James and John
A True Story of Prejudice and Murder
by Chris Bryant
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Pub Date 15 Feb 2024 | Archive Date 14 Feb 2024
From acclaimed historian and MP Chris Bryant, James and John tells the story of what it meant to be gay in early 19th-century Britain through the lens of a landmark trial.
They had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world.
When Charles Dickens wrote these tragic lines he was penning fact, not fiction. He had visited the condemned cells at the infamous prison at Newgate, where seventeen men who had been sentenced to death were awaiting news of their pleas for mercy. Two men were particularly striking: James Pratt and John Smith, who had been convicted of homosexuality. Theirs was ‘an unnatural offence’, a crime so unmentionable it was never named. That was why they alone despaired and, as the turnkey told Dickens, why they alone were ‘dead men’.
The 1830s ushered in great change in Britain. In a few short years the government swept away slavery, rotten boroughs, child labour, bribery and corruption in elections, the ban on trades unions and civil marriage. They also curtailed the ‘bloody code’ that treated 200 petty crimes as capital offences. Some thought the death penalty itself was wrong. There had not been a hanging at Newgate for two years; hundreds were reprieved. Yet when the King met with his ‘hanging’ Cabinet, they decided to reprieve all bar James and John. When the two men were led to the gallows, the crowd hissed and shouted.
In this masterful work of history, Chris Bryant delves deep into the public archives, scouring poor law records, workhouse registers, prisoner calendars and private correspondence, meticulously recreates the lives of two men whose names are known to history – but whose story has been lost, until now.