In nineteenth-century England, sodomy was punishable by death; even an accusation could damage a man’s reputation for life. The last executions for this private, consensual act were in 1835, but the effort to change the law that allowed for those executions was intense and precarious, and not successful until 1861. In this groundbreaking book, “Beyond the Law,” noted historian Charles Upchurch pieces together fragments from history and uses a queer history methodology to recount the untold story of the political process through which the law allowing for the death penalty for sodomy was almost ended in 1841.
Upchurch recounts the legal and political efforts of reformers like Jeremy Bentham and Lord John Russell—the latter of whom argued that the death penalty for sodomy was “beyond the law and above the law.” He also reveals that a same-sex relationship linked the families of the two men responsible for co-sponsoring the key legislation. By recovering the various ethical, religious, and humanitarian arguments against punishing sodomy, “Beyond the Law” overturns longstanding assumptions of nineteenth-century British history. Upchurch demonstrates that social change came from an amalgam of reformist momentum, family affection, elitist politics, class privilege, enlightenment philosophy, and personal desires.