Author Archives: particularkev
Welcome to our series on sexual histories, in which our authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
In 1787, when Arthur Phillip was preparing to lead the First Fleet to establish the British colony in New South Wales he wrote to his superiors to sort out what powers he would have over convicts and the soldiers sent to guard them. At one point, he addressed his power of life and death. Only two offences, he thought, deserved the death penalty – murder and sodomy:
For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.
It might not look like it, but Phillip was expressing a rather liberal point of view here. In Britain at this time, there were hundreds of offences that attracted the death penalty. In reducing his list to two he was flying in the face of all common sense. But it is striking that sodomy is on his little list.
While the administration took a dim view of same-sex desire, sex between men and between women flourished in Australia’s convict system – and thanks to the watchful eye of the colonial government, we know much about it.
Crime and punishment
Phillip’s views on sodomy were not an unreasonable position at the time. The Christian Bible was very clear that men who lay with men as with women were deserving of death; and the law – which had been instituted by Henry VIII, that great defender of the nation’s morals – agreed.
As it happened, Phillip, who served as governor until 1792, never got to put his policy into practice. There were no executions for sodomy; nor was anyone shipped off to New Zealand. Watkin Tench, a First Fleeter, opined that there were few “crimes of a deep dye” in the first four years of the colony and that “murder and unnatural sins rank not hitherto in the catalogue of [the convicts’] enormities”.
The first prosecution only came in 1796 when Francis Wilkinson, a labourer, was charged with “that most horrid detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery”. We don’t know his fate. The first execution for sodomy that we know of was of Alexander Brown in 1828. This execution is perhaps the first sign of a coming storm. Historian Robert French estimates that about 20 men were executed as sodomites between 1828 and 1863.
By the 1830s, the free settlers in NSW were desperate to put an end to the transportation of convicts to the colony. There were many reasons for this, but one most forcefully put was that it was undermining the moral development of the colony. In the thinking of the time, criminality, including sodomy, was seen as a physical degeneracy passed from generation to generation. So convicts were seen by very nature to be poor stock with which to colonise the country.
And the disproportion of men to women was seen as leaving the convict classes prey to the temptation of sodomy. The Chaplain of Fremantle Prison wrote in 1854,
What will ensue when we have thousands of men cooped up in the colony without wives and unable to seek them elsewhere. Evil will be the result – too humiliating for the mind to dwell upon– too revolting to name. … That moral evil of far greater magnitude, which has of old brought down the signal judgment of Heaven, will result.
Love in plain sight
But if the anxieties of the authorities had unleashed a wave of debate and discussion about the dangers of debauchery, it is important to be aware that there is another way of looking at this – recognising that sodomy was also part of the lived experience of convict men and women, and that their experience was not at all the same as that of the horrified authorities.
Where respectable colonists saw filth and moral evil, there is evidence that convict women and men experienced companionship, affection and attachment, which included sexual love. Consider this letter, written by a convict in 1846 on the eve of his being hanged:
I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you … The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together. I hope you wont fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.
We know quite a lot about love between convicts because they were being constantly monitored by the authorities. In 1841 there was an inquiry into a riot at the Launceston female factory (prison/workhouse) which discovered that sexual relationships between women were common – “depraved” behaviour, “unnatural connection” and the like.
One witness identified six female couples by name; others suggested there were anything from eight to 30 such couples. It was said that there were cases where a woman, sent out of the factory and into private service, would reoffend, so as to be sent back to where her lover was. When the authorities tried to break up couples, women would refuse to leave their cells, or even riot.
The medical superintendent of the Ross female factory – who habitually intercepted the women’s letters – reported on “warmth and impetuosity of the feelings excited in women towards each other, when allied in such unholy bonds”. (It is highly likely that he used the term “unholy bonds” having in mind the “holy bonds” of matrimony, suggesting that these women saw themselves as married).
An 1837 British parliamentary inquiry into the transportation system heard much evidence of the extent of debauchery among the convicts. The inquiry came to be believe there was a semi-underground subculture (a “demi-monde”) in existence.
