Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Keyhole Testimony: Witnessing Sodomy in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Keyhole Testimony: Witnessing Sodomy in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

Shop-keepers some there were And men of good repute, Each vow'd a Bachelor, Unnat'ral Lust pursu'd The Women Hater's Lamentation (1707) (1)

Much of what was written about sodomy during the eighteenth century remains amazingly vague. With a few crucial exceptions, broadsides and fictional accounts describe sodomy in very general terms, not as a transgressive sexual practice that involves certain unspeakable activities, but rather as a set of specific habits of dress or personal hygiene, often a foreign accent or questionable religious leanings, and occasionally a taste for opera. (2) Even the so-called trial accounts themselves most often talk around sodomy, explaining for instance that men in the molly house were "making love" or that one man was caught in the act of seducing another--with a hand in his breeches, for instance without any corroborating evidence or actual physical description of sodomitical relations. (3)

At signal, rare moments, however, descriptions of sodomy include a visual account putatively based on observation that offers readers a titillating insight into the dynamics of unnatural activity. In the trial of Thomas Rodin (October 1722), for instance, Henry Clayton tells the court:

   I and the Prisoner lodg'd in one Room, at Peter Wright's, a
   Shoemaker, at the Three Shoes next Door to the Harrow in Long-Alley
   in Moorfields. My Landlady keeps a Baudy-house, and lets out
   Lodgings. Some Time in March last,--I forget the Day,--there
   accidentally comes in a Stranger to lodge, the Prisoner drank with
   him, and at half an Hour past ten they went up to Bed together;
   and I saw the Prisoner lying with him in the Nature of carnal
   Copulation, as a Man lies with a Woman.

Court. How could you be sure of that.

Clayton. I did not put my Hand between them; but it was a Moon-light Night, and I was abed in the same room, and could see what they did plain enough. (4)

Henry Clayton's account depends on direct visual testimony: Clayton sees two men in the act of copulation. As unimaginative as his description is, it does suggest some of the ways in which sodomy is already coded. The visual account is enhanced by the moonlight and the intimacy of the observer, and even these simple details work to create a "scene." Moreover, Clayton's tantalizing claim that he "did not put my Hand between them" (misprinted as "I did put my hand between them" in a recent edition of these trials) serves to emphasize his physical proximity and to give credence to his observation, which concludes with the claim that he "could see what they did plain enough" (my emphasis). But Clayton's account also demonstrates the perils of such close observation. (5)

Court. How long was it before you spoke of this?

Clayton. I spoke on't the next Day.

Court. And why did you not prosecute sooner?

Clayton is very quickly on the defensive here, and before very long his testimony has been thoroughly discredited. This is in part because his own character has been rendered questionable, not because of any activity of his own but because of his intimacy with the scene of sodomy itself. Sodomy is dangerously seductive, as this moonlit scene suggests. (6) Clayton can hardly keep his hands away from the copulating couple.

For the obvious reason that proximity implies guilty association, then, such accounts are often framed as "keyhole testimony," in which an observer watches certain sexual activities from a distance and then reports them to a listener or an audience, either in a court of law or another social situation, such as an antisodomy tract or a novel. Rather than get so close that the observer could touch the participants, in other words, a doorway or a partition usually separates the observer from the scene of sodomy. This gives precedence to a visual account of the scene and offers a new set of erotic dynamics, as the following account suggests. …

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