Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2007

In 1793, a 21-year-old Scottish merchant by the name of Alexander Wood crossed the Atlantic to make his fortune in the new colony of Upper Canada. He settled first in the town of Kingston, which was then Upper Canada’s major city. There he helped found a brewery.

He picked up shop and moved to the town of York – the future Toronto, but then just a cluster of wooden buildings in a clearing of the trees that bordered Lake Ontario. Wood had spotted a good business opportunity. York was small, but was well-situated along trade routes, and was rapidly filling up with immigrants.

The Scottish merchant opened an import/export business and a retail store. His store sold the things he’d imported from Britain – little necessities unavailable in Canada, and luxury items like tea and tobacco, ribbons and powdered wigs for men. Meanwhile, he exported the things Canada produced, such as flour.

Upper Canada at that time was run by a group of interwoven families known to their enemies as “the Family Compact” (“compact” meant essentially “conspiracy”). This group of monarchical Anglicans was very suspicious of anyone in that vulgar profession of trading and selling goods. Yet, Wood managed to charm his way into their inner circle in spite of their prejudices.

He became close friends with several of the Compact’s members, including William Dummer Powell and George Crookshank. He also became penpals with the the Family Compact’s unofficial leader, the Anglican Bishop John Strachan. Strachan said about Wood, “Our sentiments [opinions] agree almost upon everything.”

History does not record Bishop Strachan’s “sentiments” on attractive young men. Alexander Wood, however, quite liked them.

The Scandal

Wood’s close ties with the Family Compact and his community service with many volunteer organizations had won him a number of plum positions that raised his prestige (and filled his bank account). He became a lieutenant in the militia, a magistrate, and a commissioner for the Court of Requests (a kind of small-claims court), all while maintaining his import/export business and his store.

Then in 1810, a strange rumour started going around about this well-respected citizen. It was said throughout York that Wood had called in several young men, one by one, and told each that he had been accused of rape by a “Miss Bailey.”

“Miss Bailey” had apparently claimed to have scratched her attacker’s private parts, and now – Wood told each of these men – that in order to prove their innocence, they would have to take off their pants and submit to (as The Dictionary of Canadian Biography delicately puts it) an “intimate physical examination.”

One member of the Family Compact, fellow judge John Beverley Robinson, called Wood “the Inspector General of private Accounts,” a name that was apparently shouted at Wood in the streets. People began avoiding his store.

It’s become increasingly fashionable to claim that the rumours were made up by Wood’s enemies. Between homophobes on one side who’ve tried to erase homosexuality from Canadian history, and gay activists on the other who’ve tried to turn Wood into some kind of hero, Wood has been portrayed as a victim of a whisper campaign. Yet he himself admitted the truth of the rumours.

Wood’s close friend — the very uptight Judge William Dummer Powell — confronted him with the accusations, and Wood confessed: “I have laid myself open to ridicule & malevolence, which I know not how to meet; that the thing will be made the subject of mirth and a handle to my enemies for a sneer I have every reason to expect.”

If Wood was expecting remorse to win over Powell, he was sadly mistaken. Technically, fondling another man wasn’t “sodomy,” and thus wasn’t illegal – and wouldn’t be illegal until the “gross indecency” laws would be passed in 1890 – but abusing his power as a judge was a crime. In order to avoid a public scandal, Judge Powell had the evidence buried, on the promise that Wood leave Upper Canada and never return. Wood left his shop in the hands of his clerk, and set sail for Scotland on October 17, 1810.

The Return

In 1812, the United States – seeing that Britain was busy fighting Napoleon – seized the opportunity to invade Canada. Under the cover of this war, Wood slipped quietly back into the province. He took up his old posts as a judge and an officer of the militia, and went to war defending the British Empire from the Americans.

Perhaps it was because he had proved his loyalty and integrity in combat that the town of York decided to quietly look the other way. They forgave, yet didn’t actually forget. The nickname “Molly Wood” stuck — “molly” having been an 18th-Century word homosexuals had used for themselves that had mutated into an insult.

He went back to his old jobs, and resumed his friendship with powerful Family Compact members like Bishop Strachan and George Crookshank. One who wasn’t ready to ignore Wood’s past, however, was William Dummer Powell. Judge Powell had gone from being one of Wood’s closest friends and allies to being his most bitter archenemy.

After the War, Wood was one of the people doing damage assessment from the American invasion. After a few years of doing this, he inherited an estate in Scotland, went back, but couldn’t stay away from Canada. He returned in 1821, and stayed for 21 of his last 23 years. He closed his shop – it had never fully recovered from the scandal – and acted instead as an agent for absentee landlords.

When he was named to a war claims commission in 1823, Judge Powell – now chief justice of the Supreme Court – refused to swear him in. Wood sued for damages, and won – the court ordered Powell to pay £150.

Powell refused to pay, and instead published a pamphlet in 1831, detailing the whole scandal from 21 years before – but it was nothing the town of York didn’t already know.

In any event, it seemed that Powell lost the war of public opinion. Wood was on the committee of pretty much every charity and community service group, and on a number of government commissions. When Powell died, Wood forgave the debt, which had passed to his widow.

In 1826 Wood bought a lot of land in what’s now downtown Toronto. In an age when every patch of trees was seen as a blank spot on which to build stuff, and cities weren’t big on green space, “Molly Wood’s Bush” went undeveloped until the 1850s. Its association with homosexuality had never gone away, and never would.

Whether Wood’s reputation had drawn the homosexuals, or the homosexuals already there caused the reputation, no one will know for sure. But a gay neighbourhood gradually sprang up around Wood’s old property. Today it has become the Church and Wellesley area, Canada’s largest and oldest gay village.

Wood was also exchanging letters with the other infamous homosexual of his age, George Herchmer Markland. According to Del Newbigging — a researcher and the artist who created Wood’s statue —

”Correspondence between Wood and Markland suggests that they knew of each other’s sexual proclivities. This is one of the few bits of evidence to suggest that some sort of network might have existed in the early years of York.”