New arrivals at the Hyde Park barracks, including younger men, put themselves selves under protection of older men – and adopted names such as Kitty, Nancy, Bett. On Norfolk Island, Robert Stuart reported as many as 150 male couples, who referred to themselves openly as “man and wife”. (Same-sex marriage is not as new as we might think).
Relationships among the convicts were of course many different things: situational – a desire for sexual outlet in the absence of the other sex – or coercive, expressing power over someone lower down the pecking order.
They may have been about the more desirable trading sex and affection for protection and advancement. All of these applied, of course, just as much to heterosexual relationships. But as with these, love between men or between women was often enough just that – love.
From ghost tours, to books, Halloween costumes to theatre productions – and even a museum – the Jack the Ripper industry is well and truly alive.
His is the name given to the unidentified serial killer who was believed to be responsible for a number of murders in and around the Whitechapel district of London between 1888 and 1891. It was during this period that the lives of Mary Ann Nichols (Polly), Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were so brutally ended.
Known as the Whitechapel Murders, the killings saw an unsubstantiated number of female sex workers murdered by an unknown assailant[s]. At various points, some or all of these unsolved murders have been attributed to the notorious “Jack the Ripper”.
And yet the fact remains that Jack the Ripper is not, and never has been, real. The name “Jack the Ripper” was simply invented by a journalist to boost newspaper circulation – and it did just that as papers sold from stands all across London town with tales of “Jack’s” gruesome killings.
So while there was a killer – or even many killers – committing horrendous acts of femicide during the period, it was not done by a man named Jack the Ripper. And what can also be said with a great deal of certainty is that it was not a smog shrouded, top-hatted, cloak wafting mythical figure who was responsible.
The reality of the killings
What is real, though, are the women who were killed – and the pathological violence enacted upon them. Public recounts of their murders are often sanitised, and frequently omit the true ferocity of the violence and degradation they endured.
This includes virtual decapitations, facial, abdominal and genital mutilations, organ removal and possible cannibalisation. But yet in spite of the sexual injuries inflicted upon the bodies of the women killed, any sexual motives for the killings are frequently dismissed.
It has been argued by several feminist historians, that the whole grand narrative of the Whitechapel Murders is held aloft to all women – as a warning of what may happen should they breach their prescribed gendered limits of domesticity, geography and sexuality.
In this way, the story of “Jack” and his deeds, is built around a cornerstone of “whorephobia”. This is the hatred of, oppression of, violence towards, and discrimination against sex workers. And by extension, derision or disgust towards activities or attire related to sex work.
The women killed, by and large, are rarely represented as anything but deserving, diseased, destitute, addicted, immoral and unsightly. They were part of a community which was too visible and deemed verminous. And many sources at the time overtly stated that the sins of the fallen, far outweighed the sins of the hand that slew them.
The humanity and life experiences of the women killed in Whitechapel have been utterly reduced to their jobs and the roles they played in society. They have become more akin to cultural tropes of “disposable street prostitutes” than once living women. More unreal than the unreal “man” who is supposed to have killed them.
A cultural icon
Failing to acknowledge the horrific historical truth of these murders has undoubtedly impacted perceptions of Jack the Ripper today. He is seen as an “icon of crime” rather than a horrific serial killer who disembowelled women.
Worse still, since the era of the crimes, hundreds of people globally have lost their lives to killers who have confessed to emulating “Jack”. And the press still refers to “Jack the Ripper type crimes” when acts of femicide have been committed, particularly if the victims work in the sex industry.
“Jack” did not forge his ubiquitous cultural status, his multi-million pound industry, or his “immortality”. “Jack the Ripper” may be a made up construct but with lives still being taken in his name, it is high time that our cultural relationship with “The Ripper” changed. One way of doing this is by addressing the way such modern crimes are reported.
The World Health Organisation’s 2014 report, which looks at how violence can be prevented, highlights the impact language around such violence plays. And given that “Jack’s” name remains associated with an ever growing list of victims – from around the world – it is clear this is something that needs to change sooner rather than later.