April 3rd, 1895 – Oscar Wilde’s Failed Gambit

Today-In-History

Oscar Wilde’s most famous romance with Alfred “Bosie” Douglas resulted in him penniless, rejected from society, and sentenced to jail time. The chain of events that led to Wilde’s down fall began on February 18th, 1895, when Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, left his calling card at Oscar Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, inscribed: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”

Somdomite

Douglas was outraged at his father’s insult and encouraged Wilde to initiate a private prosecution against Queensberry for libel, since the note amounted to a public accusation that Wilde had committed the crime of sodomy. Many of Wilde’s friends advised against this, especially considering that Wilde and Douglas were indeed committing acts of sodomy. Wilde did, however, press charges and Queensberry was arrested on a charge of criminal libel, a charge carrying a possible sentence of up to two years in prison (Libel Act of 1843).

Wildeanddouglas

Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893

Under the Act, Queensberry could avoid conviction for libel only by demonstrating that his accusation was in fact true, and furthermore that there was some “public benefit” to having made the accusation openly. Queensberry’s lawyers thus hired private detectives to find evidence of Wilde’s homosexual liaisons to prove the fact of the accusation. They decided on a strategy of portraying Wilde as a depraved older man who habitually enticed naive youths into a life of homosexuality to demonstrate that there was some public interest in making the accusation openly, ostensibly to warn off other youths who might otherwise have become entrapped by Wilde.

The trial opened on April 3rd, 1895 amid scenes of near hysteria both in the press and the public galleries. The extent of the evidence massed against Wilde forced him to declare meekly, “I am the prosecutor in this case.” Queensbury’s lead lawyer, Edward Carson, cross-examined Wilde on how he perceived the moral content of his works and pressed him on each topic from every angle, squeezing out nuances of meaning from Wilde’s answers, removing them from their aesthetic context and portraying Wilde as evasive and decadent. While Wilde won the most laughs from the court, Carson scored the most legal points. 

9th-marquess-of-Queensberry

Lord Queensberry in 1896

Carson presented factual evidence and questioned Wilde about his acquaintances with younger, lower-class men. Wilde admitted being on a first-name basis and lavishing gifts upon them, but insisted that nothing untoward had occurred and that the men were merely good friends of his. Carson repeatedly pointed out the unusual nature of these relationships and insinuated that the men were prostitutes. Carson even announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were to testify that they had had sex with Wilde.

On the advice of his lawyers, Wilde dropped the prosecution. Queensberry was found not guilty, as the court declared that his accusation that Wilde was “posing as a Somdomite” [sic] was justified, “true in substance and in fact.” Under the Libel Act 1843, Queensberry’s acquittal rendered Wilde legally liable for the considerable expenses Queensberry had incurred in his defense, which left Wilde bankrupt. But this was just the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s downfall, after Wilde left the court, a warrant for his arrest was applied for on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.

Flourish 3

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