THE DAY OF DEATH
It was on 27 November 1835 that two men called James Pratt and John Smith were hauled in front of a hissing crowd outside London's infamous Newgate Prison. It was surely a terrifying experience for the condemned, who had already suffered the tribulations of Victorian imprisonment. According to a newspaper, they looked "dreadfully weak and dejected", and James Pratt in particular was "so weak that the executioner's assistants found it necessary to hold him in their arms to prevent him falling to the ground."
Little is now known of these men. The only reason their names are recalled, if at all, today is because of the fateful moments which led to their arrest and grisly public execution. That's because Pratt and Smith were the last men in the UK to be killed by the state for the crime of "sodomy".
The events that would lead to their deaths unfolded earlier that year, and involved a third man: William Bonill. He, close to 70 years of age, was several decades older than Pratt and Smith, and had already apparently aroused suspicion for having frequent male guests at 45 George Street, Southwark, where he rented a room from a couple called George and Jane Berkshire.
There was clearly no love lost between the Berkshires and their tenant, and when George Berkshire noticed Pratt and Smith arrive at Bonill's place one day, his vindictive curiosity got the better of him. According to his own testimony, he clambered up to the loft of a neighbouring building to gaze down through the window of Bonill's room. He reported back to his wife that he saw one of the younger men sitting on Bonill's lap, and Jane Berkshire promptly scurried straight to Bonill's door to literally peer through the keyhole.
She claimed sex acts were taking place between the men inside, and her husband wasted no time bursting in on Pratt and Smith. Their host, William Bonill, wasn't actually in the room at the time - he had evidently nipped out to buy ale. It was a shopping trip that would save him from the executioner's noose.
A SCANDAL WITHOUT EVIDENCE
The three men were arrested and a case swiftly built against them. Evidence was non-existent, and the prosecution's argument was based entirely on the word of Jane Berkshire. Her account was somewhat self-contradictory - she claimed to have spied on the men for less than a minute, yet somehow apparently saw them undressing, getting comfy and having sex. She also seemed hazy on the details of exactly what they looked like and what precisely they did. It's also doubtful the keyhole would have provided a sufficient vantage point for the scene she half-described.
It didn't matter. And it didn't matter that several people bravely stepped forward in court to stress Pratt's good character. Even some of the major establishment figures of the time felt the men were being unfairly victimised. As a prominent magistrate put it in latter to the Home Secretary, "It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual". The magistrate also derided the hypocrisy of it all, pointing out that homosexuality was widely practiced among the wealthy, who had the luxury of private abodes shielded from the prying eyes of their enemies.
No voice of reason could save Pratt and Smith, whose final days were memorably sketched by Charles Dickens himself, who saw them in prison and described their "haggard", "ghastly" appearance. As for William Bonill, whose room was the scene of the capital crime... He was deported as a convict to Australia, where he died in 1841.