Wood returned to his native country a couple of years before he died, and passed away at the age of 72 not far from his birthplace in Fetteresso, Scotland. He’d never married – very strange for a man of his class at that time – and died without a will. His estate (after a long legal battle) passed to a distant cousin he’d probably never heard of.

Hurrays for Molly Wood

“Molly Wood’s Bush” is commemorated by three streets named for its founder – Wood Street, Alexander Street, and Alexander Place. Long before the legalization of homosexuality in Canada, a network of bathhouses and bars had mushroomed in the area, and it had a reputation of being a place for men who (like Wood) were “not of the marrying kind.”

Wood has been catapulted back into the public spotlight, particularly with the unveiling of Del Newbigging’s statue in Toronto’s gay neighbourhood. There’s been a backlash from a few people – I’ve heard complaints that we shouldn’t be holding up Wood as a role model because he was a less-than-decent figure. Some, it seems, would have him sent back into the shadows of history.

Still, even if our age can’t come to admire him because of a single gross mistake he made in the middle of his life, his own deeply homophobic era did. After he had died, Alexander Wood was called “one of Canada’s most respected inhabitants” by the British Colonist. The story of his friend and fellow homosexual, George Herchmer Markland, is much more tragic however. We’ll get to his story next instalment.


The approximate future location of Molly Wood’s Bush, marked on an 1813 ordinance map. The current Church and Wellesley intersection is marked with an asterisk.

Sources: I found it very hard to find primary sources on Wood, or at least sources detailing his personal life (his many contributions to committees and government commissions can be found all over easily-accessible government records on Early Canadiana Online). I’ve been unable to get a hold of his personal correspondence, for instance. Thus I’ve relied mostly on the two best-respected sources now available – The Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Wood and the people in his life, and Del Newbigging’s brief biography of him in Xtra.ca. I’ve augmented this with bits and pieces found in government journals, especially the journals of the legislative assembly, where Wood’s name appears frequently attached to war claims commissions after 1812.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In the articles leading up to this one, I’ve been dancing around what the attitudes towards homosexuality might have been like in British North America. The reason is because it’s very difficult to figure out for certain what those attitudes were.

It goes without saying that opinions of homosexuality ran toward the disapproving. But if these discussions about homosexuality in France, Britain, New England, and New France tell us anything, it’s that disapproval took many forms, from brute violence to grudging tolerance. The question is, what kind of disapproval took root in early English Canada?

Going over the criminal records and newspapers of that era, the nearest I can figure is that the first English Canadians opted to only notice homosexuality when it became too obvious to ignore. Sometimes, they managed to ignore it even then.

While Britain itself had long since gone over to witch hunts and mass hangings of “mollies,” Canada apparently adopted Britain’s original strategy – the one it had used before the Glorious Revolution, and which I called “English Silences.” This was the attitude that “if we don’t talk about it, just maybe it’ll go away.” The idea was that mentioning homosexuality risked giving people ideas, and anyway it was rude to mention something most people found disgusting.

The Silence at Home

In spite of having done full-text searches of a couple of dozen Canadian newspapers in pre-Confederation Canada, I can’t find any reference to homosexuality but one until the early 1840s. That should give an idea of the depth of the silence.

Even then, only twice is “sodomy” mentioned by name when referring to Canadian criminal cases, and both times only in passing. Additionally, there were three other articles that mentioned “unnatural crimes” – the Hamilton Evening Times for January 27, 1864, for instance, mentions that a school inspector was accused of “an unnatural crime.” These may or may not refer to homosexuality.

In all, I only found a maximum of five references to homosexuality in Canada, searching papers for the Canadas, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland over a period of about 115 years and under a variety of names and euphemisms. It was as if there was no homosexuality in Canada at all.

Reading court records gives a different impression – there were a smattering of court cases for “buggery” throughout the British colonies in the early days, and at least some of the ones I’ve been able to trace in greater detail were cases that involved homosexuality, usually in the form of same-sex rape. These almost never made the papers as other crimes did, although the papers generally had reporters working the court beat. It seems the papers were deliberately avoiding mentioning these cases prior to 1840.

Homosexuality as a Foreign “Vice”

On the other hand, descriptions in books and newspapers of homosexuality abroad were relatively common. This is most true of a genre of books called the “travel narrative” — true stories of European explorers making contact with other lands, and which described non-European cultures and customs as seen by these explorers.

One example among many is an English translation of a Spanish travel narrative which was available in Canada. This discussed “sodomy” in China:

”Sodomy is frequent in China, yet not so much as in Japan, as I have been inform’d. There have been other nations in the world that did not look upon this hellish vice as any sin.

In the time of the Chinese [Han] emperors, there were public stews [brothels] of boys in the imperial city of Pequin [Beijing]. The Tartar [Mongol Emperors] suprest it, yet it continues still at Jang Cheu [Quanzhou]; they go gay, but they drest like other men. They don’t marry, as those do at Caile, sixty leagues from Macassar [in modern Indonesia], in the same island, where they told me, there were men would rather chuse to marry those monsters than women. Good God, in what darkness they live who know thee not!”
(“An Account of the Empire of China” by Dominic Fernandez Navarette, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732)

Interestingly, this passage seems to contain the first reference I’ve found of the “gay” meaning homosexual in English — most dictionaries claim that that meaning started in the 20th centuries.

Robert Kerr’s A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels also found its way to early Canada. In it is a translated history of Francisco de Almeida’s voyages and military adventures in India. which includes this detail about the “Peguers,” the people of the area around the city of Bago, in what’s now Burma/Myanmar: “The Peguers being much addicted to sodomy, a queen of that country named Canane ordered the women to wear bells and open garments, by way of inviting the men to abandon that abominable vice.”

