Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Gay Blackmail Confession

The Cleveland Street Scandal, in which a male brothel was found to have been operating on Cleveland Street in London (hence the name) was the one of the precursors to the Oscar Wilde trial. The scandal in 1889 allegedly involved aristocrats who had had sex with male prostitutes, much of this was hushed up. Things were much more explicit (though tame by our standards) when in 1895, Oscar Wilde was tried on a charges of having sex with other men.

As Wikipedia points out,[1] Charles Hammond, the brothel keeper, managed to flee the country. Wikipedia doesn’t say where, but on January 8, 1891, two years after the scandal, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Hammond was arrested in Seattle. He had been accompanied by one of the young men, Herbert John Ames, who had been working at the house from June of 1888 until its closure in 1889. To make it clear, he was about sixteen when he started turning tricks.[2]

The British slang of the era for young male prostitutes was “rent boy,” but it wasn’t because they were hired out by the hour, but rather that they subsequently blackmailed their clients, which was called “renting.” The Herald makes no bones in its headline:

One of the Boy Inmates of Hammond’s Notorious House Makes a Sworn Statement—The Names of the Frequenters.
Seattle, Jan. 7.—Herbert John Ames, aged nineteen, who was an inmate of Charles R. Hammond’s notorious Cleveland-street house, London, and who escaped with Hammond to this country, today made a statement concerning the notorious place, and swore to its truth before James A. Hillyer, notary public, in the presence of several witnesses. Hammond is under sentence of two years in the penitentiary for grand larcenly, and the boy, who has heretofore been afraid to tell the story because of Hammond’s threats of personal violence, now tells it voluntarily. Young Ames was secretary for Hammond, and says he wrote many letters last year to English noblemen, demanding hush money. His sworn statement in part is as follows: 
In June, 1888, Thomas Conway, a boy 19 years of age, told me of the existence of the house kept by Hammond, on Cleveland Street, London, and he induced me to go there with him. As the life was an easy one and money was plenty, I remained there until June, 1989, at which time the discovery of the nature of the house compelled Hammond and myself to leave London. The house, I was told by Hammond, had been running between three and four years, and during the year I was there about twenty men visited the house regularly. Many of these were introduced into the house under false names, and the names of some were never known, either to Hammond or myself. Seven of the men I became personally acquainted with, and their names were: The Earl of Euston, Lord Arthur Somerset, Robert Jervoice, the queen’s officer, O. K. Mitland, Percy Stafford, the capitalist; Hugh Waglin, a banker, and Captain Barbey, of the army.
Of course, Ames knew about “the nature of the house” as soon as he started working there. He was kept there by easy work (sex with men) and good pay for it. False names were used because every aspect of the house was illegal, not just the prostitution, but the sex between men. The Earl of Euston was able to escape the charge.
All the visitors of the house were from the highest class, and they were always liberal with their money. Then the expose occurred which caused the house to shut down. Hammond took me with him and went to Calais and from there went to Paris. In Paris we stayed three weeks with Mrs. Hammond’s sister, and then we went to Langley, France. At Langley, Hammond was met by Arthur Newton, a lawyer acting in the interests of the visitors to the Cleveland-street house, and he wanted us to go to America at once.
It seems odd that that men who all denied going anywhere near Cleveland Street had jointly engaged a lawyer. Newton was Lord Arthur Somerset’s lawyer, and later Oscar Wilde’s.
On the following day English detectives went to the French officers and had Hammond expelled form the country. They told him to leave by noon time. In July, 1889, we left France and went to Belfast, and then to Halanzy, where we stayed three weeks. While in Halanzy, Newton, the lawyer, sent word to Hammond to go to [Antwerp], when he would meet him and arrange matters. We met Newton at Brussels, and in a room in one of the hotels there Newton asked Hammond what he would take to go to America. I was in the room at the time and Hammond told him that he would have to have £5000 to start with. The matter was finally compromised between them for £800. We sailed under fictitious names on the steamer Pennland for New York, and when we arrived there a man amend Harris, who had been sent by Newton to see that we arrived all right, paid $4000 over to Hammond.
Hammond clearly started by bargaining high. In 1889, £5,000 was a huge amount of money. Even £800 is a pile of cash. And, of course, the $4,000 paid in New York was worth more than $4,000 today. Now we find why Hammond needed Ames to accompany him on his travels. (Ames, when he embarked on a career of male prostitution, probably didn’t think it would involve much travel.)
Hammond cannot write, and since he has been here I have done that work for him. I have written letters for him demanding money form the Earl of Euston and Lord Somerset and Robert Service since we have been here, and within the past month I wrote and registered a letter to Service demanding £100 for Hammond, who stated that he was in trouble. Whether or not Hammond ever received any return I cannot positively state. While Hammond was running the Haymarket saloon I once asked him for money. He was very pleasant, and offered me some whisky to drink; but I did not touch it, as there was a substance in the bottom which looked like poison.
The glass could just have been dirty. I have this suspicion that if we were to find ourselves transported to the era of Downton Abbey (which started with events about twenty years after Ames made his statements) we’d find ourselves saying, “eww, don’t you ever wash things properly?”

The same article, with a different set of headlines (“Hammond’s House - The Cleveland Scandal Revived.”) appeared on the same day in the San Francisco Morning Call.

I don’t actually believe Ames. He clearly knew that the Earl of Euston had been implicated in the scandal, yet none of the prostitutes could identify him. According to Wikipedia, the Earl received a card stating that the place had “poses plastiques,” or in other words, tableaux vivants, presumably in which barely clad young women would be assuming the poses of classical statuary. It was a disappointment for the Earl that the flesh on display was male. Certainly he had fled with Hammond, and was still in his employ, but he doesn’t seem to have offered anything that hadn’t already been alleged in the newspaper reports.

A quick check of genealogical databases doesn’t turn up any clear indication that Ames remained in the United States after this. As with England, in the United States in 1891, it was illegal for men to have sex with other men. Ames wasn’t claiming to have been coerced into this. It was no case of male white slavery, but an impoverished London lad who saw a route to easier money. He might have been younger than he claimed. Reports were that some of the boys at the Cleveland Street house were as young as 15. There was a Herbert John Ames born in January 1874 in Shoreditch, London. That would have made him only seventeen in January 1891. The Salt Lake Herald had a condensed version of this story and gave his age as seventeen.

Ames doesn’t get mentioned in any of the sources my (quick) survey of materials on the Cleveland Street scandal, nor is there any indication of what happened to him after his statements in 1891. I have have to do some more digging.

  1. What would I do without Wikipedia?  ↩
  2. Of course, in about a third of the states, this is the age of consent. The UK had a problem in that the age for alcohol consumption was well below that of the age of consent for gay sex, leading the singer Tom Robinson to sing “make sure your boyfriend’s at least twenty-one” in his song “Glad to be Gay.”  ↩

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