The trials of Oscar Wilde remain a very popular topic and not just with students of English literature but also to students of the law. These trials are fascinating. First, a huge celebrity was involved, the playwright Mr. Wilde. Secondly, the trials were about Wilde's homosexual relationships, then strictly prohibited by a very homophobic criminal law.
In the days of Oscar Wilde, sodomy was not just a felony. It was conduct considered so egregious that, formally, it was not deserving of a name. It was even referred to as such by the maxim of law then applicable: peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum ("that horrible crime not to be named among Christians").
Thirdly, the wisest of lawyers will always consider telling their prospective defamation plaintiff/client(s), to at least consider just walking away from it. Oscar Wilde is the poster boy for this theory both ignored and then turned against him.
Finally, and perhaps the best lesson for law students is Pandora's box. Thought has to be given in advance to the evidence as it may unfold once a defamation plaintiff/client is put under oath in open court, and what might happen with that evidence in terms of the client's best interests, both personal and legal. This is not, if ever, something a client can properly assess. The lawyer owes it to the client to be blunt and frank in assessing these dangers, and no later than the actual moment of deciding whether or not to take legal action.
Who Was Oscar Wilde?
Oscar Wilde was, by 1895, an eccentric, famous and very popular English poet and playwright with many of his plays, such as the Importance of Being Earnest among others, performed to great acclaim on the British island and in other countries such as the United States of America. Wilde was married and with his wife Constance and their two young sons Vyvyan and Cyrile, lived at 16 Tite Street in London. A perfect life but one with an underside.
Wilde, as every other gay English citizen who preferred freedom to a prison cell, was a closet bisexual. In 1891, he started what would blossom into a secret gay sexual relationship with Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, the son of a well-known and wealthy peer, John Sholto Douglas, aka Lord Queensberry. Wilde was 16 years older than his lover Alfred Douglas.
Of "uranian love," Wilde once wrote in correspondence only disclosed long after his death (using the secret word uranian as homosexuals secretly referred to themselves), "... I hold ... to be noble. More noble than other forms."1
Queensberry, father, became suspicious of the nature of the relationship between the much older Wilde and Queensberry's son, especially when Alfred suddenly quit his studies at Oxford University.
London, 1895 and Homosexuality
This was London, 1895. The criminal law almost everywhere in the world prohibited sodomy, many following the example of English common law. But in England, as everywhere else, prosecutions were a challenge because according to legal experts (and we apologize if this is TMI), a conviction for sodomy required proof of penetration "beyond a reasonable doubt".
To overcome this loophole and to allow the effective eradication of homosexual behavior even if between consenting adults, England brought in a Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 which provided, at §11, under "Outrages on Decency" (emphasis added):
"Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years...."
The study of modern psychology, in terms of human sexuality, proposes that the condition of being homosexual or bisexual is a benign feature of the human condition. It is neither good nor bad. It just is.
Yet, since the early history of man, the vast majority of cultures have been adamantin enforcing zero tolerance towards homosexuality, a state of affairs only recently relaxed in select states.
In London, 1889, a male homosexual brothel had been uncovered by the police. While many aristocrats were allegedly part of the list of clients the police discovered, those names were never revealed. But for months, the tale of the London sodomite brothel lit up the headlines of newspapers around the world.
Amongst Wilde's contemporary peers in high London society were other homosexual relationships, some just suspected, some since revealed including Queensberry's older son Drumlanrig, suspected of having a homosexual relationship with England's future Prime Minister, Archibald Philip Primrose, aka Lord Roseberry.
"Oscar Wilde, Posing Sodomite"
On February 28, 1895, Wilde went to his social club. Upon arrival, the porter handed him a small envelope bearing the name of the "Marquess of Queensberry" with a note inside which read: "For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite(sic)."
What happened next continues to be a matter of historical debate but it is widely agreed that Wilde brought the note to the attention of his lover Alfred who angrily insisted that Wilde sue his father, Queensberry Sr. for criminal libel. This is the moment that Oscar Wilde had the option of just taking the allegation (true as the allegation was), then private as between him, Alfred, the porter and Queensberry Sr., and ripping the card up. Instead, he saw lawyers and arranged for Queensberry's Sr. to be hauled into court indicted for:
"....contriving and maliciously intending to injure one Oscar Fingal O'fflahertie Wills Wilde and to deprive him of his good name same credit and reputation ... that Wilde ... had committed and was in the habit of committing the abominable crime of buggery ... to the evil example of all others."
Queensberry Sr. countered the charge with a gutsy plea of justification alleging that: "... said alleged libel according to the natural meaning of the words thereof is true in substance and in fact", followed by references to a litany of specific individuals with whom it was alleged Wilde had acted as a:
... "sodomite....(and that) it was for the public benefit and interest that the matter contained in the said alleged libel should be published and that the true character and habits of the said Oscar Wilde should be known...."
Of the lawyers that interviewed Wilde before agreeing to represent him, each one of them asked him the critical question, whether there was any truth in allegation of sodomy which, on each occasion, Wilde denied.2
The Trial of Lord Queensberry
As he wanted, Wilde got his day in court, which began at Old Bailey on March 2, 1895, before a jury, Justice Richard Henn Collins presiding.
Unfortunately for Wilde, that also meant standing in cross examination. Right away, Wilde lied about his age, proposing that he was "either 39 or 40". The lawyer for the accused was able to immediately establish credibility issues as Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 which would make him then 40, a simple personal fact of which he not likely was unaware. Not a fatal error but the start of a compounding of evidence that would have tragic results. And if he was prepared to lie about that....
