|Men arrested at Mrs. Clap's Molly House and others hung in a public execution at Tyburn in 1726.|
On May 9, 1726 five unfortunate patsies were strung up and publicly hanged on the notorious gallows at Tyburn, the rural execution spot not far outside the walls of London. Or it may have been just three. Accounts differ. Confusion may have arisen because the busy gibbet often accommodated several hangings at once and there may have been other common criminals dangled with them. A woodblock print purporting show the execution shows seven victims.
At the time hanging was a popular public amusement regularly drawing large crowds of witnesses. The list of capital crimes was long and included not just murder and highway robbery but such petty crimes as pickpocketing or pilfering an apple from a green grocer. Twelve year olds were routinely snuffed out for lifting a gentleman’s handkerchief.
The crime of these particular chaps was sodomy, a capital felony under the Buggery Act 1533. They were among 40 men plus the proprietor swept up in a raid on Mother Clap’s Molly house on a February Sunday evening. Margaret Clap operated a coffee house out of her home in Field Lane, Holborn, near the Bunch o’ Grapes tavern
The modest establishment, which Mrs. Clap had opened two years earlier, was supposedly also a Molly house—an establishment that catered to homosexual men. Several had been operating in and near London since about 1700 discretely but openly despite the sodomy laws.
Unlike most such places Mrs. Claps was neither a tavern nor did it serve as a bordello providing prostitutes for its customers. She made her large parlor and several rooms available for the entertainment and amusement of her clients and beds were available in every room. There was much gayety, dancing, singing, and petting in the common room with men frequently pairing up to be “married” in the smaller rooms, sometimes with doors left open so others could watch the proceedings. Since she had no license as a pub, Mrs. Clap would frequently have to leave her home to visit the Bunch o’ Grapes to obtain libations for her guests.
Mrs. Clap seems to have been genuinely fond of her clientele and tended to their needs and desires with great solicitousness, going above and beyond the attention of a mere business woman. She often extended small loans to some customers and once let one regular who had been thrown out of his home by an irate wife and was homeless lodge in one of her rooms for a year and a half. Even while she was being held herself in Newgate prison she evidently arranged an alibi that got one of the men arrested in the raid off the hook. For their part many of the men returned the affection and tried as much as possible to defend her in their testimony to the court. They called her in fondness Mother Clap. She may have been what was in the parlance of 1970’s queer slang, a fag hag.
|Gentlemen of quality like this Army officer did play cross dressing games and more hoity-toity Molly houses like Miss Muffs in fashionable Whitechapel, but probably seldom visited the more humble digs offered by Mrs. Clap.|
As for her clientele, she served and welcomed all classes but most of the men were local artisans, tradesmen, farmers, and laborer as well urchin street prostitutes who they sometimes brought with them. There may have been occasional slumming gentlemen if any were caught up in the raid, their connections and wealth soon procured a swift, discreet release without charges.
Despite this, popular illustrations published after the Molly house raids usually depicted clients as gentlemen—often as Army officers, judges, and high churchmen. Whatever might have been the case in some Molly houses in or on the fringes of fashionable districts instead of on the virtual outskirts of London, Mrs. Clap does not seem to have entertained these sorts. The pictures, however, played into the common perception of many ordinary Britons that the elite ruling classes were riddled with homosexuality. Which, of course, was quite true.
Convivial gatherings apparently occurred on any evening, but evidently Sunday nights were especially popular and may have amounted to weekly parties. Authorities were aware of that. They had the establishment under surveillance for more than a year and used a client coerced to turn informer to introduce a police agent into the scene.
Actually, police agent is a misnomer. There was no police department that we would recognize and would not be for more than a century the Bow Street Runners, bailiffs of the court who exercised arrest warrants were consolidated with local constables by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 as the Metropolitan Police—the Bobbies of Scotland Yard.
Instead the investigation and raid was conducted by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, a private organization of zealous reformers out to erase the libertinism that had established itself in London during the Restoration period. The organization enjoyed support at the highest levels of society and government up to and including the new Hanoverian Dynasty represented by King George I. Acting in a quasi-official manner, the Society employed its own “constables” and an army of spies and informants who conducted investigations, raids, and pressed prosecutions in its own name.
The Society recruited an informant named Mark Partridge who was enraged at having been revealed as a homosexual in previous investigations and blamed his former companions and lovers. Partridge identified several Molly houses, including the one maintained by Mrs. Clap, to the society and then introduced one of their constable/agents into the houses as his “husband.” Notes and testimony by the agent, Samuel Stevens became key in the future prosecutions and provided sensational accounts in newspapers, broadsides, and penny pamphlets. For instance he wrote in his report to the Society:
I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick 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 marry’d, as they call’d it.
Armed with such intelligence, the raid in February snared 40 men, but none were caught in flagrante delicto which complicated the prosecution on the capital crime of sodomy. At most some were found with breaches unbuttoned or wearing snatches of women’s clothing.
To obtain convictions, the society had to rely on the testimony of two turn-coat informants, both petty criminals and likely prostitutes, Thomas Newton and Edward Courtney who had already been used as “queer-bait and agents provocateurs or entrappers.” One or both of them testified to participating in sexual acts with all of those sentenced to hang and others who were sentenced to prison and the pillory.
As the trial progressed there became some publish backlash for using the testimony of such disreputable characters as the sole evidence of actual sodomy. That especially was the case for 43 year old Gabriel Lawrence, a milk peddler and widower with a teenage daughter who was able to produce many witnesses to his good character and that no one other than Newton and Courtney had ever been the recipient of any advances. Lawrence admitted to drinking at Mrs. Claps regularly with a friend, Henry Yoxam the cow keeper who supplied him and several Molly houses with milk, but adamantly proclaimed his innocence of any indecencies. None the less, he was sentenced to hang.-
With outrage for the witch hunt growing, prosecutors quietly declined to press charges against those who had not already either bought their way out of trouble or been freed for lack of evidence.
|In multiple sources this illustration is labeled as representing "Mother Clap in the stocks," but a close examination show the victim in male clothing. No matter. The brutal treatment of the mob to the prisoners likely fatal.|
That did not include Mrs. Clap herself. When she was finally brought before the bar she pled innocent to the charge of keeping a disorderly house. She told the jury “I hope it will be consider’d that I am a Woman, and therefore it cannot be thought that I would ever be concern’d in such Practices.” She was convicted anyway and harshly sentenced for the offense—“to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, to pay a fine of 20 marks, and to suffer two years’ imprisonment.”
She never survived to serve her prison sentence. She was so grievously mistreated by a mob at the pillory—probably pelted with stones and beaten with sticks—that she collapsed three times and had to be carried away insensible. She probably died of her injuries within hours or days, although no record of her passing was recorded. She simply vanished to official history.
This grisly and unfortunate tale is a useful counter to a somewhat fashionable claim made by some current historians that prior to the 20th Century there was no Gay culture and homosexuality as we understand it did not exist. They don’t deny that there were individuals who engaged in homosexual acts or relationships, but maintain that society viewed them differently and that so did the individuals whether the acts were suppressed or winked at. But modern observers will quickly note the characteristics of a well established gay culture in this story—a common code slang, conventions, safe-space gathering spots, role playing, and cross dressing. Similar establishments and cultures established themselves in large urban centers where there was some sense of anonymity and a certain critical mass of population. Like the bathhouses of the ‘60’ and’70’s and the bars, clubs, and discos of today, the Molly houses thrived in a culture with a modicum of tolerance and then became rallying points of resistance in times of repression.
|Poster for the London production of Mother Clap's Molly House by Mark Ravenhill.|
The story of Mrs. Clap’s Molly house has become foundational to modern British gay culture. It has been told and retold in novels, poems, histories and recently in an avant-garde stage musical, Mother Clap’s Molly House by Mark Ravenhill.