Sodomy — “buggery,” in the more evocative British phrase, often bowdlerized in court records as b-gg–y or the like — was a capital offense in England until 1861, when the penalty was reduced to “merely” life imprisonment but that change came almost thirty years too late for Captain Henry Nichols. In 1833, the London Courier printed the following account:
The London Courier reported the event:
Captain Henry Nicholas Nicholls, who was one of the unnatural gang to which the late Captain Beauclerk belonged, (and which latter gentleman put an end to his existence), was convicted on the clearest evidence at Croydon, on Saturday last, of the capital offence of Sodomy; the prisoner was perfectly calm and unmoved throughout the trial, and even when sentence of death was passed upon him. In performing the duty of passing sentence of death upon the prisoner, Mr. Justice Park told him that it would be inconsistent with that duty if he held out the slightest hope that the law would not be allowed to take its severest course. At 9 o’clock in the morning the sentence was carried into effect. The culprit, who was fifty years of age, was a fine looking man, and had served in the Peninsular war. He was connected with a highly respectable family; but, since his apprehension not a single member of it visited him.
A first-person narrative written* in 1833 under the name of Lord Byron (who was in fact nine years dead, but whose queer identity clearly informs the work), the poem *Don Leon was a signal piece of literature: the first overt literary defense of homosexuality in English.**
It opens with a scene said to be inspired by Captain Nicholls:
Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.
*NOTE: Don Leon is a 19th-century poem attributed to Lord Byron celebrating homosexual love and making a plea for tolerance. At the time of its writing, homosexuality and sodomy were capital crimes in Britain, and the nineteenth century saw many men hanged for indulging in homosexual acts.
It is not known who wrote it, although there are several theories.
As it includes in its narrative and notes several incidents that happened after the poet the Lord Byron’s 1824 death it obviously could not have been written by him.
From internal dating, it was probably written in the 1830s.
It was published in 1866 by William Dugdale, who appears to have believed initially in the attribution to Byron as he attempted to use it to blackmail Byron’s family.