James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder (Hardback)
  • James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder (Hardback)
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James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder (Hardback)

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Hardback 336 Pages
Published: 15/02/2024
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Waterstones Says

In this meticulously researched and important book, Chris Bryant draws from a wealth of archive material including poor law records, workhouse registers and private correspondence to reconstruct the story of James Pratt and John Smith – the last two men in Britain to have been hanged for homosexuality.

'They had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world.'

When Charles Dickens wrote these tragic lines he was penning fact, not fiction. He had visited the condemned cells at the infamous prison at Newgate, where seventeen men who had been sentenced to death were awaiting news of their pleas for mercy. Two men were particularly striking: James Pratt and John Smith, who had been convicted of homosexuality. Theirs was 'an unnatural offence', a crime so unmentionable it was never named. That was why they alone despaired and, as the turnkey told Dickens, why they alone were 'dead men'.

The 1830s ushered in great change in Britain. In a few short years the government swept away slavery, rotten boroughs, child labour, bribery and corruption in elections, the ban on trades unions and civil marriage. They also curtailed the 'bloody code' that treated 200 petty crimes as capital offences. Some thought the death penalty itself was wrong. There had not been a hanging at Newgate for two years; hundreds were reprieved. Yet when the King met with his 'hanging' Cabinet, they decided to reprieve all bar James and John. When the two men were led to the gallows, the crowd hissed and shouted.

In this masterful work of history, Chris Bryant delves deep into the public archives, scouring poor law records, workhouse registers, prisoner calendars and private correspondence, meticulously recreates the lives of two men whose names are known to history - but whose story has been lost, until now.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 9781526644978
Number of pages: 336
Dimensions: 234 x 153 mm


MEDIA REVIEWS

Between 1806 and 1835, 404 men were sentenced to death for sodomy in England, of whom 56 were hanged and many more transported. In his meticulously researched James and John, the politician and historian Chris Bryant explores the proceedings against Pratt and Smith, as well at the social attitudes and legal codes in what he dubs "an era of spectacularly cruel and bloodthirsty prejudice" . . . Bryant does an excellent job of tracking down the two men … The trial is the centrepiece of the book and Bryant describes it in painful detail - Spectator

Thanks to one resourceful Old Bailey court record-keeper and a good dose of archival zeal, in his new book Bryant uncovers the story of James Pratt and John Smith, the last men in England to be hanged for being gay. The resulting work is an insight into a supposedly enlightened era - of slavery abolitionists and the Great Reform Act. Bryant meticulously stitches together the reality beneath . . . With its courtroom denouement and Dickensian setting, TV commissioners will take note - New Statesman

An eye-opening portrait of Victorian injustice and hypocrisy featuring pie sellers at hangings, all-male knocking shops and a whiskered cross-dresser called the Pet of the Petticoats . . . Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and former Church of England priest, has had the cracking idea to investigate the lives of these men. The result is a lively and interesting book . . . Inspires sympathy and readily stirs the emotions . . . There is much to learn from James and John - Richard Davenport-Hines, The Times

Bryant has rescued Pratt and Smith from the rubbish dump of history . . . Combining [a detailed account of Pratt and Smith’s trial] with a richly detailed portrait of the more squalid and miserable aspects of Georgian London, Bryant has assembled a tragic story that is as shocking as it is pathetic . . . Without any unnecessary melodrama, Bryant evokes the horrors of Newgate Prison and elucidates a judicial process heavily weighted against the defence . . . Bryant never lets outrage get the better of him, and his unaided archival research has been exemplary - Rupert Christansen, Telegraph

Carefully observed, rich in detail, imaginative, compassionate and angry. A raw, unexpected portrait of Britain’s grandeur, wealth, energy, cruelty and hypocrisy in the Age of liberalism - Rory Stewart

Bryant's new campaigning book is the product of exhaustive archival searches, many of them made online during lockdowns, and is a serious contribution to social history of the most disturbing kind - Church Times

A vibrant and honourable retelling of early 19th-century gay history. Bryant simply and clearly underscores the essential humanity of James and John – and in so doing emphasises our common dignity in the face of overwhelming and anonymising systems of power and governance - Irish Times

This is a shocking story of prejudice and injustice, told in meticulous detail by Chris Bryant. A must-read for all who want to understand the deep roots of homophobia in British history - Keir Starmer

A heart-breaking account of a grave injustice and the social climate of homophobic prejudice that made it possible - Peter Tatchell

This is the best kind of angry history: meticulously researched, vividly written, deeply humane and making an utterly compelling case. It keeps faith with the dead, and in doing so gives us something to celebrate, fervently, in the present - Ronald Hutton

Law can be weaponised for the cruelest of purposes - a political lesson we should never forget. Here, Chris Bryant provides a powerful indictment of Britain’s persecution of gay men, including the use of the death penalty, and the legacy of how such laws live on in many of our former colonies. This is a brilliant telling of a shameful part of our history - Baroness Helena Kennedy KC

James and John is a timely reminder of the stories the powerful would rather we forgot - Shami Chakrabarti, human rights lawyer

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