In each of the travel narratives, the author reaches the conclusion is that these things don’t happen in Christian countries. Each takes great pains to distance modern Europe from this “hellish vice.” The open-mindedness of other cultures was used to denigrate them, and the fed the racist ideas of European superiority that were beginning to become popular in Europe. European society in Canada would eventually use charges of homosexuality to justify racism against the First Nations and the Chinese, a topic I’ll turn to at another date.

In the early days, however, these accounts of homosexuality rarely reached close to Canada. When they did hit close to home — as when they hint at homosexuality among the First Nations — they speak very vaguely. One newspaper, Le Journal de Québec, reprints the letter of a Catholic missionary in its October 17, 1843 edition, blaming the Apsàalooke (“Crow”) People’s “great crimes” for the spread of a disease through their community, comparing the epidemic to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

As with travel narratives, mentions of homosexuality in newspapers almost always refer to it as a foreign “vice.” The earliest newspaper reference to homosexuality in the future English Canada I can find is in The Halifax Gazette for the year 1752. It reads:

We hear from Dublin, that a Personage of Great Distinction in the British Nation has lately suffered Amputation of both his Ears, by a Gentleman on whom he had the Impudence, as well as the Baseness, to attempt the commission of Sodomy.”

The paper then launches into a vague, though moralizing lecture on the subject, which quotes a Biblical commentator. The tone of the article seems to suggest that the audience will probably not know what that “sodomy” is.

Missionary journals as well sometimes mention homosexuality abroad, and always in the worst possible light. The Monthly Record of the Church of Scotland for the maritime provinces in November 1886 mentions how King Mwanga of Uganda began massacring Ugandan Christians “directly due to the refusal of a Christian lad, acting as the King’s page, to commit an abominable crime.” As a result, “Many Christians were tortured, mutilated, and speared.”

In 1844, the Toronto British Colonist also devoted a number of paragraphs to the Irish Protestant Bishop of Clogher, Percy Jocelyn, who had been drummed out of the church and changed his name when he was caught in a “sodomy” scandal.

Canadian Silences

With reports of foreign homosexuality balanced against silence on the homosexuality at home, early Canadians could delude themselves into believing – as England once believed – that homosexuality was a foreign “infection” of which their colony was free.

This assumption likely protected homosexuals and bisexuals – it meant that attention was focused away from them. Often only cases that could not be ignored – such as same-sex rape – found their way to the courts.

Of course, it also helped to have friends in high places. Early English Canada’s two best-known homosexuals – Alexander Wood and George Herchmer Markland – were never brought to court for the scandals they caused, and their powerful positions kept these scandals reach the press. It is to Alexander Wood that we turn next.


Sources: This time, I’ve mostly referenced my sources in the body of the text itself. Most of my old book sources are Early Canadiana Online, while my newspaper sources are generally from PaperofRecord.com. I’ve also gone over a substantial number of primary-source criminal records and criminal statistics, but I’ll detail these more in later articles.

Read Full Post »

In 1774, a compromise was hammered out – the laws of the new Province of Quebec would be a mixture of the British and the French systems. For minor crimes, contracts, and lawsuits French law would be used. But for serious cases, the new province would use British law, and Sodomy was considered a serious crime. What was the result?

To understand that, we’re going to have to go back half a millennium.

English “Sodomy”

In 1533, as Henry VIII was hard at work destroying the Catholic Church’s power in England, he turned to the problem of religious law. In order to break the church, he would have to take away its power to enforce laws of morality, and replace them with secular laws.

In 1533, he produced his sodomy law, because “there is not yet sufficient and condign punishment appointed and limited by the due course of the Laws of the Realm for the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast”:

”..the offenders being hereof convicted by verdict confession or outlawry shall suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their good chattels debts lands tenements and hereditaments as felons do according to the Common Laws of this Realm. And that no person offending in any such offence shall be admitted to his Clergy…”

The bit about “chattels” and “hereditaments” meant that English law, like French law, said the sodomite’s possessions would be confiscated by the government, rather than going to their next of kin. The bit about “Clergy” meant that even priests and monks could be executed under this law (they could not be executed for murder, implying that sodomy was worse).

These two last details came in handy when Henry VIII decided to kill the monks and nuns, and take their monastery lands – the same trick Philip IV had pulled in France against the Knights Templar 200 years before. Likely Henry VIII had this in mind when he was writing the law. The claims that the monks were “sodomites” (thanks to information his spies had gathered) formed the basis of this propaganda.

There was only one problem — like French law, English law neglected to explain what “buggery” was. King Henry’s law never actually defined it. Later versions also didn’t bother. In the early 1840s, the law as rewritten under Queen Victoria and appearing in the Consolidated Statutes of Canada was no less vague:

”Every person guilty of the abominable crime of Buggery, committed with mankind or with animal, shall suffer death as a felon.”

When the law was again re-written under Victoria to eliminate the death penalty altogether in Canada in 1869, it still didn’t explain:

”Whosoever is convicted of the abominable crime of buggery committed either with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary for life, or for any term not less than two years.”

Fortunately for judges, most of the major English legal experts were happy to explain “sodomy.”

Coke, Blackstone, and Burn

It’s been suggested that when Henry made his law, it applied to things other than homosexuality and bestiality. Historian Louis Crompton suggested that the word “sodomy” had once included masturbation, or to certain kinds of male/female sex. If so, it had lost that meaning completely in England within 100 years.

Sir Edward Coke, the greatest legal expert of his day, had this to say about “Buggery, or Sodomy” in the third part of his Institutes of the Laws of England, published 1644:

”Buggery is a detestable, and abominable sin, amongst Christians not to be named, committed by carnal knowledge against the ordinance of the Creator, and order of nature, by mankind with mankind, or with brute beast, or by womankind with brute beast.”

Coke seems to think his audience won’t buy the idea of a female “sodomite” – the concept was just that absurd. He proceeds to try to convince them that a woman can be a “sodomite” if (and only if) she has sex with an animal. He further claims that the act was worded to include women because “a great lady had committed buggery with a Baboon and conceived by it, &c.” History does not record the name of the “great lady,” nor will we ever know what hides behind the “etcetera” at the end of that sentence.

