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In 1726, authorities raided Mother Clapp’s molly house, a gathering place for gay men in London, and ultimately executed three of the guests for sodomy. Why did the city’s powers that be see these men as such a threat? Historian Farid Azfar suggests that it had to do with an intense fear of shamelessness that gripped the city at that moment.

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Azfar writes that writers of 1720s London were deeply concerned with questions about the relationship between public and private spheres. Economic and social changes were weakening the power of local communities, such as neighborhoods and craft guilds, to monitor individuals and enforce norms. As one 1725 text put it, “wickedness” was “more open and bare-fac’d of late… not under that Curb and Restraint as formerly.”

What many feared was a decline in the power of shame. As some writers of the time saw it, shame was a natural internal quality. But there was plenty of evidence that at least some people failed to be restrained by shame. One example was a wildly popular anti-masturbation pamphlet titled Onania, in which men and women anonymously described their masturbatory practices. Another was commercial masquerades, raucous events that began in London in the 1710s. Here men and women of different classes mixed together to commit “extravagances of all sorts,” as one contemporary observer put it. The numbers of people who might succumb to shamelessness in anonymous settings suggested, Azfar writes, that shame “was profoundly superfluous—a vaporous substance that was easily extinguished, which certainly did not emanate from the inner depths of the soul.”

In this context, raids on molly houses in the 1720s were a strike against private spaces in which the shameless might gather and a newcomer’s sense of shame might be worn away. A semi-fictional account of the molly houses written by a celebrity criminal named James Dalton luridly described practices like mock weddings between men. It attributed a song to the mollies with a line that crystalizes their shamelessness: “Let the Fobs of the Town upbraid Us, for an unnatural Trade, we value not Man nor Maid; But among our own selves we’ll be free.”

“Shame was being wielded as a weapon in the battle against sodomy,” Azfar writes. “But shame itself was collapsing under pressure from the impact, splintering into a plethora of potentially irreconcilable fragments.”

What would a future without shame look like? Azfar points to numerous stories from the 1720s of people declining to an animal-like state. In 1726, a London woman named Mary Toft was reported to have given birth to rabbits. That same year, “Peter the Wild Boy,” an intellectually disabled man who had allegedly lived all his life in the German forests, arrived in London and awed the city’s public. Dalton’s story and other accounts of the mollies mirrored this tabloid fare, frequently describing the men as bestial or brutish.

“As a spectacle of shamelessness, the sodomites in the molly house tapped into anxieties about the future of urban shame,” Azfar writes.

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The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter 2014), pp. 391–410
University of Pennsylvania Press