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It was on a Sunday night in February, 1726 when constables descended on a notorious establishment in Holborn to raid what was then one of the most infamous "molly-houses" in London. Approximately forty patrons were taken into custody. Given the very real dangers that homosexuals of that period faced (including the death penalty if prosecuted), the existence of safe houses where they could meet secretly was a vital part of the underground network that existed at the time. There tends not to be much reliable information about these secret meeting places (known as molly-houses after the common slang term for homosexuals) aside from various satirical tracts and court documents. One tract published in 1729 estimated that there were as many as thirty molly-houses operating in London (including back-rooms of taverns, inns and private houses).
Of all these establishments, there are none more famous than the molly-house run by Margaret ("Mother") Clap which, based on available testimony, was far more than just a place for sexual meetings. Most homosexuals of the time tended to be simple working-men who enjoyed coming together for gossip, friendship, and having fun in comfortable surroundings. The ever-present threat of exposure and disgrace made places like Mother Clap's house a necessary source of emotional support. Despite allegations that arose in the trial that followed the mass raid, non-sexual entertainments played an important part in attracting customers. Sundays were an extremely popular night and it was not uncommon for as many as forty patrons to visit.
The case against Margaret Clap and her customers was largely based on the testimony of Constable Samuel Stevens who had posed as a customer several months previously. In his testimony, he reported that "Sometimes they would sit in one another's laps, kissing in a lewd manner and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up, dance and make curtsies, and mimic the voices of women, O, Fie, Sir!—Pray, Sir—Dear, Sir—Lord, how can you serve me so?—I swear I'll cry out. —You're a wicked Devil—and you're a bold face—Eh! ye little dear Toad! Come, buss!—Then they'd hug, and play, and toy, and go out by couples into another room on the same floor, to be married, as they called it."
Other testimony was just as damning and the outcome of the trial was never in doubt. Margaret Clap was sentenced to spend time in the stocks where she was frequently assaulted by angry citizens as they passed. She would die that same year, possibly as a result of injuries that she sustained during her sentence. Of the men arrested with her, at least three were executed at Tyburn later that year and the rest would have their lives thoroughly ruined over the disgrace visited on them by their conviction.
Laws against homosexual acts (typically referred to as "sodomy" at the time) were harshly enforced and public executions for "crimes against nature" were far from uncommon. In the Netherlands alone, a sodomy scare in the 18th century led to the execution of 276 men during one three-year period. Well into the 19th century, sodomy would continue to be a capital offense in most countries (although Pennsylvania would be the first U.S. state to abolish the death penalty for sodomy in 1786). It would not be until 1861 that England would formally abolish the death penalty for homosexuals (although long prison sentences were still the norm). Canada actually lagged other countries in not removing sodomy from the list of capital crimes until 1869. While it is easy to be complacent about our present tolerance for sexual minorities, the progress that has been made is still sadly fragile. "Crimes against nature" statutes continue to remain on the books in many U.S. states and consensual homosexual acts are still illegal in many parts of the world. Executions are certainly still occurring and are likely to continue to occur for the foreseeable future.
In 2001, the National Theatre premiered a new musical titled "Mother Clap's Molly-House" described as a "black comedy with songs, a celebration of the diversity of human sexuality, an exploration of our need to form families, and a fascinating insight into a hidden chapter in London's history". Margaret Clap would have enjoyed it.
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