What: A Queer Trial
Where: Bastion Square (outdoors)
When: Tonight, 6 p.m. (preview) and Friday 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
The passing mention of a gay town crier in Victoria led Jennifer Wise to write A Queer Trial.
In 2013, the University of Victoria theatre professor read a newspaper article about the history of Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El synagogue. The story noted that a century and a half ago, our “kaleidoscopically polyglot little city” had a “laissez-faire sensibility.”
An example was given: In 1860, a jury spent a night in jail rather than agree to a sodomy conviction against “Victoria’s notoriously fabulous gay town crier, John Butts.” The reporter didn’t expand on the case.
“I thought: ‘What?’ ” said Wise, a theatre historian and playwright. The name Butts made her wonder if it was some kind of joke.
“When I learned what the guy’s name was, I thought, this is an apocryphal story. I told many people about it and they laughed. They said, no way that really happened.”
Wise’s 18 months of research proved that John Butts (also known as Butt) was indeed a real person. Now he’s immortalized in her play A Queer Trial, which has its first performances today and tomorrow outdoors in Bastion Square.
More than 25 UVic theatre students will recreate the events of Butts’ arrest on sodomy/assault charges and his surprising acquittal. The show features half a dozen original songs accompanied by guitars, an aboriginal drum and a tuba.
The performances of A Queer Trial, which are free, take place in front of and beside the former Maritime Museum of B.C. in Bastion Square. That was the location of Butts’ trial, which predates the 1889 construction of the building, a former provincial courthouse.
Wise is no stranger to site-specific theatre. She wrote the award-winning play The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West, about a woman who was rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in the 1890s.
In the mid-19th century, Victoria was a gold-rush town whose population suddenly swelled from a few hundred to 30,000. “It was wild,” Wise said. “Everyone was drunk. The taverns were open 24/7. And there were dozens of them.”
Butts was appointed town crier by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Ringing a loud bell, he would proclaim important events, acting as a sort of human newspaper. However, a prank cost Butts his job. At the end of his spiel, he was supposed to say “God save the Queen.” However, a magistrate overheard him yelling “God Save John Butts” — and he was promptly fired.
Butts was a notorious Victoria vagabond before his arrest on sex charges. Hired as a street cleaner in the area of Yates and Government streets, Butts duped his employers by shifting the same pile of refuse to different locales.
He begged, stole and sold whisky to First Nations peoples. His rap sheet included pilfering a keg of porter and a goose. At one point, sentenced to six months of hard labour, Butts tried to avoid his fate by pretending his legs were paralyzed. The ruse was discovered by hospital staff who dumped cold water on him, causing Butts to dramatically regain the use of his lower limbs.
In 1860, Butts, who was openly gay, was charged with sodomizing and assaulting a teenage boy. It was a sensational trial. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, the judge jailed them for a night (an illegal action, Wise notes). A second jury was brought in; they acquitted Butts after five minutes.
Wise said the judge had already paved the way for Butts’ exoneration by throwing out the sodomy charge. The remaining charge of assault (referred to as “rape” in the play) was then easily dismissed by the jury.
“I deduced the judge quashed the first count in order to help John Butts. Because the first count, sodomy, is what he was actually guilty of. He was not guilty of the second one,” Wise said.
The Butts trial happened 35 years before Oscar Wilde was infamously convicted for homosexual acts. Somehow, Victoria in the 1860s (Wise described it as “the Wild West”) had a more forgiving attitude.
Wise noted that Victoria, as a gold-rush port, attracted immigrants from all over the world: the Middle East, the Orkney Islands, Russia, China, Hawaii. She believes this cultural mosaic led to greater tolerance.
“It’s as if everyone was a minority here. There wasn’t really any dominant culture. So I think people were more open to being different and otherness.”