As historical book ‘The Sins of Jack Saul’, about notorious Victorian-era rent boy Dublin Jack, whose self-declaration as a ‘sodomite’ shocked late 19th century London, gets ready to hit the London stage in the form of a brand new play, writer Glenn Chandler reveals more about this scandalous slice of gay history…
Jack Saul was the most notorious male prostitute in Victorian London. He achieved that reputation because of five minutes of fame on 15 January 1890 when he went into the witness box at the Old Bailey and admitted being a ‘sodomite’, one of few words available to a gay man at the time. It was an admission that could have earned him a prison sentence – as it did a few years later for Oscar Wilde – but Jack was not the accused. He openly volunteered the information to help a newspaper editor accused of libelling an aristocrat – the Earl of Euston, whom Jack had personally taken back to the male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street.
It was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary trial, after which Jack Saul disappeared from the public gaze and was never heard of again. He wasn’t charged, possibly because the authorities feared who else he might implicate. Though Jack never mentioned one name, plenty of people had. The Heir Presumptive to the throne, Prince Albert Victor Edward, the grandson of Queen Victoria, was strongly rumoured to have visited the same male brothel. I was more intrigued however by what happened to Jack Saul and who he was, where he came from, and why he risked his freedom by so openly declaring his sexuality. Was he the first ‘gay activist’?
Adding to the puzzle was a rare book sitting in the British Library titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, an infamous work published by the equally infamous William Lazenby, imprisoned three times for disseminating pornographic literature. It purported to be the memoir of a young male prostitute “ready for a lark with a free gentleman at any time” who resided at Lisle Street, Leicester Square. The young man’s name was Jack Saul. Jack did indeed live for a while in Lisle Street. It was published in 1881, eight years before Jack made his appearance in court. Why, I asked, should Jack contribute his name and the street where he lived to a book that described a long and relentless list of sexual acts which, if proven, could have sent him to prison for twenty years? How much of the book was true, and how much was invention?
Scholars of the era and of gay history have wrestled with that conundrum, even suggesting that ‘Jack Saul’ might not have existed, that the name was a pseudonym, that the young man who later got up in court had read the book and adopted the name.
The explosion in the release of Irish genealogical records convinced me that there was a chance of proving otherwise, tracing his ancestry, and his eventual fate. But it was his handwriting that in the end betrayed him. His signature on his police statement, preserved in our National Archives, was identical to that on his Irish census return. Jack Saul did indeed exist. He was as real as Dublin potatoes. Dublin was the city where I went to find him.
My search climaxed with the discovery of his unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. It was only days after the Irish referendum on gay marriage. It was a fitting time to sit by the final resting place of a young man who could never have believed how law and society would change. Oscar Wilde spoke of the love that dare not speak its name. In court, Jack Saul spoke not of love, only of his deep shame, accepting that he had led an ‘abominable life’ but could not give it up. He was, however, equally courageous. Society was ready for neither of them.
From 11 May to 12 June at Above The Stag Theatre, 17 Miles St, London. For tickets and more information visit abovethestag.com.
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Words: Glenn Chandler