Tag Archives: cross-dressing

Gay History: Princess Seraphina; A 1732 Georgian Drag Queen Extraordinaire.


Introduction

Below is the complete transcript of a trial in 1732 in which John Cooper (also known as Princess Seraphina) prosecuted Tom Gordon for stealing his clothes. (NB: Cooper/Seraphina was not the person on trial: he was the accuser.) The transcript is rather long — but every bit of the testimony is full of human interest. Princess Seraphina was a gentleman’s servant, and a kind of messenger for mollies (gay men), and a bit of a hustler. More to the point, she was the first recognizable drag queen in English history, that is…the first gay man for whom dragging it up was an integral part of his identity, and who was well known by all his neighbours as a drag queen or transvestite “princess”: everyone called him Princess Seraphina even when he was not wearing women’s clothes. And he does not seem to have had any enemies except for his cousin, a distiller who thought that his behaviour was scandalous.

Gordon (the alleged robber) was acquitted of the charge of robbing Seraphina. Seraphina herself was not on trial — nor was she ever brought to trial for anything afterwards as a result of losing her prosecution.

To set the context: Masquerades flourished in London from the 1720s onward, and took place in assembly rooms, theatres, brothels, public gardens, and molly houses. The commercial masquerades were quasi- carnivals first organized by the impresario John James Heidegger at the Haymarket Theatre from 1717 onwards. His “Midnight Masquerades” were tremendously successful, and drew 800 people a week. They provided many people with the opportunity to explore fetishism and transvestism. Men disguised themselves as witches, bawds, nursing maids and shepherdesses, while women dressed as hussars, sailors, cardinals and boys from Mozart’s operas. In the early days of the fashion, Richard Steele went to one where a parson called him a pretty fellow and tried to pick him up, and Horace Walpole passed for an old woman at a masquerade in 1742. The opportunities for illicit assignations provoked a host of anti-masquerade satires, and many tracts were mainly devoted to attacking the mollies who attended them, allegedly imitating infamous homosexual cross-dressers such as Sporus, Caligula, and Heliogabalus. Seraphina went to the very first Ridotto al Fresco held at Vauxhall Gardens, in June 1732, where he was not the only man disguised as a woman.

Molly houses — pubs and clubs where gay men met, especially on Sunday nights — were very popular in the 1720s in London. On special “Festival Nights” many of the men would wear drag, and sing and dance together, and engage in camp behaviour. For example, on 28 December 1725 a group of 25 men were apprehended in a molly house in Hart Street near Covent Garden and were arrested for dancing and misbehaving themselves, “and obstructing and opposing the Peace-Officers in the Execution of their Duty.” They were dressed in “Masquerade Habits” and were suspected of being sodomites because several of them had previously stood in the pillory on that account; but they were dressed in a range of costumes, not all of which were female, and the date suggests a special holiday event rather than a familiar practice. It is interesting to note that they did not submit sheepishly to their arrest, but put up a show of resistance. None were prosecuted.

For another example, at one molly house in the Mint (in the City of London), according to a contemporary witness: “The Stewards are Miss Fanny Knight, and Aunt England; and pretty Mrs. Anne Page officiates as Clark. One of the Beauties of this Place is Mrs. Girl of Redriff, and with her, (or rather him) dip Candle-Mary a Tallow Chandler in the Burrough, and Aunt May an Upholsterer in the same place, are deeply in Love: Nurse Mitchell is a Barber of this Society.” James Dalton the highwaymay was a witness to molly Festival Nights, which he described in his dying confession published just before he was hanged in 1728, and he briefly mentions John Cooper (Princess Seraphina), who at that time Dalton implied was a butcher. So Seraphina was “on the drag scene” for at least four years before the trial at which she comes dramatically to public notice.
Rictor Norton 

Complete Trial Transcript

July 1732
The Proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace, and Oyer and Terminer, for the City of London, and County of Middlesex; on Wednesday the 5th, Thursday the 6th, Friday the 7th, and Saturday the 8th of July 1732, in the Sixth Year of His MAJESTY’s Reign. Being the Sixth Sessions in the Mayoralty of the Right Honourable Francis Child, Esq; Lord Mayor of the City of London, in the Year 1732.

Before the Right Honourable Francis Child, Esq; Lord Mayor of the City of London; the Right Honourable the Lord Chief Baron Reynolds; the Honourable Mr. Justice Probyn; the Honourable Mr. Justice Fortescue; Mr Serjeant Urlin, Deputy Recorder of the City of London; and others of His Majestys Justices of Oyer and Terminer for the City of London, and Justices of Gaol-Delivery of Newgate, holden for the said City and County of Middlesex.

Thomas Gordon was indicted for assaulting John Cooper in a Field in Chelsea Parish, putting him in fear, and taking from him a Coat, a Waistcoat, a pair of Breeches, a pair of Shoes, a pair of Silver Shoe-buckles, a Shirt, a Stock, a Silver Stock- buckle, and 4½d. in Money, May 30.

Trial Testimony

John Cooper. On Whit-Monday, May 29, I dress’d myself and went abroad, and returning between 1 and 2 next Morning to my Lodging at Numb. 11 in Eagle-Court, in the Strand, I knock’d once, but finding no Body answer’d, I went to a Night-Cellar hard by, I call’d for a Pint of Beer, and sitting down on a Bench, the Prisoner came and sat by me; he ask’d me if I did not know Mr. Price, and some other Persons, and so we fell into Discourse; we drank 3 hot Pints together, I paid the Reckoning 9½d. and went up; I was got about 15 or 20 Yards off when the Prisoner came up to me, said it was a fine Morning, and ask’d me to take a Walk; I agreed, and we went into Chelsea Fields, and turning up to a private Place among some Trees, he clap’d his left Hand to the right Side of my Coat, and trip’d up my Heels, and holding a Knife to me, “God damn ye,” says he, “if you offer to speak or stir I’ll kill ye; give me your Ring.” I gave it him, and he put it on his own Finger; then he made me pull off my Coat and Waitcoat, and Breeches; I begg’d that he would not kill me, nor leave me naked; “No,” says he, “I’ll only change wi’ye; come pull off your Shirt, and put on mine”; so he stript, and drest hiimself in my Cloaths, and I put on his; there was 4½d. in my Breeches, and I found 3 ha’pence in his. He ask’d me where I liv’d, and I told him. “I suppose,” says he, “you intend to charge me with a Robbery by and by, but if you do, I’ll swear you’re a Sodomite, and gave me the Cloaths to let you B[ugge]r me.”
While we were dressing, a Man pass’d by at a little Distance, if there had been 2 Men I should have ventur’d to have call’d to them for Help, but as there was but one I was afraid. Then the Prisoner bid me come along, and I follow’d him to Piccadilly, and so to Little Windmill- street, and there I call’d to 2 Men, who took him into an Alehouse; I told them he had robb’d me, and he said that I had given him the Cloaths to let me B[ugge]r him. The Men said they expected to be paid for their Day’s Work, if they lost their Time about my Business; I promis’d them they should be satisfied.
When we came to Justice Mercer’s, he was not up, so we went to the Coach and Horses by St. Giles’s Church, and waited an Hour and an half; while we were there the Prisoner wrote a Letter to his Mother (as he said) and directed it to Numb. 20. in Colston’s-Court in Drury-lane. I had charg’d a Constable with the Prisoner, I told him so; “Go and do it then,” says the Justice, “and swear to the Things, and I’ll commit him.” So we went toward Tyburn-Road, into Marybone- Fields, and there the Men let the Prisoner go; “What do ye do?” says I. “Why what would you have us do,” said they, “he charges you with Sodomy, and says you gave him the Cloaths on that Account.” Another Man coming by at the same time, I desir’d his Assistance; but they telling him that I was a Molly, he said I ought to be hang’d, and he’d have nothing to do with me; then the Prisoner began to run, and I after him; but one of the two Men, who expected to be paid for their Day’s Work, kick’d up my Heels, and as I was rising, he struck me down again; I was very much hurt, and spit Blood, so that I could not follow them, and so they all got over a Ditch and escaped; I went to my Lodgings in Eagle-Court.
They were surprised to see me come home in such a shabby Dress; I told ’em what had happen’d, and describ’d the Man, and said that he sent a Letter to his Mother in Colston’s Court; “O,” says one, “I know him, his Name is Tom. Gordon, and his Mother’s Name is Abbot.” So I got Justice Giffard’s Warrant the same Day, and finding the Prisoner at a Brandy shop Door in Drury-Lane, we seized him, and carried him to Brogdon Poplet’s [a public house], and I set for Mr. Levit, and Mr. Sydney, who lodg’d in the same House as I lodg’d in; so the Prisoner was sent to the Round-house, and carry’d before the Justice next Day. He told the Justice that I put my Yard into his Hand twice; and says the Justice, “You had a long Knife, it seems, why did you not cut it off? I would have done so.” The Prisoner said that he was not willing to expose me so much. He are certain Ladies that belong to Brogdon Poplet, who, I suppose, have abundance to say for the Prisoner.

Court. What Business do you follow?

Cooper. I am a Gentleman’s Servant, but am out of Place at present; the last Place I liv’d in was Capt. Brebolt’s at Greenwich.

Prisoner [i.e. Gordon]. Did we go out of the Night Cellar together?

Cooper. No, you follow’d me.

Christopher Sandford, Taylor [tailor]. On the 29th of May, in the Evening, I was drinking with Mr. Mead at the King’s-Arms by Leicester-Fields when the Prosecutor came in, dress’d in a black Coat, a white Waistcoat, and black Breeches; he sat down and drank, and then paid his Reckoning, and went away. Next Morning I saw Mr. Mead again, he said he had met the Prosecutor in a dirty ragged Suit of Cloaths, and a speckled Shirt, and never set his Eyes on a Man so metamorphos’d. “But how came he in that Condition?” says I, “Why it seems he has been robb’d this Morning,” says he, “by one Gordon, a Leather-breeches Maker.”
I passed with Mr. Mead as I was going by Turnstile in Holbourn, the Prisoner pull’d me by the Coat, and said, “How d’ye do? what don’t ye know me?” and indeed I hardly did know him in that Dress. “What is it to you, Mr. Gordon?” says I, “why I heard you was dead.” “Dead!” says he, “who told you so?” “Why Cooper,” says I, “he drank with me last Night.” “Cooper is a great Rogue,” says he; “What has he done?” says I; “He gave me these Cloaths this Morning,” says he; “And is he a Rogue for that?” says I; “No,” says he, “but he pretends to get ’em again by Force.” “Hark ye, Tom,” says I, “as you have a Soul to be sav’d, I fancy you’ll come to be hang’d; for he has sworn a Robbery against you.” “Has he really done it?” says he; “for God’s Sake help me to make it up, I’ll go and get 3 Guineas of my Uncle in the Temple, and meet you at the Bell and Horse-shoe in Holborn.” I told the Prosecutor [i.e. Cooper] of this, and he went with me, but we could find no such Sign as the Bell and Horse-shoe.

John Sanders. Between 9 and 10 on Tuesday Night I was sent for to the Two Suger-Loaves in Drury-Lane; the Prosecutor gave me a Warrant against the Prisoner; we went before Justice Newton; the Justice having heard the Prosecutor’s Charge, ask’d the Prisoner what he had to say for himself? “Why,” says the Prisoner, “he laid his privy Parts in my Hand, and offer’d to B[ugger] me.” Then says Mr. Newton, “You had better take him before Justice Giffard to-Morrow, he knows more of the Matter, for I see it is his Warrant.” So the Prisoner was sent to the Round- house [a prison in St Giles].

The Prisoner’s Defence.

Thomas Gordon: I was lock’d out, and went to Mrs. Holder’s Night-Cellar; the Prosecutor came and sat by me, and ask’d me to drink, I thought I had seen him before; we fell into Discourse, and had 3 hot Pints of Gin and Ale between us; about 4 in the Morning he ask’d me to take a Walk; we went into Chelsea Fields, and coming among some Trees and Hedges, he kiss’d me, and put his privy Parts into my Hand; I ask’d him what he meant by that, and told him I would expose him; he begg’d me not to do it, and said he would make me amends. I ask’d him what amends? He said he would give me all his Cloaths, if I would accept of them, and so we agreed, and chang’d Cloaths.
After this, I ask’d him to go into the White Horse by Hyde-Park, but he said he would not, for he had Relations there, and did not care to expose himself in that Dress. We went farther, and I would have gone into another House, but he made the same Excuse: then we came to Little Windmill-street, where we found a Man knocking at an Alehouse Door; we thought to have gone in there, but it being early the People would not get up, and so we went to the White-Hart in Knaves-Acre; there he charg’d me with a Robbery, and I charg’d him with a Attempt to commit Sodomy. We went before Justice Mercer, who order’d us to get a Constable, and in going along, the Prosecutor raised a Mob, and squall’d as I had been murdering him, so that I was glad to get away. He afterwards met me again as I was talking with my Master in Drury- Lane, and carry’d me to Mr. Poplet’s.

Margaret Holder. I keep the Night- Cellar, the Prisoner came in about 10 at Night, and staid till 2 in the morning, and then the Prosecutor came in, and sat down by him, and said, “Your Servant, Sir; have you any Company belonging to you, for I don’t love much Company?” Then they had 3 Pints of Huckle and Buff, as we call it, that’s Gin and Ale made hot; and so about 4 o’Clock the Prisoner said he would go home, for his Mother would be up, and he might get in without his Father’s Knowledge; and the Prosecutor said, “If you go, I’ll go too”; so the Prisoner went up first, and the Prosecutor staid to change a Shilling, and went out after him. I believe the Prisoner is an honest Man; but the Prosecutor and Kitt Sandford too, use to come to my Cellar with such sort of People.

Court. What sort of People?

Holder. Why, to tell you the Truth, he’s one of the Runners that carries Messages between Gentlemen in that way.

Court. In what way?

Holder. Why he’s one of them as you call Molly Culls, he gets his Bread that way; to my certain Knowledge he has got many a Crown under some Gentlemen, for going of sodomiting Errands.

Robert Shaw. The Prisoner and Prosecutor, and four more came to my House, the White-Hart in Knaves- Acre, about 6 o-Clock on Tuesday Morning; says the Prisoner, “this Fellow charges me with a Robbery.” “How so?” says I; “Why,” says he, “we have been in Chelsea Fields, and he gave me his Cloaths to let him commit Sodomy with me, and now he wants them again.” After the second Pot, they disputed who should pay; says the Prosecutor, “You know I have but 3 ha’pence, for when I gave you my Breeches there was 4½d. in ’em, and when I took yours, I found but 3 ha’pence in the Pocket.” Then the Prosecutor desir’d to go to his Cousin Smith, a Distiller hard by, to borrow a Shilling; a Man went with him, he brought back a Shilling, and paid his Reckoning.

Court. Did the Prosecutor contradict what the Prisoner said about changing Cloaths?

Shaw. No, not in my hearing.

Edward Pocock. About 5 o’Clock o’ Tuesday Morning, as I was coming along Chelsea-Fields, I saw 2 Men a stripping among some Trees; I thought they were going to fight, but I soon found there was no Quarrel; for when they had put their Cloaths on, they went away lovingly, and the Prisoner smil’d; they look’d as if they had not been a-bed all Night, no more than I had; for you must know, being Holiday time, I got drunk, and fell asleep with my Cloaths on.

Court. How far off was you when you saw them?

Pocock. Within 20 or 30 Yards.

Court. How came the Prisoner to find you out?

Pocock. I happen’d to go to Holder’s Cellar, and there I heard talk of this Robbery; and says I, “I’ll be hang’d if these were not the 2 Men that I thought were going to fight”; so I went to Newgate to see the Prisoner, and knew him to be one of ’em; and he afterwards sent me a Subpoena.

John Thorp. It being Holiday time, I and another Stocking-maker, and 2 Shoe-makers, had been out a merry making, and in the Morning we can to the Two Brewers in Little Windmill-street; the People were not up, and while I stood knocking at the Door, the Prisoner and the Prosecutor came along close together; says the Prosecutor, “this Man has got my Cloaths on his Back”; and says the Prisoner, “He gave them me to commit Sodomy.” We told them it was a scandalous business, and advised them to make it up between themselves, and change Cloaths again. The Prosecutor said he desir’d nothing more than to have his Cloaths again; but the Prisoner would not consent, “For nothing is freer than Gift”, says he, “and I’ll see you out.”
We could not get in at the Two Brewers, and so went to Mr. Shaw’s in Knaves-Acre, and not agreeing there, we went to the Coach and Horses by St Giles’s Church; and there the Prisoner wrote a Letter to his Mother, it was directed to his Father, a Taylor, at Numb 4. in Colston’s-Court, I found the House according to the Direction, and deliver’d the Letter, but his Father was not up, and when I return’d to the Coach and Horses they were all gone.

Prisoner. Did not you go to the Prosecutor’s Cousin, the Distiller, in Warder-street?

Thorp. Yes; he told his Cousin he was pawn’d for a Shilling; says his Cousin, “As you are in the Neighbourhood, I don’t care to be scandaliz’d by you, there’s a Shilling, but go about your Business, and let me hear no more of you, for you are a vile Fellow, and I’m afraid you’ll come to an ill end.”

The Character of the Princess Seraphina.

Jane Jones. I am a Washer-woman in Drury-Lane, I went into Mr Poplet’s, my next Door Neighbour, for a Pint of Beer, and said “There’s the Princess Seraphina!” So I look’d at her, and the Prisoner was in the same Box; and says he to the Princess, “What a vile Villain was you to ——”

Court. What Princess?

Jones. The Prosecutor; he goes by that Name. “What a Villain was you,” says the Prisoner, “to offer so vile a thing? Did not you do so and so?”

Court. So and so; explain yourself.

Jones. Why in the way of Sodomity, whatever that is; so says the Princess, “If you don’t give me my Cloaths again, I’ll swear a Robbery against you; but if you’ll let me have them, I’ll be easy.” “No, you Villain, you shant,” says the Prisoner. Next Day I went to Mr. Stringer the Pawn-broker’s, facing Vinegar-yard in Drury-Lane; I wash for him, and there I saw the Princess a pawning her Shirt; “O Princess!” says I, “are you there? They will be very fine by and by; you will have no Occasion to pawn your Linen, when you get the Reward for hanging Tom Gordon. But how can you be so cruel to swear his Life away, when you have own’d that you chang’d with him?” What if I did,” says he, “I don’t value that, I shall do nothing but what I have been advised to.”

Mary Poplet. I keep the Two Sugar- Loaves in Drury-Lane, the Prisoner and the Princess came into my House, and the Princess charg’d the Prisoner with taking her Cloaths, and the Prisoner call’d her a Villain, and said she gave ’em to him. I have known her Highness a pretty while, she us’d to come to my House from Mr. Tull, to enquire after some Gentlemen of no very good Character; I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt’sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation; but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull’s Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Mary Ryler. I was standing at the End of our Court in Drury-Lane, and seeing the Prisoner coming along with a Crowd. “Tom!” says I, “what’s the Matter?” “Why,” says he, pointing to the Princess, “this Man gave me his Cloaths to let him B[ugge]r me, and now he charges me with a Robbery.” I know the Princess very well, she goes a Nursing sometimes: She nurs’d his Master Tull and his Wife in their Salivation, and several others; and I was told that he was dress’d in Woman’s Cloaths at the last Masquerade (Ridotto al Fresco at Vauxhall.) Sometimes we call her Princess, and sometimes Miss.

Mary Robinson. I was trying on a Suit of Red Damask at my Mantua-maker’s in the Strand, when the Princess Seraphina came up, and told me the Suit look’d mighty pretty. “I wish,” says he, “you would len ’em me for a Night, to go to Mrs. Green’s in Nottingham-Court, by the Seven Dials, for I am to meet some fine Gentlemen there.” “Why,” says I, “can’t Mrs. Green furnish you?” “Yes” says he, “she lends me a Velvet Scarf and a Gold Watch sometimes.” He used to be but meanly dress’d, as to Men’s Cloaths, but he came lately to my Mantua- maker’s, in a handsome Black Suit, to invite a Gentlewoman to drink Tea with Mrs. Tull. I ask’d him how he came to be so well Rigg’d? And he told me his Mother had lately sold the Reversion of a House; “And now,” says he, “I’ll go and take a Walk in the Park, and shew my self.” Soon after this, my Maid told me that her Highness was robb’d by a Man in a Sailor’s Habit, who had changed Cloaths with him. And so next Morning I sent for him. “Lord, Princess!” says I “you are vastly alter’d.” “Ay, Madam,” says he, “I have been robb’d, but I shall get the Reward for hanging the Rogue.”
Another Time, he comes to me, and says, “Lord, Madam, I must ask your Pardon, I was at your Mantua-maker’s Yesterday, and dress’d my Head in your Lac’d Pinners, and I would fain have borrow’d them to have gone to the Ridotto at Vauxhall last Night, but I cou’d not persuade her to lend ’em me; but however she lent me your Callimanco Gown and Madam Nuttal’s Mob [cap], and one of her Smocks, and so I went thither to pick up some Gentlemen to Dance.” “And did you make a good Hand of it, Princess?” says I. “No, Madam,” says he, “I pick’d up two Men, who had no Money, but however they proved to be my old Acquaintance, and very good Gentlewomen they were. One of them has been transported for counterfeiting Masquerade Tickets; and t’other went to the Masquerade in a Velvet Domine, and pick’d up an old Gentleman, and went to Bed with him, but as soon as the old Fellow found that he had got a Man by his Side, he cry’d out, `Murder’.”

Eliz. Jones. I saw the Princess Seraphina standing at Mr. Poplet’s Door. “What, have you been robb’d, Princess?” says I, “Has Tom Gordon stripp’d your Highness stark naked? An impudent Rogue! And yet, Ma’m, I think, your Highness had better make it up with him, than expose yourself, for some say it was only an Exchange.” “Why,” says he, “at first I would have made it up, and taken my Cloaths again, but now it’s too late, and I must prosecute, for those that were concerned in taking him up, expect their Share in the Reward, and won’t let me drop the Prosecution.”

Andrew Monford. I heard the Prosecutor say to the Prisoner (at Mr. Poplet’s) “Tom! give me my Cloaths.” And the other answer’d, “No, you Rogue, I won’t: Did you not put your Hand in my Breeches, to pull out what I had?”

Several of the Inhabitants of Drury-Lane gave the Prisoner the Character of an honest working Man, and the Jury acquitted him.

References

  • Rictor Norton (Ed.), “Princess Seraphina, 1732”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 2 January 1999, updated 31 January 2006 http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/seraphin.htm
  • The Proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace, and Oyer and Terminer, for the City of London, and County of Middlesex ((London, 1732), pp. 166-70; Case number 37 out of a total of 67.

Gay History: Miss Muff’s Molly House in Whitechapel.

In 1728 Black Lion Yard was the site of the house of one Jonathan Muff, which he ran as a Molly house, a resort for gay men and transvestites (a molly being a term for a gay man). It was raided in that year and some of the clientele charged, as sex between men was then a capital offence.1 Some sources give the current Black Lion House at 45 Whitechapel Road as the site of Black Lion Yard but it was further east, running from Whitechapel Road, at a point under the site of the Whitechapel Technology Centre, through the site of Magenta House to a point on Old Montague Street at the east end of Hopetown, the Salvation Army hostel.

Detail from a parodic cartoon depicting male and female crossdressing, c.1780, after a work by John Collet
20 NOVEMBER 2016 BY SARAH JACKSON 

One of the challenges of uncovering transgender histories is that even where we find stories which hint at trans identities, we can’t go back and ask the individuals in question how they would describe themselves.
Even if we could, concepts of gender identity constantly shift and change throughout history, and the question would probably make very little sense to someone who lived centuries before us.

However, the hints we find show us that in the past, just like today, gender was not a simple binary.

Molly houses

In 18th century London a ‘molly house‘ was a coffeehouse, inn, or tavern at which men could meet in secret to socialise and have sex. ‘Molly’ or ‘moll’ was a slang term for a gay man, and for a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

Although at this time in England sex between men was punishable by death, molly houses were part of a thriving gay subculture:

The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

One of the main molly districts was on the east of the City, around Moorfields in Shoreditch. What is now the south side of Finsbury Square was a cruising area known as ‘Sodomites’ Walk’.

Cross dressing

Molly houses are a site where gay histories and trans histories intermingle. It was common for men at the molly house to wear women’s clothes and to speak and act in typically ‘feminine’ ways. Most had alternative names such as Plump Nelly, Primrose Mary, Aunt May, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England, and the Duchess of Camomile.

One very famous molly called Princess Seraphina wore her feminine identity beyond these secret meeting places and into her public life. In 1732 she brought a case against a man for stealing her clothes. Her neighbour Mary Poplet described her in her testimony:
“I have known her Highness a pretty while… I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt’sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation (salivation was a mercurial cure for syphilis); but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull’s Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.”.

Raids on molly houses

Much of what we know about mollies comes from court proceedings following raids on molly houses, the most well known of which was the raid on Mother Clap’s molly house in 1726, in Holborn. (Incidentally, Mother Clap was a real woman called Margaret Clap.) After the raid several people were tried and three men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of ‘sodomy’.

One of the best documented examples from east London is a raid on a molly house in Whitechapel.
“Nine male ladies” arrested
The molly house was owned by Miss Muff – also known as Jonathan Muff – and it stood in Black Lion Yard. The yard no longer exists, but Black Lion House now stands on the site at 45 Whitechapel Road.

On 5 October 1728 The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer includes a news item about the raid:

“On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy.”

Of the nine arrested we know that two were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one – whose name was given as Thomas Mitchell – attempted to end his life in prison:
he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder; but by the immediate Help of some eminent Surgeons he was preserv’d, tho’ at the Point of Death thro’ the great Effusion of Blood.

Trial of John Bleak Cowland

John Bleak Cowland, was indicted for that destableSin of Sodomy, and the Break of the Statute against the said Sin made and provided.
Jonathan Parrey depos’d, That in February last, he first came acquainted with the Prisoner at one Muff’s, in Black-Lion-Yard, White-Chappel. That in May last, the Prisoner went Home with him to his Lodgings, and when they were in Bed, he perswaded him to commit the Sin of Sodomy with him, to which he consented, and that they did then, and there, actually commit the Sin of Sodomy, &c. and afterwards in June last, he did actually commit the said Sin of Sodomy twice more with the Prisoner in the Bar.
This Deponent farther said, That he being weary of this wicked and detestable Practice, took a Resolution to betray the Company which met together, to commit such filthy Actions, and accordingly he gave Information against them, and contrived to be in the Room when the Prisoner and others were apprehended, at the aforesaid Muff’s House, in Black-Lion-Yard, White-Chappel.
The Prisoner said in his Defence, That he only went to Muff’s House, to learn to play on the Violin, and that it was all false which Parrey had swore against him.
The Prisoner’s Brother depos’d, That he knew Parrey to be an idle vagabond Fellow, that would swear a Cow is Horse, and his Oath was therefore not to be taken, but the Jury believing the contrary, found him Guilty. DEATH.

Trial of Richard Challenor

Richard Challenor of St. Mary’s White-Chappel, was indicted for assaulting John Branch Harris, with an Intent to commit that wicked and destestable Sin of Sodomy, with the said John Granch Harris.
He was a second Time indicted for assaulting Jonathan Parrey, with an Intent to commit the said Sin of Sodomy, with him the said Jonathan Parrey.
Jonathan Parrey depos’d, That in February last he first came acquainted with the Prisoner, that they about that Time lay together and equally committed filthy undecent and effeminate Actions; that they likewise did the same at Muff’s Hosue in Black-Lion-Yard White-Chappel, and that the Lodging in an alley near White-Chappel Church, in July last, Richard Challoner and John Branch Harris came to see him, and put their Hands into each other’s Breeches, after which they went out of the House into an Arbour in the Garden, but what they did there he could not tell.
The Jury acquitted him of both Indictments.

