On January 3 1727, Robert Whale and York Horner stood in the pillory at Charing Cross, London. Their crime? They kept a molly house, a meeting place for sodomites.
Mother Clap’s Molly House author Rictor Norton has researched molly houses extensively. He says Robert Whale and York Horner lived together for at least three years before their arrest. Like many mollies, they used women’s names with their friends. Whale and Horner’s intimates knew them as Peggy and Pru.
Molly houses provided meeting places for homosexual men to socialise and meet f_ck buddies or male sex workers. In Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, Peter Ackroyd quotes a police informant’s description.
“I found a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner. In a large room, we found one a-fiddling and eight more a-dancing country dances, making vile motions and singing ‘Come, let us bugger finely’. Then, they sat in each other’s laps, talked bawdy and practised a great many indecencies.”
Robert Whale and York Horner’s molly house
The mid-1720s saw ongoing attempts by officialdom to close down molly houses following pressure from religious zealots. The raid on Robert Whale and York Horner’s establishment occurred six months before their ordeal in the Charing Cross pillory. The Attorney-General described their crime in court as “new, even in this age.”
Invariably, moralists of each generation deride their own as the most degenerate ever. Inevitably, they are wrong, but they keep doing it.
The King’s Bench justices kept Whale and Horner imprisoned for months while contemplating a punishment. In November, the court declared the extraordinary nature of the crime necessitated even more deliberation. The justices wanted to consider “some exemplary Punishment proper for the Offence.”
On December 3, they finally ruled.
Robert Whale and York Horner were sentenced to ‘stand twice in the Pillory at Charing-Cross and the Royal-Exchange’ Additionally, they needed to serve six months imprisonment, and find security for their good behaviour for seven years.
The Ipswich Journal later reported that the Charing Cross crowd only held back from killing the men to save them for the Royal Exchange pillory the following Monday.
“They were so loaded with Dung and Dirt that they appeared like Bears… in short, if the Populace had been suffered to exert their desired resentments, the vile Criminals must have made their Exit on the spot, but they are reserved for further Punishment.”
History last records Robert Whale and York Horner standing at the Royal Exchange pillory on January 14. Perhaps, like many others, they died that day, murdered by a hard object flung from the crowd. Or maybe like Mother Clap, they perished from their injuries during their subsequent prison term.
Let’s hope not, while remembering, that for millennia, religious freedom has included the freedom to harm LGBTIQ+ people.
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