Naomi Wolf discovered that her book is rendered invalid while speaking to Matthew Sweet on BBC Radio. A simple inaccuracy in the definition of one phrase meant the point Naomi was attempting to make no longer made sense.
Speaking to Matthew Sweet in May, the author of Vagina and the forthcoming Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, would have been looking forward to discussing surprising historical issues she had brought to light, but instead was faced with a shock of her own.
While Wolf had assumed the term “death recorded” had meant the prisoners were executed, the actual definition of the 19th-century English legal term says the convict was ‘pardoned for his crimes’.
This meant Wolf’s book is entirely wrong.
In an awkward snippet of the interview, Wolf began to explain the premise of her book, only to be corrected by Sweet who had actually researched the definition of the term she based her book on.
The first example Wolf gave was Thomas Silver who “was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offence, guilty, death recorded.” Except Silver was actually not executed, as Matthew Sweet explained, using his research- news reports and prison records- to show that Thomas Silver was indeed discharged.
Death recorded, Sweet showed, “was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.”
The tragic moment for Wolf came when Sweet said: “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened”, meaning Wolf’s book was entirely based on inaccuracies.
Unfortunately Wolf cited on Twitter an article written by a known-hoaxer- A.D. Harvey- who has previously created several online personas and an entire fake community of academics. This is certainly looking like a life-lesson for Wolf- who no doubt will be looking at her research and citations more carefully in the future.
A Houghton Mifflin Harcourt spokesperson provided a statement in regards to the errors: “While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.”
It seems Wolf has taken the criticism and corrections like a champion and is dedicating her time to going through her work with a fine-tooth comb and correcting where necessary. Sweet and Wolf are friendly on Twitter- with one thread showing Wolf thanking Sweet for his corrections, with a promise to review “all of the sodomy convictions on Twitter in real time so people can see for themselves what the sentences were and what became of each of these people.”