Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love is based on a PhD thesis that Wolf wrote in 2015, in which she claimed to have found examples of “several dozen executions” of men convicted of sodomy in Britain.
Wolf came upon the phrase “Death recorded” in Old Bailey records, and cited one case of Thomas Silver, “aged 14”, who was “actually executed for committing sodomy” in 1859.
“The boy was indicted for an unnatural offence. GUILTY – Death recorded,” she wrote, inferring that an execution took place.
However, in an embarrassing interview with BBC radio host Matthew Sweet – himself an author – which took place in May, it was pointed out that Wolf had, perhaps understandably misinterpreted the term “Death recorded” to mean executed, when in fact it means the opposite: that the judge abstained from pronouncing the death sentence and the prisoner was pardoned.
He added that in the court records Wolf had researched, “sodomy” referred not only to homosexuality, but to child abuse as well. This was the case with Thomas Silver, Sweet revealed from Old Bailey records, who was charged with committing an indecent act on a six-year-old boy.
“I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened,” he said.
Records show that the last executions for sodomy were of James Pratt and John Smith, in November 1835.
Sweet challenged Wolf’s wider argument put forward in Outrages, commenting: “I think her assumptions about ‘death recorded’ have led her to the view... that ‘dozens and dozens’ of Victorian men were executed, and that one of the main subjects of her book, the poet John Addington Symonds, grew up with the fear of execution hanging over his head. I have yet to see evidence that one man in Victorian Britain was executed for sodomy.”
Wolf’s UK publisher Virago has corrected the mistakes and the book is still on sale in the UK. However, the New York Times reports that Wolf’s US publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has now cancelled the book’s entire US run.
Copies were recalled from retailers just days before Outrages was due to be published, with a spokesperson saying “new questions have arisen that require more time to explore”.
A spokesperson for the publisher later added that they had “mutually and amicably agreed to part company” with Wolf, who revealed she is still hoping the book will be released in the US “in due course”.
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