Probably the most influential of all legal experts in England – Sir William Blackstone – refused to define it, or even mention either of the two words used, in his Commentaries of the Laws of England in 1769. All he tells us is that it is “the infamous crime against nature, committed with man or beast.”

Blackstone did add something new to the mix: he said that a false accusation of this “offence of so dark a nature … deserves a punishment inferior only to that of the crime itself,” because he realized that being accused of “sodomy” could ruin a person’s life. The Canadian colonial government took heed of this view, and by the early 1840s, blackmailing someone with false accusations of homosexuality was punishable by two years to life in prison.

The other major commentator was Richard Burn, whose Burn’s New Law Dictionary was an important update of Blackstone. It was published in 1792. His definition copies Coke’s to the letter, except that it adds that “buggery” was “said to have been brought to England out of Italy by the Lombards.”

These are the three authors an early Canadian judge would’ve turned to if there was any doubt what “buggery” and “sodomy” were. As it turned out that there was some confusion, at least in French Canada.

Linguistic Confusion

Jacques Crémazie was the less-famous lawyer brother of the great poet Octave Crémazie. He wrote the first commentary in French on English criminal law for a French Canadian audience. However, this commentary left something to be desired. His section on sodomy:

”[Sodomy] consists in the carnal knowledge against the order of nature which takes place between two men, or between a man and a woman, or between a man and a woman and an animal. In this last case, this crime is called Bestiality.”

In addition to the obvious problem that he’s defined “Bestiality” only as a trisexual threesome (“A man and a woman and an animal”), Crémazie is the only commentator on English law before the late 19th century to throw heterosex into the equation. This isn’t surprising, because the word “sodomie” included this in French.

In Crémazie’s defence, I don’t think he’s the only francophone to have made the mistake. There’s a curious case on the prison records of Quebec City, involving a man named Abraham Turgeon and a woman named Gabrielle Pouliot.

We have very little information about the case. I haven’t been able to find out anything about our Gabrielle, but our Abraham was a well-known lawyer, an advocate for struggling farmers, a possible embezzler, and later a minor politician running with the radical pro-democracy Patriote party.

Abraham and Gabrielle come in together, and are charged with sodomy. The order for their arrest was given by a pillar-of-the-community named Louis Ruel (another lawyer, electoral officer, and founding member of a benevolent society).

I’ve been over penitentiary records and many other legal documents for most of the 19th century now, and Gabrielle’s name is the only woman on the list so far for “sodomy.” This case is also the only case I’ve seen dismissed because of “habeus corpus” – the legal principle that you can’t hold someone in prison for no reason. It’s not the same as being found “not guilty” – this never went to trial.

Why not? Well, I suspect that what happened when Abraham and Gabrielle stood before a judge at the pre-trial hearing, the judge simply pointed out that under English criminal law, a man and a woman could not commit “sodomy” with one another. If necessary, he could have always turned to his copies of Coke, Blackstone, or Burns.

The Changing Laws

Before we leave this subject, I think it’s important to point out that the Quebec Act had one effect that you probably never heard about in high school history – it effectively legalized sex between women. Not until the laws surrounding “sodomy” and “gross indecency” were changed later on would lesbian sex become illegal again.

It was just one of the changes made by the fusing legal systems. In theory those changes should have been positive for “sodomites” – the English system had the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” — in France it was “guilty until proven innocent.” The English system also allowed lawyers, and used a jury system. For those guilty of breaking an unjust law, the English system was padded with layers that protected the accused, which could keep them from going to jail. The French system was not nearly so kind.

However, when it came to “sodomy,” the French had almost never applied their law in their North American colony. The English had applied it in their colonies — and done so often.

Still, as we’ll see in our next section — an overview of attitudes to homosexuality in British North America — homosexuals had another protection under the British regime: the total unwillingness of British colonists to admit homosexuality even existed in the territory that would one day become Canada.


Sources: As usual, Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History were helpful, and John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality was as well. For laws, I often consulted the originals or (more often) microfiched or full-text digital copies of the original legal codes in question. Canadian Laws are generally found in the Statutes of Canada for the year they were passed, or Consolidated Statutes of Canada after that. The prison records for Abraham Turgeon and Gabrielle Pouliot can be found at Quebec’s library and archives site, PISTARD. Turgeon and Ruel are recurring characters in the various Journals of the Assembly of Upper Canada and later Journals of the Assembly of the Province of Canada. Ruel was a witness many years after this arrest in Turgeon’s embezzlement hearing.

Read Full Post »

In all these articles, I still haven’t discussed in any real depth the laws that sent all those homosexuals and bisexuals to the stake or gallows, or into exile. Before we go any further, we’re going to have to talk about those laws.

In 1763, France officially gave up its North American colony to the British. Britain renamed it the Province of Quebec. For a legal system, it settled in 1774 on a hybrid of British and French law – it took Paris’s law for its civil cases (lawsuits, property, marriage, etc.), but used the English law for its criminal ones (murder, rape, theft – and “sodomy”). It also used English-style courts.

But before we can look at the courts, we have to look at the laws and their terminology.

Buggery and Sodomy

The two words used almost interchangeably in English and French for cases dealing with homosexuality were “buggery” (bougrerie in French) and “sodomy” (sodomie). Both these words have a curious history. They also had fairly different meanings in in the two different legal systems, which we’ll get to after.

“Sodomy” takes its name from the city of Sodom, destroyed in Genesis in the Bible for its “wickedness.” The word eventually came to mean “homosexuality” in English law, but the story had a long and complex history of changing interpretations. The earliest seems to have been that God destroyed Sodom because the city was cruel to foreigners – that’s the interpretation in the Bible at any rate, and the one suggested by Christ in Matthew Chapter 19, verses 13 and 14.

In French law, it came to mean “any kind of sex that cannot result in children” – and this, of course, was its meaning in New France as well.

