Some years ago, while undertaking research into sodomy cases in Scotland, I began using precognition and trial records, held at the National Archives of Scotland. Although there were significantly fewer prosecutions in Scotland than in England, for obvious reasons, these records provided information on the sexual exploits of men from all walks of life (with an emphasis on working-class men). Legal records offer the historian a reasonably rich resource, although they are framed, understandably, by the individuals’ interactions with the legal authorities.
Precognition records offer the historian an insight into the accumulation of evidence both with regards to witness statements and the accounts of arresting officers. Added to this the majority of sodomy cases include the written report of the police surgeon whose responsibility it was to record any physical evidence that the crime of sodomy had been carried out, or an attempt had been made.
A precognition paper contains the preliminary examination of a witness in a criminal case to acquire an understanding of the type of evidence that a witness might provide should a trial follow. The usefulness of this source for social historians cannot be over-emphasised as they detail the weight of evidence in existence regarding particular cases, and how this was gathered. In many cases the statements made by witnesses can explore the opinions, attitudes and language prevalent in society at any given time. However, after rummaging through quite of quantity of these one begins to notice that witnesses quite often engage in language owing more to legal speak than the vernacular. I guess, in my naivety I was seeking something more lurid.
When describing homosexual acts, witnesses in their statements were more likely to refer to ‘unnatural connection’ than anything more explicit. Terms and phrases such as ‘private member’ or ‘abominable acts’ also occur frequently. For example, in one case from 1914 a lodging house warden told the police that the accused was ‘moving his body in the direction of Tully’s, as if in the act of having sexual connection’. In another case, a working-class youth accused a man of ‘attempting to have connection with me’. In almost every High Court case relating to homosexual acts the phrases ‘unnatural connection’, ‘private member’ make their appearance with other phrases such as ‘as if with a woman’, ‘hinder parts’. In quite a number of cases witnesses to the alleged crimes repeat very similar statements, as if quoting from a script. The ‘voices’ of the accused also crop up within precognitions, delivered second-hand by witnesses or by the arresting officers. These generally relate to protestations of innocence or desperate lamentations.
I remember a conversation with one retired historian who lured me in with promises of ‘real language’, and ‘honest opinions’ within precognition records, but after trawling through case after case and noting down one ‘unnatural connection’ after another I was in need of something stronger; something more honest.
And there it was. In one case from 1852 at Edinburgh Castle Barracks the accused, a Private in the 79th Cameron Highlanders, after returning from the bed of another soldier loudly exclaimed : ‘ I have got a damned good ***k!’.
Satisfied, I packed up my notes and returned home.
Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014
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