Wednesday, 13 February 2013

She would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies


Portrait of "Mrs Allen" by John Singleton Copley, NOT Princess Seraphina, who would have been a lot rougher

"I have known her Highness a pretty while, she us'd to come to my House from Mr. Tull, to enquire after some Gentlemen of no very good Character; I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation; but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull's Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina."
The above is an extract of the testimony at a trial in 1732 in which John Cooper (also known as "Princess Seraphina") prosecuted Tom Gordon for stealing his clothes. Gordon had left Cooper with the words that if he 'charged him with Robbery, by and by', he would in turn tell the authorities Cooper had given him the 'Cloathes' as payment for 'Buggery'.

The following is an extract from the introduction to the full published transcript of that trial, by the esteemed LGBT historian Rictor Norton [font of all knowledge on such matters, and whose talk The Gay Scene in 18th-century London: Continuities in LGBT History we attended last night as part of Camden and Islington LGBT History Month in Hampstead]:
Princess Seraphina was a gentleman's servant, and a kind of messenger for mollies (gay men), and a bit of a hustler. More to the point, she was the first recognizable drag queen in English history, that is the first gay man for whom dragging it up was an integral part of his identity, and who was well known by all his neighbours as a drag queen or transvestite "princess": everyone called him Princess Seraphina even when he was not wearing women's clothes. And he does not seem to have had any enemies except for his cousin, a distiller who thought that his behaviour was scandalous.

Molly houses - pubs and clubs where gay men met, especially on Sunday nights - were very popular in the 1720s in London. On special "Festival Nights" many of the men would wear drag, and sing and dance together, and engage in camp behaviour. For example, on 28 December 1725 a group of 25 men were apprehended in a molly house in Hart Street near Covent Garden and were arrested for dancing and misbehaving themselves, "and obstructing and opposing the Peace-Officers in the Execution of their Duty." They were dressed in "Masquerade Habits" and were suspected of being sodomites because several of them had previously stood in the pillory on that account; but they were dressed in a range of costumes, not all of which were female, and the date suggests a special holiday event rather than a familiar practice. It is interesting to note that they did not submit sheepishly to their arrest, but put up a show of resistance. None were prosecuted.

At one molly house in the Mint (in the City of London), according to a contemporary witness: "The Stewards are Miss Fanny Knight, and Aunt England; and pretty Mrs. Anne Page officiates as Clark. One of the Beauties of this Place is Mrs. Girl of Redriff, and with her, (or rather him) Dip Candle-Mary a Tallow Chandler in the Burrough, and Aunt May an Upholsterer in the same place, are deeply in Love: Nurse Mitchell is a Barber of this Society." James Dalton the highwayman was a witness to molly Festival Nights, which he described in his dying confession published just before he was hanged in 1728, and he briefly mentions John Cooper (Princess Seraphina), who at that time Dalton implied was a butcher. So Seraphina was "on the drag scene" for at least four years before the trial at which she comes dramatically to public notice.
Read the full transcript of the trial on Rictor Norton's website. It's a fascinating and sometimes hysterical read!

More on the fantastical stories of gay life and the "molly houses" in 18th century London to follow, no doubt...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a message - I value your comments!