It was the case that in the first third of the nineteenth century, trials and executions for sodomy were much commoner than they had been in any earlier period. That is to say that fifty men were executed within that time, and trials, punishments and executions were more common than at any earlier period. This reached a peak in 1806 when more men (6) were executed for Sodomy than for murder (5).
However, these figures don't take into account the Naval Court Martials which of course dealt with these matters themselves and produced a steady flow of cases similar to that in the civilian courts. An average of two or three were sentenced to death for sodomy each year.
The most notable civilian to be hanged for sodomy in these years seems to have been Isaac Hitchen, one of a homosexual coterie at Warrington which was prosecuted in 1806; he was said to be one of the richest men in Warrington, worth £60,000.
There were also rumours concerning even more distinguished personages such as the earl of Leicester, afterwards Marquess Townshend, and King George III's unpopular 5th son, HRH field marshal the duke of Cumberland, afterwards king of Hanover. One of the most notorious scandals of the time was that involving the fabulously wealthy William Beckford, M.P. for Wells,(pictured right) and the Hon William Courtnay, afterward Viscount Courtenay and earl of Devon (pictured left, as a languid boy) in 1784.
Both Beckford and Courtenay spent the following twenty five years virtually ostracised by society and in 1811 Courtenay was forced to flee from his ancestral home at Powderham Castle and go into exile to avoid prosecution for sodomy. The nearest a member of the aristocracy came to indictment for homosexuality in this period was in 1822 when the bishop of Clogher, the Hon Percy Jocelyn son of the first earl of Roden, was caught buggering a Guardsman in a public house and escaped trial by jumping bail and fleeing to Scotland.
The laws against buggery and sodomy have nearly always been known as "The Blackmailers' Charter" (see the wonderful film Victim for that, filmed before sodomy was legalised) and this was no different here. A lot of prosecutions were begun with letters as a source of evidence. Many men would succumb to blackmail rather than face their chances in court, for obvious reasons--a lack of social standing--being excommunicated from society must have been almost as terrifying as the risk of prison or death.
Some have argued that it wasn't a case of more men being homosexual, but more that it was a case of urbanization, drifting into cities for work and where they concentrated together and were able to form a sub-culture for the first time. And such a "large" proportion of homosexuals in a city (there were 20 houses of male resort (known as Molly Houses) in London in this age, compared with 80 years later when there were only four) was more likely to draw attention to the authorities (and the people who would denounce them) than two men living quietly together in more remote areas.
The Vere Street Coterie
The most notorious scandal of the age. In 1810 a group of homosexuals were arrested at The Swan, a known Molly House in Vere Street London. The place was famously known as being a place where the Reverend John Church (shown left) would perform male/male marriages. The arrested men were charged with sodomy, and eight of them were convicted
Six of the convicted men, found guilty of attempted sodomy, were pilloried in September of that year. The crowds who turned out to witness the scene were violent and unruly, throwing various objects (including rotten fish, "cannonballs" made of mud, and of course vegetables) at the men. The women were reported as being particularly vicious. The city provided a guard of 200 armed constables, half mounted and half on foot, to protect the men from even worse mistreatment.
Ironically, two of the men were later hanged.
Other reasons for such intolerance at this time can be blamed on the hardening of sexual stereotypes, sexual slander--which became rife at this time. Sexual knowledge was becoming more widespread--more people were learning about such "Unnatural acts" which then led to even more sexual intolerance.
"Damn the fellow! Now I think of it, I never remember his having a girl at college!" remarked an acquaintance of a man who had brought a charge of malicious prosecution against a solider who had accused him of attempting an unnatural act.
There were other reasons, too, all of which helped--The Evangelical Revival probably helped spread the prejudice; the overhaul of the whole system of law enforcement, public pressure (letters to the papers, etc) which all helped to bring the "problem" to the public eye, calls were made to "do something about it."
All of which goes a long way to explain why--instead of being more tolerant in the early 1800's, things were actually a lot lot worse. Never mind boys! It will soon be the Victorian Age...
"Prosecutions for Sodomy in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century" by A. D. Harvey, The Historical Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4. (Dec., 1978), pp. 939-948.
A History of Homophobia by Rictor Norton, "1: The Ancient Hebrews" 15 April 2002.