Naomi Wolf has a new book out. In it she says that a teenage boy was executed for sodomy in 1859, but in fact he was paroled two years after he was convicted.

Silver, who was 14 when he was convicted, is just one of several cases cited in the book but, according to the writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet, the error stems from a simple misreading of a historical record and raises wider questions about the argument Wolf puts forward.

In Outrages, which was published by Virago, Wolf examines the effect of 19th-century legal changes on the lives of Victorian poets such as John Addington Symonds and argues that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 marked a turning point in the treatment of gay people.

“People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830,” Wolf told the Observer. “But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse.”

According to Sweet, who first challenged Wolf on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas, her error concerning Silver stems from a misunderstanding of “the very precise historical legal term, ‘death recorded’, as evidence of execution, when in fact it indicates the opposite”.

You can hear him telling her so. It’s a painful moment.

The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”

So it’s like saying “duly noted” when you plan to ignore the thing noted? I guess.

While Wolf only quotes the “death recorded” verdict in Silver’s case, Sweet challenges the wider argument put forward in Outrages.

“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 argument that 1857 saw a brutal turn against consensual sex between men runs counter to most scholars, Sweet continued, who suggest that it was only in 1885 that a less tolerant legal climate developed. “She argues that historians have misread this moment and we should see that 1857 was a more significant date. I think she is wrong.”

If you’re going to challenge most scholars you need to do all your homework.

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