Marriage: International Perspectives since 1789. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-350-02390-1.
- Cocks, Dr Harry (2010). Nameless Offences, Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century. I.B.Taurus & Co. ISBN 9781848850903.
- Cook, Matt; Mills, Robert; Trumback, Randolph; Cocks, Harry (2007). A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages. Greenwood World Publishing. ISBN 1846450020.
- Lauterbach, Frank; Alber, Jan (2009). Stones of Law, Bricks of Shame: Narrating Imprisonment in the Victorian Age. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802098975.
- Rictor Norton, ed. (12 September 2014). "The Trial of James Pratt and John Smith, 1835". Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook.