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  • "O My Poor Arse, My Arse Can Best Tell":Surgeons, Ordinary Witnesses, and the Sodomitical Body in Georgian Britain
  • Seth Stein Lejacq (bio)

A report published in 1743 informed readers about a recent sodomy trial in Kingston upon Thames.1 One night early that summer, a London waterman had received a tip from a woman selling gingerbread that two "mollies" had just sneaked into Pepper Alley, in Southwark. Mollies were members of an underground queer subculture, mostly working- and lower-middle-class men notorious for their effeminacy and predilection for that "worst of crimes," sodomy. The waterman understood what the woman was suggesting, and he followed the tip. He stalked the two until they entered a house of office, a lavatory. He spied on them as they whispered together and "talk'd in a very ludicrous manner." Soon, "he was very well assured, they were Sodomites." The door could not shut fully with them inside, and through the gap that remained he saw that "they were b——g one another." In the criminal law, "buggering" had a precise meaning: phallic penetration of the anus. It was a grievous offense, carrying a mandatory capital penalty. But there was no doubt: he "saw them in the very Fact."

The waterman was not satisfied merely with visual inspection. He went to investigate manually but found that the two "were so close that he could not put his Hand between them." Only "with Difficulty" did he force it in. He grasped the penis and drew it from the other's anus. (The report renders this action as taking "Hunt's——out of the other's——.") In court, the waterman told what he had found. The offending phallus "was wet, and wet his Hand very much." Some courts and jurists believed that evidence of ejaculation inside the body was necessary to prove this felony. [End Page 137] The waterman was able "to prove an Emission," though the report declines to offer the particulars: "The Witness answered every Question very perfectly, and proved all that the Law requires." However, "we hope our Readers will excuse those Questions, and the Answers from being inserted, the bare mention of which would shock human Nature."2

Although too much for print, these details were vital for deciding the case. The court heard more: after the waterman seized the two offenders, he brought them before a constable and made his allegation. The constable ordered his watchmen to strip the two and inspect their clothing and bodies. They found semen on one's shirt and other evidence. Again, though, the report demurs. The testimony concerned "what is not proper, for Decency's Sake to appear in Print." But readers learned that this inspection also extended into bodily interiors. The constable himself investigated one man's anus, "and he is very positive that it had been penetrated." His watchmen confirmed his testimony. No medical practitioner was involved, but this forensic evidence from a group of laymen was enough; the jury convicted the two "mollies." They would hang.


Narratives of the modern history of sexuality have placed great emphasis on medicine and medical forensics—medicine that assists in the operation of the law. Michel Foucault's account of the "ferment" and "explosion" of discourses about sex sees medicine providing many of the "centers" of discursive activity and coming to dominate modern discourses of sex and sexuality.3 Legal medicine has long played important roles in the operation of power in sexual matters, particularly dealing with unauthorized sex. States surveil and intervene directly, coercively, and often violently in sexual activity by way of legal medicine. Medical jurisprudence became and remains a dominant discursive field in the interpretation, regulation, and punishment of bodies, sexualities, and sexual activities considered deviant. English criminal courts began regularly trying alleged homoerotic crimes in the late seventeenth century. They expressed severe disapproval of erotic contact between males with harsh punishments, including hanging, pillorying, public flogging, and imprisonment. As prosecutions increased over the course of the Georgian era (1714–1837), they created an unprecedented demand for sodomy forensics. The law defined the felony, "sodomy" or "buggery," as phallic penetration of a person's anus or of an animal. Any erotic...