“Buggery” has an even more chequered history. As “bougre” it had meant Bulgarian – as in the Bulgarian heresy, better known these days as the religion of the Albigensians or Cathars. The Albigensian faith was a form of Christianity very different from Catholicism, and which became extremely powerful in the south of France.

In 1208, the Medieval Church launched a campaign to exterminate these “heretics” – and a part of that campaign was homophobic propaganda. It seems the Albigensians had very different sexual values than the Catholics. Indeed, they thought non-reproductive sex was better than reproductive sex, because it didn’t drag another soul out of heaven to risk eternal damnation in this life. Catholic propaganda had it that this view of things led the “bougres” to commit all kinds of “immoral” sex acts, especially homosexuality.

The effect this propaganda had on the psychology of Europe was astonishing. The church not only fanned the flames of bigotry against the “heretics,” but also against homosexuals and bisexuals – the first executions for homosexuality in Europe begin later that same century. It also linked homosexuality and heresy together in the public mind. This linkage has had a surprising lifespan. When the Protestants broke away, they tarred the Catholics with accusations of homosexuality, as an indication that the Catholics were heretics. Rather than reject this old bit of Catholic propaganda, they turned it on its creators.

One can still hear it — eight centuries later — in the arguments of the religious right today.

French Law

French law was a complex patchwork in the Middle Ages. Each area had its own local laws, called “customs,” which were sometimes collected in books. No one had exactly passed these laws – they were just the way things had always been done in that region. These “customs” changed completely from one territory to the next.

While the civil laws of New France were based on the Custom of Paris, the customary criminal laws that would be eventually applied to the colony were those collected in a book called the Établissement de Saint Louis. This book contained the declaration that “bougres” and “heretics” should be put to death by fire.

The word “bougres” had almost certainly meant “Albigensians” before, but by the end of the 13th century, the Albigensians were gone, and no one was sure anymore if the law now applied to heretics or people guilty of sexual “immorality.” Since “heretic” was already in the code, sexual “immorality” was a much more common interpretation. Still, this view remained controversial. Many (including the philosopher Voltaire) continued to insist that the word “bougre” just meant “heretic.”

A man named Philp de Remi, lord of Beaumanoir collected the customs for the area of Beauvais. He came up with a creative solution in his book. The way he worded his sodomy law became very influential on other customs, and was soon the standard interpretation:

“He who errs against faith that by his lack of belief he will not come to see the truth, or who does sodomy, he will be burned and forfeits all his possessions [that is, the government takes these away from his family so they don’t inherit]…” (translation mine)

In other words, “sodomites” were automatically heretics anyway, since only the worst of heretics would commit “sodomy.” This nicely sidestepped the thorny legal issue. It also drew the attention of Beaumanoir’s boss King Philip IV, who saw in it the solution to one of his most serious problems. Philip was especially interested in the part about forfeiting possessions.

The Knights Templar had started off as an organization of body guards who escorted pilgrims safely to holy sites in Jerusalem. They received a lot of donations, and somewhere along the line, they found they had a flair for banking. They had earned plenty of money, which made them a potential target. King Philip IV was always desperate for cash, and the Knights Templar had cash. Also, Philip was deeply in debt to them.

Philip had the confessions to “sodomy and witchcraft” extracted by torture. The burning of the Templars at the stake is believed to be the first mass-killing for “sodomy” in history. Since the law allowed the king to confiscate the convicted person’s property, Philip got everything the Knights Templar owned.

Meanwhile, “sodomy” was going through another change in French law – it was becoming a form of treason.

The kings of France were always looking for ways to tame the nobles, who were a threat to royal power and – oaths of allegiance to the crown aside – often went to war with Paris. To break the power of the nobles, the French kings needed to take the courts away from them. Lords acted as judges, except in cases of treason against the king.

To take that power for themselves, the kings of France used the most convoluted logic imaginable to define everything under the sun as “treason.” In the case of homosexuality, it was decided that since homosexuality was a form of heresy (according to Beaumanoir), and a heretic denied the existence of God, and God was the justification for the existence of kings — because God chose kings, after all — homosexuality was therefore treason because it attacked the justification for the king’s power.

That’s why Nicolas Daussy de Saint-Michel couldn’t be tried in an ordinary court, only by the Sovereign Council at Quebec. His sexuality technically made him a traitor, so he could only be tried by the King’s direct representatives in New France.

By the 1700s, France had laws and a system in place for punishing all “sodomites.” They had a prescribed death sentence, and rituals of execution by burning. There was just one problem left to them – what exactly was “sodomy”?

Defining “Sodomy”

French law as yet no definition of this capital crime. Without a definition, judges were left to make their own decisions. In all the works I’ve read on the subject, male homosexuality and bestiality were the only things that merited burning. Female homosexuals were given a quicker death by hanging. I have never read of heterosexuals being executed for sodomy in France – it certainly may have happened, but if so, it must have been rare.

France finally got its legal definition for sodomy in 1757 – about five hundred years after the executions for sodomy had begun, and about a quarter-century before they’d end. According to legal expert Pierre-François Muyart de Vouglans:

”This crime [of sodomy], which takes its name from that abominable city which is mentioned in Sacred History, is committed by a man with a man or a woman with a woman. It is also committed by a man with his wife when they do not use the ordinary way of generation.
…one cannot punish it with penalties too harsh, and above all when it is committed by two persons of the same sex.
…This penalty, which has been adopted by our jurisprudence, applies equally to women as to men.” (translation by Louis Crompton)

Thus, sodomy in France was any kind of sex that can’t result in children, but is a crime that is much worse when homosexuality is involved.

This was the final form of France’s – and thus New France’s – sodomy laws when the colony fell into Britain’s hands. Britain’s criminal laws took over at that point.

Britain’s sodomy laws were very different from France’s, and these differences are crucial in the way the law was interpreted and applied. .


