May 202013

In researching the history of consensual sadomasochism, there isn’t a comprehensive body of knowledge to draw upon, no established canon of reference works, no Journal of Sadomasochistic Studies.

Instead, I have data points: case studies, books (often anonymous), anecdotes, images, etc. I’ll admit that sometimes what is and isn’t a data point is decided on the “I know it when I see it” principle. Connecting those points requires a certain amount of guesswork and judgment calls.

For example: Dr. Samuel Johnson, English man of letters of the Enlightenment, and his relationship with his close friend Hester Thrale.  The latter’s posthumous effects, sold at auction in 1823, included a padlock and fetters. Thrale identified it as “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.” In 1767 or 1768, Thrale wrote that “our stern philosopher Johnson trusted me… with a secret far dearer to him than his life”. On other occasions , she wrote that “this great, this formidable Doctor Johnson kissed my hand, ay & my foot too upon his knees!” and quoted him saying, “a woman has such power between the ages of twenty five and forty five, that she may tie a man to a post and whip him if she will.” Finally, there is a reference in  Thrale’s journal to “the fetters & padlocks [that] will tell posterity the truth”, and Johnson’s own journal entry, dated 24 March 1771, about “Insane thoughts on fetters and hand-cuffs.” (in Latin) (Pg.387-388)

Johnson scholars have debated the exact meanings of these items and phrases. The more conservative, such as Peter Martin in his Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Belknap Press, 2008) say that the “suggestion that Johnson may have taken a perverse sexual pleasure in such confinement has been discredited” (pg.388) and dismisses “the wild theory that Johnson was a flagellant demanding to be scourged and manacled.” (pg.389)

Johnson was a troubled man, suffering from severe depression (he called it “the black dog”), the twitches and ticks that would today be diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome, and the habitual counting of obsessive compulsive disorder. (A trait he shared with the Marquis de Sade.)  He lived in fear of going mad, and much of the time he spent at Thrale’s house was as a patient of an informal retreat for therapy. Martin argues that the implements of confinement were more symbolic than literal, and that the confinement to his room at Thrale’s house was just a way of keeping Johnson calm in his worst moments, as he requested. (Pg. 388-390) In other words, it wasn’t a sex thing, and therefore should not be considered a sadomasochistic relationship.

I think that was an over-hasty assessment by Martin. Other scholars don’t dispute the facts but question the subjective quality of Thrale and Johnson’s relationship. Jeffrey Meyer’s Samuel Johnson: The Struggle
(Basic Books, 2008) reconsiders Katherine Balderston’s notes on Thrale’s letters from 1949. Says Meyer:

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Johnson’s darkest secret, his modern biographers have not been able to reconcile his obsession with their exalted image of the great moralist and stern philosopher.  [...] Christopher Hibbert (1971) was cautious and indecisive. Though Hester [Thrale] had said “do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the Rod enough,” Hibbert wrote, in an awkward style that expresses his own uneasiness: “whether or not the rod was actually used, whether or not Johnson’s fantasies [sic] about manacles and fetters were erotic and masochistic in their nature, it is impossible now to say.”


Other scholars, if they acknowledged the data at all, squeamishly said it was too slender to draw conclusions. This makes me wonder how much evidence about various historical figures’ sexual peccadilloes have been lost by neglect or intent by prejudiced scholars.

Meyers writes:

Johnson submitted to chains and handcuffs, and had his door padlocked, when he felt the onset of madness. But it would have been quite impossible for the tiny Hester, even with the help of several manservants, to restrain and shackle a crazed, rampaging and uncommonly strong Johnson. He had bought these implements to restrain himself during period of madness, he was depressive, not manic, and never had to employ them. But he did actually use them in the closet drama of his ritualistic whippings.


Thrale annotated Johnson’s comment about a woman making a man her slave by saying “this he knew of him self was literally and strictly true I am sure.” (Pg. 361) Johnson also told his biographer Boswell: “madmen… are eager for gratifications to soothe their minds, and divert their attention from the mistery which they suffer; but when they grow very ill, pleasure is too weak for them, and they seek pain.” (Pg.361-362)

Much like Sacher-Masoch, Johnson was definitely a highly demanding and controlling masochist, and much like Aurora Rumelin,  Hester Thrale struggled to manage the boundaries between her own life and the demands of her ostensible “slave”. Even when Thrale was dealing with household renovations, sick children and a mother dying of breast cancer, Johnson sent her messages that alternated between grovelling and emotional blackmail, like:

It’s essential to remember our agreement. I wish, my protector, that your authority will always be clear to me, and that you will keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful. [Pg.363]

It’s well established that whipping was nearly universal in homes and schools of this time: Thrale beat her own children frequently, and Johnson had been on both ends of the rod as a student and as a teacher. Why men like Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau became masochistic flagellants, and so many of their contemporaries didn’t, remains a mystery. Johnson was troubled by feelings of sing and guilt through his life, and it’s likely that bondage and flagellation, if only of a mild and largely symbolic nature, gave him at least momentary peace, both satisfying and punishing his sexual desires. Of course, a conservative could argue that Thrale’s reference to “using the Rod” was figurative, not literal.

Johnson’s use of “slavery” is also intriguing, as he was a staunch proponent of abolitionism. Perhaps he saw in slavery, as much as he despised it, a reflection of the abjectness he felt throughout his life, and a confinement that quieted him, and therefore used it as a metaphor.

There’s also the question of whether Johnson and Thrale’s relationship was sexual. There’s no indication that intercourse occurred between them, nor is it clear what Johnson felt when Thrale ministered to him: sensual pleasure or masochistic pleasure? Our modern definition of sex still privileges heterosexual coitus, and other bodily practices that do not fit it may not be considered sexual at all. In this relationship, you can see both a desire for a mother figure and for the physical sensations of confinement and flagellation, neither of which necessarily produce genital arousal.

I’ve completed the first draft of chapter 3, which covers the Enlightenment period, and I’m not sure how much, if anything, of Johnson’s story to include. This aspect of his life was only known long after his death, and does not turn up in the literature on flagellation as does the Madame Lambercier incident in Rousseau’s Confessions. Perhaps a paragraph or two, next to the Rousseau section.

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  One Response to “Dr. Samuel Johnson’s “insane thoughts on fetters and hand-cuffs””

  1. You could (as a historian I think you should) compare their and Sacher-Masoch’s relationship to masochism today where it is not uncommon for bottoms to control the scene, indeed, to pay people to treat them as they wish. Using words like “slave” or “master’ do not represent a dominant or submissive relationship always. Perhaps the terms themselves have erotic or symbolic meaning to those using them even if it may not all our definitions.

    Heck, doesn’t that happen in today’s Scene? I know many folks whom use the term “slave” when it really appears to me that they are being treated more like children or students.

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