May 9,1726 – Five men who were arrested during a raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House in London were hanged.
A “Molly House” was a term used in 18th and 19th century England for a meeting place for gay men. They were set apart from brothels because the regular customers might be mutual friends or obliging strangers, not men paying for sexual services. During this era, sexual activities between men were illegal and frequently prosecuted; they remained punishable by death until 1861. Because they were subject to raids, molly houses and their patrons became the ideal target for blackmailers. A “molly” wasn’t a word for a party drug, it was a term used to describe effeminate males, but it became the catch-all term for homosexuals.
If you were a man who was into other men, you could pick-up a soldier or a laborer in the street and bring him back to a Molly House where you could get to know each other in a hidden corner or a private room. Mother Clap’s molly house, for example, had security at the door to ensure that the men who came in could be vouched for as known sodomites. It also had a backroom where men could get it on. The backroom was called “The Chapel”.
There would be performances of mock-weddings in The Chapel, a prelude to sex. Even with the frequent raids, the molly mouse was a safe space because it provided an enclosed space; men didn’t have to cruise other men in the streets. Gay men could go and socialize with other like-minded guys, but they could also leave and troll the streets for guys to have sex with, then bring them back to the molly house.
In the last half of the 20th century, gay men were often thought of as people that had sex in public places like bars, parks, or public toilets. But that is a very recent idea, because before that, straight men were also likely to use the same public spaces, bars, parks, dark streets, and theaters for sex with women.
The most noted molly house in 18th century London was the one owned by Margaret Clap, which had been open for business until 1726, when it was raided by the charmingly named Societies For The Reformation Of Manners, a citizen’s group who made it their duty to suppress profanity, immorality, and lewd activities, or as we call it now, The Mike Pences. It was located near another molly house called The Bunch Of Grapes in Middlesex a short distance from London’s central city. This area was known for welcoming darkest and most dangerous enemies to society; it was more Tenderloin than West Hollywood. It was where Charles Dickens placed Fagin’s den in his novel Oliver Twist (1837).
Clap ran her place as a coffee house instead of a tavern. It was well-known within the homosexual community. She seemed to have genuinely cared for her customers. She was known to have provided “beds in every room of the house” and had “30 or 40 of such kind of chaps every night, but more especially on Sunday Nights.” Clap personally hosted at her molly house, apparently only leaving to run across the street to a tavern to buy drinks for her customers. Clap may have been in it as much for pleasure as profit, judging from accounts by her goodwill towards her customers. One guy lodged at her house for two years. She later provided false testimony to help get a man acquitted of sodomy charges.
Clap was arrested for encouraging her customers to commit sodomy. One of the agents involved in the raid, Samuel Stevens, wrote:
“I went to the Prisoners House in Field-Lane, Holbourn. I found near Men Fifty there, making Love to one another as they call’d it. Sometimes they’d sit in one anothers Laps, use their Hands indecently. Dance and make Curtsies and mimick the Language of Women – O Sir! – Pray Sir! – Dear Sir! Lord how can ye serve me so! – Ah ye little dear Toad! Then they’d go by Couples, into a Room on the same Floor to be marry’d as they call’d it. The Door at that Room was kept by – Ecclestone to prevent any body from balking their Diversions.”
In February 1726, Mother Clap’s Molly House was raided and 40 of its customers were arrested. The house had been under surveillance for at least two years by the Society For The Reformation Of Manners, pointed out a man named Mark Partridge who was outed by his lover and then turned an informant for the police. He led policemen to molly houses, introducing each of them as his “husband” so they could gain entrance. Partridge avoided arrest himself.
Clap and half a dozen of her customers were put into the pillory, fined, and imprisoned for two years. But, five of them were hanged for sodomy on this very day in 1726, including: Gabriel Lawrence, a 43-year-old milkman; William Griffin, a 43 year old furniture upholsterer; and Thomas Wright, who was Mother Clap’s housekeeper.
There is a satirical musical about the event, Mother Clap’s Molly House, by Mark Ravenhill and Matthew Scott. It might make a fun choice for your high school or community theatre.