Sources: Numerous sources have helped, including Didier Godard’s Le Goût de Monsieur and Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, as well as John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History. For the Beaumanoir quote, I went right to a modern imprint of the Coûtumes de Beausvais. A marvellous book entitled Le Droit Civil Suivant l’Ordre Établi par les Codes, by Gonzalve Doutre will tell a person everything they wanted to know about the history of New France’s laws. Sadly, this book is out of print, but can be found for free in full-text on Early Canadiana Online.

Read Full Post »

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American War for Independence, more than 40,000 people poured into Canada. These were the Loyalists, those who’d chosen the losing side of the American revolution, and many of them no longer felt comfortable in the new nation of United States.

The sudden influx of people created problems, of course. The Province of Quebec was partitioned into Upper Canada and Lower Canada, to accommodate the English-speakers in the area that’s now southern Ontario, and who had a very different culture and way of life from the Québécois. Nova Scotia, too, was partitioned at this time, half of it becoming New Brunswick because the Loyalists and Nova Scotians couldn’t get along.

The differences in culture between the French Canadians and Loyalists aren’t too surprising, but the cultural gap between them and the Nova Scotians tells us something about the immigrants. They had a very different way of life from the people they had joined, even from their fellow Britons.

Before we look at the Loyalists themselves, though, we’re going to look at the culture which they sprang from, and the laws that they inherited. To do this, we’re going to turn to the other half of British North America, now divided from the mother country.

As we turn in this direction, though, I realize I’m stepping on to dangerous ground. The influence of the American gay movement on the Canadian one can be overstated and very often is. It’s the queer history vector of a larger problem: Canadians have trouble seeing ourselves in any way than as a reflection of others. We have trouble believing we could do anything worthwhile without being prompted from the outside. And American sources for Canadian history (such as the entry on “Canada” in the William Percy’s Encyclopedia of Homosexuality is absolutely contemptuous that Canadians have ever managed to do anything on our own).

In one particularly bizarre example, queer Canadians tend to separate our history into pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall periods. Yet, Canada already had a thriving gay liberation movement before Stonewall, and had already achieved legalization of gay sex – the final rubber stamp on legislation, in fact, happened the day before the Stonewall Riots began. Given that chronology, Stonewall couldn’t possibly have influenced the legalization of homosexuality in Canada, because it had already happened. If there was any influence, it would have to have been the other way around.

Keeping these issues in mind, we now turn to the United States because of the effects this sudden wave of Anglo-American immigration had on Canada. Even if the Loyalists were, by definition, those who didn’t fit in with the majority, they still brought much of their cultural baggage with them, and we need to look at that cultural baggage.

The Puritan Colonies

It probably comes as no surprise that those colonies founded by Puritans took a dim view of homosexuality. Historian Byrne Fone tells us that the possibility that “New England might become a new Sodom was a constant source of anxiety to the Puritans”:

“When the Puritans brought their zealotry to America, they brought as well their antisodomitical ferocity; this crusade became an especially potent symbol in a theology based on the principle that God had offered the Puritans a new and special covenant. Like the old covenant between God and Israel, this new one gave the Puritans a promised land in return for absolute obedience; the story of Sodom clearly pointed out the consequences of breaking the covenant”

Thus, homosexuality was a form of treason to the Puritans, an attack on the New Jerusalem they had founded in New England. Homosexuality was believed to be risk the wrath of God not just on the individual but on the community. As Fone says, “The Puritans would suffer the fate of the Sodomites if the uncleanness that destroyed the Cities on the Plain was allowed to flourish in the city upon a hill.”

“Sodomy” came early to the colony, and it was punished harshly. The first case came nine years after the first Puritans arrived – the five boys involved were sent back to England be executed.

The situation in New England was different than with their French neighbours to the north. New England’s colonies had started 12 years after New France, yet had had their first “sodomy” trial 19 years before New France did, and handed out 5 executions. New France would never hand out any out any executions. In 1635, New Hampshire held a trial for two more men. There was a steady trickle of executions after that.

Also not surprisingly, Puritan laws were unusually strict when it came to homosexuality. When the theocracy of New Haven – now in Connecticut – put together a set of laws, it became the only jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to assign the death penalty to lesbianism.

Of the colonies, only Pennsylvania tried draft a law on male homosexuality that did not include capital punishment. There, however, the death penalty was forced upon them by the English government, which saw the law as too lax. The laws enacted in most of the colonies did not quote English law, however, but drew on the Bible as legal precedent — the only precedent the Puritans felt they needed.

Some of this fervour was diluted as less-extreme immigrants arrived in the colonies, more interested in jobs and land than in religion. Then the Enlightenment came to New England – with its claim that reason, nature, and “natural law” should guide people instead of religion and “superstition.” The Enlightenment became the driving force behind the revolution, and a wave of legal reform that swept the colonies. As we’ve seen, however, the Enlightenment was not exactly friendly to homosexuality either.

The wake of the reform movement did bring some change — the death penalty ended for “sodomy” in most states — and further brought with it an atmosphere of revolution and experimentation. After the revolution, in the 19th century, the homoerotic prose of Herman Melville and the poetry of Walt Whitman could even gain a foothold on the land the Puritans had founded. Gay subcultures began to appear in the major cities, and in the second half of the 20th century, these subcultures began to be exported – like other aspects of American culture – to the world.

Still, the Puritans had left an astonishingly deep mark on their civilization. It’s notable that while the punishments eased, the American colonies didn’t repeal their “sodomy” laws as France would after its own revolution. Connecticut kept the death penalty for “sodomy” until 1822. Even Thomas Jefferson, the strongest voice for the Enlightenment in the US, would suggest castration as a way of punishing sodomites.

Violent homophobia remained so ingrained in American culture that when sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by their Supreme Court 2003, 14 states still had these laws on the books. A handful — such as Texas under George W. Bush — were still enforcing them. These were the only jurisdictions left in Western Civilization to be doing so – even Vatican City and the former communist countries had beat them to legalization, as had the last feudal state The Bailiwick of Guernsey.