Wilde thought he'd avoid other damning allegations sometimes by attempting to use humor, other times hoping his instinctive charisma would win over the court. But there were some facts presented to him that spoke loudly, as documents do. One of his love letters to Alfred was dated May 4, 1893. When presented with it, Wilde, while admitting it was his, suggested that though it might appear to be homosexual to the untrained eye, to the brilliant writer that Wilde was, it was merely "beautiful" prose, that it was a poem, "art", a "sonnet" to the trained eye. The so-called beautful poem to Aldred
"My own boy, your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red, rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for music of song than for madness of kissing.... I know Hyancinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.... Always, with undying love, yours Oscar."
When questioned about the wording of his other writings, especially his book The Picture of Dorian Gray which clearly smacked of a homosexual interest between two men, Wilde tried to weasel out of the interpretation presented to him by acting a comedian. When asked point-blank by Queensberry Senior's defense lawyer Carson whether he, Wilde, had ever felt that feeling of "adoring madly a beautiful male person many years younger" as described in Dorian Gray, Wilde replied:
"I have never given adoration to anybody except myself."
When pressed upon this point, Wilde then tried to make a distinction between the word adore and love, that he did not "adore" people:
"I either love a person or do not love them."
According to the transcript, that brought a roar of laughter from the public gallery but given the verdict, Wilde was burying himself deeper and deeper with the jury. Again, later, Wilde admitted that he "loved" Alfred Douglas but did not "adore" him.
Another of Wilde's love letters to the younger Queensberry was then read into the Court record:
"... you so greek and gracious, distorted by passion.... I must see you soon. You are the divine thing I want..."
Wilde simply defended himself on that by referring to the letter as "extraordinary" but that:
"Everything I write (is) extraordinary. I don't pose as being ordinary."
Again, funny to the gallery but not to the jury.
When Wilde had finished his hara kiri testimony, the lawyers made their closing statements. The jury did not even have to retire and immediately returned a verdict that the plea of justification had been proved and the defendant Queensberry Senior was not guilty of criminal libel because the label of sodomite to Oscar Wilde was true.
The foreman of the jury then asked to address the Court and upon permission given, added:
"... and also that it was published for the public benefit."
The acquittal of Lord Queensberry and the remarks of the jury foreman set into motion the next act of the tragedy: charges laid against Wilde that he had conducted himself against §11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum penalty. To Wilde, a thin playwright, hard labour was a hard sentence.
The End Game
His grand-son Merlin Holland wrote, a century later:
"However cruel and unfair §11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act may seem to us now, on the face of it, my grandfather was justly convicted at the time."
The 1885 statute was repealed in 1967.
In the last years of his life, Oscar Wilde defied and dared the apparatus of English criminal law by either intentionally or naively having thinly-concealed homosexual relationships. He fought the law and the law won.
By the revelations at his trial, Oscar Wilde's reputation was shattered. The venues that hosted his plays, always omitted or blacked-out references to his name.
To most of the English population, Wilde was thereafter reviled as were, then, all homosexuals. His family was devastated as was Queensberry's. When Oscar Wilde left prison, penny-less, he left England for Paris and adopted another name (Sebastian Melmoth). He picked-up pad and paper and began once again to write, this time his subject was often the unfairness of the criminalization of the Uranian lifestyle and the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
In France, Wilde had brief reunions with Alfred and other former gay lovers that visited from the British isle, but never did he see Constance or his sons again. In self-imposed exile, Wilde was poor and resented it bitterly. He turned to alcohol and died in Paris in November of 1900, where he was also buried.
Queensberry senior also suffered substantially. His oldest son had committed suicide in the midst of allegations of a homosexual relationship with the British politician in October 1894. His relationship with his son Alfred was irreparably strained, as was the reputation of his family name.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde never knew that the publicity surrounding his trial (publicity which spread around the world as his trial was covered by American newspapers), would continue if not spark what would be a very slow process of conversation followed by the decriminalizing of homosexuality. Wilde is often spoken of as a martyr to the cause of this decriminalization.
The law was nudged a little further forward towards wisdom, justice and fairness in the decriminalization of nonstandard sexual orientation.
For example, in Canada, by 1969, a forward-thinking Canadian Prime Minister proposed and passed legislation to decriminalize homosexuality in Canada using the famous phrase, that "the state had no room in the bedrooms of the nation".
But then, in 1969, other Canadian members of Parliament spoke up in the House of Commons and reflected a view then held then by too many Canadians but with few supporters today, that homosexuality is a mental disorder:
"Homosexuality is a psychological aberration. If homosexuality were practised on a widespread scale society would break down. If it were universally practised, the human race would in a matter of time become extinct. If one does not believe in social order and progress, then of course one would welcome the destruction or even the suicide of society.... We should suggest the building of hospitals where the government would provide the services of specialists who could take care of such people."3
If an enlightened society as Canada is any example, it was and remains a slow-moving process to eliminate the deep-set fear and loathing of homosexuality.
With everything to lose, and lose everything he did, Oscar Wilde caused society in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s to think about and discuss in earnest the rationale behind mass homophobia, the hatred and fear of homosexuality, of conduct stated to be so awful that it could even be given a name.
To students of the law, an important lesson is that in law-making especially, the Importance of Being Earnest cannot be overstated.
- Holland, Merlin, The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). Also published in Great Britain as Irish Peacock and Scarlett Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. The author, Mr. Hollland is Oscar Wilde's grand-son, and has written extensively about his famous grandfather.
- Hyde, H. Montgomery, Notable British Trials
- NOTE 1: Holland op..cit., at page xxxvi and also Duhaime, Lloyd, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1825-1895 (Germany)
- NOTE 2: Holland, op. cit., page xxxviii.
- NOTE 3: Duhaime, Lloyd, "Make Them All Homos" 1969