Trial of Isaac Milton

Isaac Milton of St. Mary’s White-Chappel, was indicted for assaulting Jonathan Parrey, with an Intent to commit that destable Sin of Sodomy, with the said Jonathan Parrey.
Jonathan Parren depos’d, That in June last, he first became acquainted with the Prisoner, at Muff’s House in White-Chappel. That at the Three-Nuns in White-Chappel, they lay together, when the Prisoner would have had him committed Sodomy with him, but he refused it; that then the Prisoner ofered to act the same Crime of Sodomy with him, but he would not suffer him.
What strengthen’d this Evidence, was the Oath of Mr. Willis, who depos’d, That when Parrey gave Information agianst Muff’s House, he mentioned the Prisoner, as one of the filthy Wretches who resorted there, to committ sodomitical Practices, and accordingly, when they went to search the House, they found the Prisoner amongst the ludicrous Company.

The Jury found him Guilty of the Assault and Misdemeanor.


Newspaper Reports 1728

5 October 1728
On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy. One of them was committed to Bridewell, and Miss Muff, with the other Six were committed to New Prison for Misdemeanors. (The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer)

5 October 1728

Jonathan alias Miss Muff, and nine Male Ladies were all apprehended last Sunday Night at his House in Black Lyon Yard near White Chapel Church, carried to New Prison, and examin’d next Day before a Magistrate, when J. Bleak Cawland charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy, was committed to Newgate, another to Bridewell, and Miss Muff with the other six to Newgate: Two Persons were also catch’d in that horrid Act last Week at Redding [i.e. Reading, Berkshire]; one of whom was immediately pump’d, thrown into a Bog-House, and then rinsed in stinking Ditches; what will come of the other Beast is not said. (The Flying-Post: or, The Weekly Medley)

19 October 1728
On Thursday … a Bill of Indictment was found at the Old Baily, against one Cowland, for Sodomy.
The same Morning, two Persons were taken in the Act of Sodomy, in the little Cloisters at Westminster-Abbey, and committed to Prison.
And other Bills are found at Hick’s Hall, against divers other Persons, for Sodomitical Practices. (The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer)

26 October 1728
Monday the Sessions ended at the Old Baily, when, with what received Sentence of Death last Saturday, there are 16 Capitally convicted, viz. … John Bleak Cowland for Sodomy …
John Burgess, for Sodomitical Practices, was fin’d five Marks, and order’d to find Sureties for his Good Behaviour for six Months.
Two others indicted for Sodomitical Practices were acquitted. (The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer)
9 November 1728
Saturday last … one John Mitchel stood in the Pillory in Little Britain, pursuant to his Sentence at Guild-Hall, for threatning to swear Sodomy against a Person, in order to extort Money from him; he is also to suffer three Months Imprisonment. (Weekly Journal, or the British Gazetteer) [This was also reported in The Flying-Post: or, The Weekly Medley.]
9 November 1728
Last Wednesday Night the dead Warrant came to Newgate for the Execution of thirteen Malefactors condemned last Sessions at the Old-Bailey, on Monday next at Tyburn, …
But John Bleake Cowland, Samuel Lewis, and John Taylor, are respited ’till his Majesty’s Pleasure, touching them, be further known. (The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer) [The Flying-Post on this day also reported that although John Bleak Cowland was condemned for sodomy, he was reprieved and not executed.]
.

Men arrested at Mrs. Clap’s Molly House and others hung in a public execution at Tyburn in 1726.
Notes

  • : At the end of the Sessions of 16 October 1728, John Bleak Cowland was sentenced to Death. However, he was later reprieved and transported. See News Reports for 1728, 5 October, 19 October, 26 October, 9 November.]

References