When the Loyalists left, they left behind that Puritan culture while it was still very conscious and active. The question now becomes, “What kind of culture did they create when they arrived in the future Canada?” How much of the Puritanism did they carry with them into exile?

Before we can ask that, however, we have to take a small detour, to take closer look at the laws of England and New France.


Sources: I’ve relied heavily on Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History for this section, though Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization was occasionally helpful. I also made use of A History of the Canadian Peoples by J.M. Bumsted for information abut the Loyalists.

Read Full Post »

The Puritans and Restoration

What with the boys in dresses acting out Greek and Roman dramas, it’s no surprise that the theatres drew the ire of the Puritans. These were extremist Protestants wanting to “purify” the Anglican church of all Catholic rituals, and move it to a Christianity based solely on the Bible. They grew more and more hostile to the king over the years, and finally staged a revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1649. The fundamentalist dictatorship that followed closed all the theatres, and cracked down on “vice.” Needless to say, “vice” included homosexuality.

When Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell died, his son was chased off the throne and England invited its exiled kings back. Charles II re-opened the theatres, and allowed women to work the stage for the first time in history.

This move didn’t make English theatre any less queer, however. Aphra Behn, the first great woman playwright of England, wrote erotic love poetry about both men and women when she wasn’t staging risqué bits of theatre. She also surrounded herself with many of the best-known bisexual figures of the Restoration, and wrote a lot of fiction around sex and the sex scandals of her age. Somehow, she still found the time to work as a spy for the English king under the code name of Astrea.

John Wilmot, the notorious Earl of Rochester, wrote raunchy poems about the (bi)sexual adventures of himself and his friends at court. In one poem he declares that he doesn’t need women because “There’s a sweet, soft page [male servant] of mine/Does the trick of forty wenches.” Thanks to his poetry and his wild life, Rochester became the embodiment of the libertine – the very symbol of the wild, adventurous, hyper-sexual lord.

Not-So-Glorious Revolutions

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of celebration after the Puritan were thrown out of power did not last long. A conservative backlash drove out the king who protected these libertines, in what was called the Glorious Revolution.

Unfortunately, the Restoration had had an unpleasant side effect – the very visible bisexuality of figures like Behn and Rochester spelt trouble for sexual minorities, because England could no longer convince itself that homosexuality never happened there. When the backlash came, it targeted “sodomites” like never before in Britain.

This visibility had been heightened by another phenomenon: London’s gay community was getting larger and more obvious. Ned Ward, who wrote a History of London Clubs in 1709, was the first to tell us the name these men gave to themselves: “There are a particular gang of sodomitical wretches in this town, who call themselves Mollies.”

The “Mollies” had an entire culture, with ways of dress and speech, slang words all their own, and secret meeting places that came to be called “Molly houses.” These drew the attention of an organization called the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which made it one of its major goals to hunt them down.

The publications of this Society put an increasingly bright spotlight onto the “Mollies,” and the great silence that had engulfed English culture was broken. The myth that there was no homosexuality in Britain was replaced with another myth – that homosexuality had been successfully imported from Europe, had recently taken root, and must be exterminated before it could spread.

In the wake of the Revolution that had ousted one king and brought in the Protestant champion (and closeted bisexual) William of Orange, the Society used the religious fervour to whip up a movement against everyone from prostitutes to merchants who kept their stores open on Sunday.

Yet their favourite targets were “the Mollies” — the homosexuals and bisexuals. Every time they secured a conviction for any moral crime, the name of their victim was added to a list, which they published annually in “black letter” font. This came to be known as the “blacklist,” which is the origin of the word.

The Society for the Reformation of Manners would entrap homosexuals by sending decoys out into queer neighbourhoods. By 1707, the organization claimed to have been responsible for 100 arrests, though no one knows if the figure is accurate. That same year, a satire put the number at 40, but claimed the group had driven three men to suicide.

A raid by constables on Molly House run by a woman named Mother Clap in 1726 carried away 40 men for sodomy in a single night. The popular press urged all forms of torture for the victims of these raids, in addition to a death penalty.

These atrocities hit their peak by the early 1800s. From 1806 to 1835, a minimum of 60 men were hanged in England for sodomy. A great many others were attacked and even killed while locked in the pillory, where angry mobs could beat them and throw things at them. Only in 1835, when serious legal reforms began, did the violence start to die down.

”Female Husbands”

The law even turned its eye to woman who had sex with women for the first time. A number of high-profile cases of “female husbands” – women who passed themselves off as men so that they could marry women – aroused indignation among the moral crusaders.

Yet there was no law in England against female homosexuality, as there was in France – these marriages were simply dissolved. If the wife of one of these “female husbands” said she had been tricked, the accused could be charged with fraud however – a Mary Hamilton, a.k.a. George Hamilton, was publicly whipped for having “tricked” her wife into marriage.

However, then as now, the claim that two people could share the marriage bed and not know one another’s sex aroused scepticism in courts. And not all the wives used this excuse — at least one wife I’ve heard of testified in favour of her “female husband,” protecting her from prosecution.

The Unenlightened Enlightenment

The Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham – probably the only person in England publicly arguing for the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the early 1800s – described with disgust his experience meeting a judge who had just sentenced two men to death for “sodomy.” According to Bentham, “Delight and exultation glistened in his [the judge’s] countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience [for the death sentences he’d handed down].”

Bentham tried publish a book arguing for the legalization of homosexuality, but no publisher dared touch them. They were only reached print in the 20th century.

Bentham, however, was practically alone among European thinkers. Even atheists, agnostics, and deists who’d rejected every other aspect of Christian sin found excuses to join in the mass-hysteria around homosexuality.

The philosopher Voltaire argued that homosexuality was dangerous because it could lead to an end to reproduction and thus the extermination of the human race. English historian Edward Gibbon, meanwhile, argued that it led to weakness – “effeminacy”– and that this in turn sapped a nation’s strength and will to work and to fight. This, he argued, was one of the reasons Rome had fallen. This myth that persists today, and in some quarters it’s still believed that sexual indulgence and homosexuality cause societies to crumble, though serious historians of Rome have long since given up on the theory.

