Sodomites as scapegoats
The sodomite persecution of 1730 marked a turning point because the ‘silent sin’ was no longer hidden from the general public. Sodomites were held responsible for disasters and economic hardship. At the end of the eighteenth century, women who had sex with women also came under the scrutiny of the authorities.
The convicted sodomites in Utrecht were secretly put to death in 1730. In doing so, the court followed the practice of not publicizing sodomy. Publicity could only tempt people into sinful deeds. Therefore sodomy was also known as “silent sin” or “crimen nefandum” (crime not to be named).
In other cities, convicted sodomites were no longer kept from public view from 1730 onward. Given the large number of arrested, that was also difficult. Because there was no uniform legislation in the cities and provinces at that time, the States of Holland and West Friesland issued a ‘Placaat’ on 21 July 1730. That calls for the ‘total extermination of the most provocative sin and crime’ and lists a number of rules on how to deal with cases of sodomy. Sodomy, the Placate reports, is punishable by death, as is giving the opportunity to sodomites to commit their “ijsselijk quaad” (horrifing evil). Executions were now to take place in public. Judges could decide for themselves how this was done. The corpses of those executed were to be burned and then hung on the gallows field for display or thrown into the sea. The latter happened after the corpse was weighted down with stones.
The public executions, which were supposed to serve as ‘the deterrence and warning of everyone’, attracted a lot of attention. The public could listen in advance to well-known songs with a new text, specially written for the occasion. After their performance, the street singers sold their text, which was accompanied by images of the executions. About fifteen of those so-called ‘flying leaves’, printed on cheap paper and usually without mention of the author, printer or publisher, have been preserved. The lyrics are often in the ‘I’ form, in which the executed expresses regret for his sin and admonishes the audience to live according to God’s commandment.
But not only street performers took advantage of the sodomite pursuit to deliver their message. Numerous pamphlets, poems and books were published, mostly written by ministers who also made an impact from the pulpit. They claimed that sodomy was a sign of the decadence, intemperance and lasciviousness indulged by many of their compatriots. God had once punished Sodom for the same reason. In addition, sodomites were blamed for everything that went wrong in the Republic: from floods and economic malaise to the devastating shipworm that undermined houses and dikes. In short, sodomites were ideal scapegoats for decades.
Tribades and fun whores
Until 1792, women only played a role in sodomy trials if they had given men the opportunity to do ‘the dirty work’. It was not until the sodomite trials that took place in Amsterdam between 1795 and 1798 that women were regularly prosecuted for ‘angry’ or ‘sodomitic filth’. There were a total of twelve ‘tribades’ or ‘fun whores’ as a judge and testifying neighbors respectively called them, five percent of all persons who were tried for such acts in Amsterdam between 1730 and 1811.
In all cases it concerned women who lived on the margins of society and in deep poverty. In order to earn some money, some turned to prostitution and begging. Most were reported by neighbours. These women, unlike the men, had no networks or special meeting places at their disposal. They received sentences of an average of six years in prison.
In the Netherlands new waves of sodomite prosecutions followed in 1764 (Amsterdam), 1776 (province of Holland), 1795 (again Amsterdam) and 1797 (Dordrecht). During the interrogations in Dordrecht, the names of several Utrecht ‘accomplices’ were also mentioned. This information prompted the Utrecht court to take action, to track down the suspects and to interrogate them extensively. Finally, on February 17, 1798, seven men aged 24 to 64 were sentenced to sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment. Two others escaped a sentence because they fled. One took his own life.
The execution for sodomy of 22 – probably in many cases innocent – boys and men in the Groninger Ommelanden in 1731 was unrelated to the sodomite network that was exposed elsewhere.
200 death sentences
Between 1730 and 1811, some 800 sodomy cases took place in the Netherlands, leading to 200 death sentences and hundreds of exiles. Suspects often underwent excruciating torture to force them to confess and name other sodomites. In 1803, the last execution of a sodomite took place in Schiedam.
Maurice van Lieshout