Historical Error Underlies Naomi Wolf’s Book on Sodomy Executions

BILLINGSHURST, ENGLAND - MAY 30: An employee holds hangman Henry Pierrepoint's execution notebook from a collection of crime memorabilia linked to his son and executioner Albert Pierrepoint (estimate £25,000 - 40,000) during a press preview at Summers Place Auctions on May 30, 2018 in Billingshurst, England. Summers Place Auctions are …
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The thesis of a new book by feminist Naomi Wolf is reportedly based upon the author’s misunderstanding of a British legal term, as Ms. Wolf learned to her distress while in the midst of a BBC radio interview last week.

In her forthcoming book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Wolf chronicles “several dozen executions” of male homosexuals allegedly carried out in Victorian England, which “corrects a misapprehension… that the last man was executed for sodomy in Britain in 1835.”

Wolf based her revelations on British court records, which described the outcome of these cases with the words “death recorded.”

Apparently, however, none of the executions she references was actually carried out.

Whereas Ms. Wolf thought “death recorded” referred to capital punishment, the 19th-century English legal term actually meant that a convict was not executed but was pardoned for his crimes.

On Thursday, Wolf went on BBC radio for a live interview with radio host Matthew Sweet, who informed her of numerous errors in her book stemming from her apparent misunderstanding of the legal term.

For instance, Wolf wrote in her book that 14-year-old Thomas Silver was “executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense, guilty, death recorded.”

Having done his own research prior to the interview, Sweet informed Wolf that, in point of fact, Silver was released, not executed. Sweet could even show the exact date that Thomas Silver was discharged from news reports and prison records from the period.

“Death recorded,” Sweet noted, “was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.”

“I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened,” he added.

Later on Twitter, Sweet went further still, saying there is no historical evidence that shows anyone was ever executed for sodomy during the Victorian era, a damning assertion that negates the central premise of Wolf’s book.

Wolf’s book is already on sale in the UK under the Virago Press label and will be released in the United States on June 18, according to the Amazon listing.

Learning of the error, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt spokesperson issued the following statement:

While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.

Naomi Wolf has been known for espousing daring positions on controversial issues such as abortion, sometimes breaking ranks with her feminist sisters.

In her groundbreaking 1995 essay “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric” in The New Republic, Wolf argued that the pro-choice movement needed to come to grips with the fact that abortion is in fact the killing of a human individual, rather than a mass of biological “tissue.”

The “slogan ‘Abortion stops a beating heart’ is incontrovertibly true,” she wrote.

As long as pro-choice advocates refuse to acknowledge the truth about abortion, the pro-life movement would always have the upper hand, she argued.

“Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions,” she wrote.

“Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the foetus isn’t a person, and this, over the years, has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization,” she stated.

Despite her acknowledgement that abortion brings about the death of a human individual, Wolf has continued to support legal abortion.

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