Speaking with interviewer Matthew Street about her new book, “Outrages,” author Naomi Wolf, who was an advisor to both Bill Clinton and Al Gore and wrote a famous feminist book, “The Beauty Myth,” that was reportedly chock-full of inaccuracies, found one premise of her new book eviscerated when Street pointed out she had completely misunderstood a legal term. Wolf had decided that there were several dozen executions of men for sodomy but did not understand that that fact was incorrect because she didn’t understand the legal term “death recorded.”
The book is advertised on Amazon.com like this:
The best-selling author of Vagina, Give Me Liberty, and The End of America illuminates a dramatic buried story of gay history—how a single English law in 1857 led to a maelstrom, with reverberations lasting down to our day. Until 1857, the State did not link the idea of “homosexuality” to deviancy. In the same year, the concept of the “obscene” was coined. New York Times best-selling author Naomi Wolf’s Outrages is the story, brilliantly told, of why this two-pronged State repression took hold—first in England and spreading quickly to America—and why it was attached so dramatically, for the first time, to homosexual men. Before 1857 it wasn’t “homosexuality” that was a crime, but simply the act of sodomy. But in a single stroke, not only was love between men illegal, but anything referring to this love became obscene, unprintable, unspeakable.
The segment of the interview that went south for Wolf started with her asserting, “I found, like, several dozen executions, but that was, again, only looking at the Old Bailey records and the crime tables.”
Street asked, “Several dozen executions?”
Wolf answered confidently, “Correct. And this corrects a misapprehension that is in every website, that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835.”
I don’t think you’re right about this. One of the cases that you look at, that’s salient to your report is about Thomas Silver. It says, “Teenagers were convicted more often. In fact, that year, which is 1859, fourteen-year-old Thomas Silver was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense. Guilty, death recorded. This is the first time ‘unnatural offense’ entered the Old Bailey records.”
Thomas Silver wasn’t executed. “Death recorded.” I was really surprised by this, and I looked it up. “Death recorded” is what in, I think, most of these cases that you’ve identified as executions, it doesn’t mean that he was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon. I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.
Wolf, taken aback: “Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate. What is your understanding of what ‘death recorded’ means?”
Street replied, “’Death recorded.’ This is also, I’ve just read you the definition of it from the Old Bailey website. But I’ve got here a newspaper report about Thomas Silver and also something from the prison records that show the date of his discharge.”
Wolf: “’The prisoner was found guilty and sentence of death was recorded.’ Ahh. ‘The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his youth.’”
Street concluded, “See, I think this is a kind of — when I found this I didn’t really know what to do with it, because I think it’s quite a big problem with your argument. Also, it’s the nature of the offense here; Thomas Silver committed an indecent assault on a six-year-old boy. He served two-and-a-half years for it in Portsmouth prison. which, and it doesn’t seem too excessive, really. And I wonder about all the others, because all the others that I’ve followed up, I can’t find any evidence that any of these relationships that you’ve described were consensual. The other one you offer is James Spencer, 60-year-old tutor. He was a teacher that committed what was described as felonious assault on schoolboys. One of these cases is a bestiality case, not a buggery case. So I think there’s a problem here with this argument.”