Thus the Enlightenment found ways to transfer old prejudices from the Christian era to the modern age. Homosexuality destroyed nations, they said, weakening them at their core, destroying their willpower and eradicating their population. In the background was the old Christian superstition that fire would rain on cities that permitted homosexuality. It was now given a quasi-scientific veneer.

It was in the depths of this ugly, homophobic state of mind that Britain inherited New France in 1760. But before we turn to the situation of “sodomites” in Canada itself, we’re going to take a little detour by way of New England.


Sources: There’s a lot of material, and my sources are many and varied for all three instalments on England. The best among these are Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, Aldrich and Witherspoon’s Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History, John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History. The introductions to the current Pelican series on Shakespeare – the ones edited by Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller – were also incredibly useful.

Read Full Post »

The English Renaissance

The Renaissance was a rediscovery of the ideas of the Greeks and Romans that happened at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. From old books and copies of old books kept in monasteries or brought from Arab lands, Europe was exposed to new (or very old) systems of government, to other religions and ways of seeing the world, and to different forms of art and architecture.

The movement had started in Italy. A few English writers had been interested in it before, but it really took off under Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth spent lavishly on the arts, hoping for royal propaganda to shore up her dangerous position as a female monarch in a man’s world, and as a Protestant monarch of a nation divided along the faultline of religion.

The writers of the English Renaissance often saw themselves as trying to build a hybrid civilization. They wanted to borrow some of the glory and brilliance of Greece and Rome, and mix it with their native culture. The problem, though, was that these great works of the past were often full of male love, and occasionally mentioned female love. The first of these was considered sinful and punishable by death in England, and the second was largely ignored.

The Romans were less of a problem for the English writers. Their portrayals of homosexuality were mocking as often as they were open-minded – making fun of the “effeminacy” of some homosexuals. Still, even the very serious Roman poet Virgil wrote sympathetically of a romance between male shepherds.

The ideas of the Greeks were more difficult to merge with English culture. The official line often repeated by the Athenians was that women were not intelligent enough to experience true love, which could only exist between two men. Their works are full of celebrations of male-male romance.

To take just one example, in Plato’s Symposium, there is a debate about the preferred sexual positions of the heroes Achilles and Patroclus, a musing on the origins of sexual orientations, and claims that love between men ends tyranny or leads them closer to the divine. It’s also a major work of philosophy, and so the Renaissance couldn’t ignore it. The solution was to develop a misleading translation – “lovers” often became “friends,” for example, and “he” became “she.”

Some writers in the Renaissance lamented that the wise Greeks had fallen into the “unnatural sin” – it was their way of dealing with the very different values expressed in these stories. Others refused to translate certain works into English, and historian John Boswell notes that until 1968, one well-known series of translations of classic Greek texts into English put the homosexually explicit passages in Latin or Italian. Others favoured out-and-out dishonesty in misleading translations. Some just fell back on the old stereotype that there was no homosexuality in Britain, so these stories could not influence anyone on British soil.

Some writers and teachers, however, seemed attracted to the writings of the Greeks for the same reason that they made others nervous. Schoolmasters who taught Latin and Greek were stereotyped as homosexuals and paedophiles, considered the same thing in British law then.

There also seems to have been some truth to the stereotype. Many of Europe’s sodomy cases were directed at teachers, and in 1541, schoolmaster Nicholas Udall — author of the first English comedy for the stage — was sentenced to a year in prison for having sex with two of his male students. Perhaps these Greek and Latin scholars saw something of themselves reflected back in those old books that they couldn’t find in their own culture — perhaps they found solace in the past.

The English Theatre

The two greatest writers for the English Renaissance stage – Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare – had classes in Latin, and would have known the homoerotic verses of the Roman poets Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. These were not only required reading in these classes, but children had to actually recite them for practice.

Marlowe was the braver of the two playwrights. He wrote a play about the love affair between King Edward II and his partner Piers Gaveston. Marlowe’s works are infused with an intense homoeroticism. In his poem Hero and Leander, the god of the ocean becomes obsessed with Leander as he swims, thinking he’s another Ganymede (the Greek god Zeus’s male lover, whose name had become Renaissance slang for a young man with an older man for a lover).

Shakespeare was less daring – his queerest works were his sonnets, poems which detail a (probably autobiographical) bisexual love triangle. These were circulated only among his friends, and likely not intended for publication – they may have even been published without his consent. The first 126 of these of these sonnets are addressed to a young man, and Sonnet 20 is actually quite sexually explicit. In their current order, Shakespeare seems to court the love of a young man, has his heart broken, and falls for a “dark lady” who also has the young man as a lover. Many have suggested, though, that the sonnets are in the incorrect order, and so the love triangle works the other way around, and the romance with the young man comes after.

For two centuries, these sonnets were not re-published. After that, they were published in a censored version. In 1793, one Shakespeare expert, George Steevens, said that the sonnets were so disgusting for their bisexuality that “The strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service.”

For the stage, though, Shakespeare never put on anything riskier than As You Like It. This is a play about a woman (played by a young man in drag) who disguises herself as a man, and then allows another man to court her. In disguise, she takes the name Ganymede. The Taming of the Shrew begins with a similar drag scene, in which a man named Christopher Sly keeps trying to get into the skirts of a boy disguised as his wife. Almost no screen or stage version of the play includes this first scene.

It wasn’t just the content of these plays that earned the English theatre a very queer reputation, nor the fact that they were often inspired by the Greek and Roman classics. Renaissance theatre was an all-male club, and teenage boys played all the women’s roles. In the first production of Romeo and Juliet, for example, the role of Juliet was played by a boy named Robert Goffe.

Not surprisingly, the Renaissance writers and playwrights drew the ire of the Puritans, who I’ll turn to my next instalment.


Sources: This is originally a three-part instalment that I divided into pieces. I have my sources in part three.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »