"Beyond the Law"

The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain

Charles Upchurch
Book Cover

PB: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-2034-3
Publication: Oct 21

HC: $110.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-2033-6
Publication: Oct 21

Ebook: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-2035-0
Publication: Oct 21

302 pages
6 x 9
19 halftones

A major reexamination of the earliest British parliamentary efforts to abolish capital punishment for consensual sex acts between men

Read the Introduction (PDF).


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.


“Convincing and stimulating, Upchurch’s book is grounded in a rich and complex archive and is a triumph of historical detective work. His patient piecing together of quite disparate materials to develop a case strengthens the sense that he is genuinely breaking new ground. ‘Beyond the Law’ is a very important book that will change our understanding of what happened before 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy in England was abolished.”
Jeffrey Weeks, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at London South Bank University, and author of Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys

‘Beyond the Law’ reveals hitherto almost unknown efforts to repeal the death penalty for sodomy in the early nineteenth century in England and provides a new interpretation of the 1885 Labouchere Amendment on that topic. Upchurch offers amazing research, new discoveries, and fascinating stories of the people behind these legislative efforts, as well as rich discussions of the tragic persecutions of many men who had sex with men. His book is a very interesting and compelling read.”
Anna Clark, Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, and author of Alternative Histories of the Self: A Cultural History of Sexuality and Secrets, 17621917

Table of Contents


1. Bentham’s Public and Private Arguments
2. Family, Compassion, Empathy, and Reform
3. “Sodomy” in Popular Politics
4. Secrets in High Politics
5 “Silence Now Were Tantamount to Crime”
6. “Finding Any One Hardy Enough” in the 1830s
7. The Parliamentary Debates: July 1840 to June 1841
Conclusion: A Different Dynamic: 1861 and 1885


About the Author(s)

Charles Upchurch is an Associate Professor of British History at Florida State University and the author of Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform.


In the Series

  • Sexuality Studies edited by Janice M. Irvine and Regina G. Kunzel

    Sexuality Studies, edited by Janice Irvine and Regina Kunzel, features work in sexuality studies broadly construed, in its social, cultural, and political dimensions, and in both historical and contemporary formations. The series includes titles located within disciplinary and interdisciplinary frames that combine theoretical methodologies with empirical research.