Historian Naomi Wolf has attracted a storm of criticism after one of the central arguments behind her new book was exposed as inaccurate on live radio. The book is based closely on her DPhil thesis, which earned her a degree from Oxford in 2015.
Wolf’s book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love, centres on punishments for homosexuality in the Victorian era. It is Wolf’s first venture into LGBTQ+ history, having made her name as a feminist author.
One of the central arguments Wolf makes in her book is that men and boys were actually being executed for sodomy much later than is usually thought. However, this was based on a misinterpretation of the phrase “death recorded” in trial records. Contrary to Wolf’s claims, the phrase does not mean ‘executed’.
Wolf’s original thesis was awarded by Trinity College and supervised by Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista. The book focuses specifically on two men – poet Walt Whitman and the lesser known poet John Addington Symonds. Whitman is known to have expressed his sexuality through his poetry.
Wolf told The Observer: “People widely believe that the last executions for sodomy were in 1830. But I read every Old Bailey record throughout the 19th century, so I know that not only did they continue; they got worse.”
Her research wrongly claims that Old Bailey records show “14-year-old” Thomas Silver was “actually executed for committing sodomy” in 1859. She stated: “The boy was indicted for an unnatural offence. GUILTY – Death recorded.”
However, in an interview on Radio 3 with Matthew Sweet, Wolf’s findings were shown to be false, as she had misinterpreted the legal term “death recorded.” Sweet, who is also a writer, said: “I don’t think you’re right about this. I looked it up. ‘Death recorded’ is what’s in most of these cases that you’ve identified as executions. It doesn’t mean that he was executed.”
He added that he had found the definition in the same Old Bailey records which Wolf had used for her research: “[Death recorded] was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.
“I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
Sweet argued that it was only from 1885 onwards when a less tolerant legal climate developed against consensual sex between two men. He said: “She argues that historians have misread this moment and we should see that 1857 was a more significant date. I think she is wrong.”
At Hay Festival last Saturday, Wolf said: “Some of you may have seen that there has been a healthy debate about two errors I did make in this book, and they’re on page 71 and 72. Hang on to your copies because it will be a collectors’ item, because it will not [be] in the next printing.”
She added that the mistake pointed out by Sweet had been corrected: “I thanked him and immediately corrected the future editions. But here’s what happened. ‘Death recorded’ in those two cases, the Old Bailey record which would have been reported in major newspapers that Symonds was reading … ‘death recorded’ was the most severe penalty, but Dr Sweet pointed out that ‘death recorded’ didn’t necessarily mean that an execution had taken place and I had misinterpreted the phrase.”
Wolf argued that the arrest itself would still have had a significant effect on gay men in the Victorian era such as Symonds.
“As today, if a doctor in Alabama who performs abortions is arrested or a journalist at the New York Times is arrested, it is the arrest that gets all the press. And if there is a sentence, that gets the national press.
“If there is a plea bargain or reduced sentence or parole, that isn’t usually in the press.
“And that was the case for Symonds, reading these terrifying sentences, and it absolutely led him, in my argument, to seek out alternative worlds where he could visualise freedom and love.”
In a statement, her UK publisher said: “Virago stand by their author Naomi Wolf and the thesis of her book Outrages which is based on her Oxford PhD. With Naomi Wolf and her American publisher Houghton Mifflin we will make any necessary corrections.”
Wolf’s US publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said that while it employs “professional editors, copy editors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact checking.
“Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.”
The historian Richard Ward added to Sweet’s explanation of the term ‘death recorded’: “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”
He labelled Wolf’s mistake a “pretty basic error”, adding: “If all the people who were mentioned in the Old Bailey records as ‘death recorded’ were subsequently executed, there would have been a bloodbath on the gallows. Yet anyone who has a basic knowledge of crime and justice in the 19th century would know that that wasn’t the case.”
Christian blogger Alan Jacobs came to Wolf’s defence, writing: “Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded” means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them.”
Wolf’s other works include The Beauty Myth (1991) which has been lauded as a hallmark of third wave feminism, and The End of America (2007) which looks at the historical rise of fascism.
She was also a former political advisor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore and has written for media outlets such as The Nation, The New Republic, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Wolf’s thesis supervisor has been contacted for comment.