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Trial of Oscar Wilde begins

St Pauls, London The 26th of April 1895 AD

The great Irish playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde led a charmed and charming life in the upper echelons of literary and social London in the 1880s and into the 1890s. He was born in Dublin , the second son of Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane, both of them authors, though Sir William was primarily a gifted ear and eye surgeon.

After school in Enniskillen Wilde studied at Trinity College Dublin, then Magdalen College Oxford, where he gained a reputation for his writing and his wit, as well as his sometimes too stylish dress sense. After graduating from Oxford in 1878 with a double first in Greats, Wilde lived in Paris and London, and travelled in America.

Although he seems to have had a relationship with painter Frank Miles after university, and probably others while still a student, in 1884 Wilde met and married Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons and a seemingly fulfilling existence. He was, however, living a double life, using rent boys and visiting homosexual brothels, as well as having an intense relationship with Robert Ross.

At this time the artistic world and the social circle in which Wilde moved was very tolerant of homosexuality – the Foreign Secretary and future Prime Minister Lord Rosebery was almost certainly gay, for example. The aesthetic and decadent movements held sway in the arts. The Uranian poets were writing works of obvious homoerotic and indeed pederastic content. There was a movement toward homosexual law reform. This tolerance changed in the late 1890s, Oscar Wilde’s trials being the great catalyst of that change.

Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) in 1891. The two travelled together widely, were seen dining together at the best restaurants, and were to all intents and purposes a couple, though Douglas later said that their relationship was not sexual for some time until Wilde’s pressure overcame his doubts. Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, having lost one son already who it is thought committed suicide over an affair with Lord Rosebery, tried to intervene and split Wilde and Douglas. When Queensberry left a card with the message “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite,” [sic] at Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, Wilde disastrously decided to pursue him for libel.

The libel case against Queensberry was a mad decision. The Marquess had the money and power to organise investigations into Wilde’s earlier activities, and a series of rent boys and other young male partners used by Wilde appeared at the libel trial. Edward Carson, representing Queensberry, made the previously self-confident Wilde very uneasy during cross-examination. Edward Clarke, Wilde’s barrister, persuaded his client to withdraw the libel prosecution. But the damage was done, and though the presiding magistrate John Bridge adjourned the court for ninety minutes to give Wilde the opportunity to flee to France, he was too shocked to act, and the warrant for his arrest on charges of gross indecency was served.

Thus the trial of Oscar Wilde began on April 26 1895. His procurer, Alfred Taylor, was his co-defendant in the case. This time Wilde was subdued, aware of the dangers he faced, his confidence of the first action no more in evidence. Clarke again represented Wilde, and his brilliance weighed in Wilde’s favour, but not enough to secure a victory. After three hours of consideration the jury announced it could not reach a verdict.

Though even Carson lobbied for the case to be dropped, a re-trial was arranged. It is possible that the then Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, was blackmailed by Queensberry to continue with the case or face revelations about his affair with the Marquess’s other son. Alternatively the Liberal government was simply unable to drop the case for fear of a public backlash.

At the retrial the prosecution had learned its lesson, and used a limited number of damning witnesses, dropping those whose testimony was weaker. Wilde was found guilty, and on May 25 1895 was sentenced to two years’ hard labour, served in Pentonville, Wandsworth , and Reading prisons. When he left prison Wilde’s health was poor, he was bankrupt and for much of his old circle he had become a social pariah. He spent the rest of his life abroad, dying in Paris on November 30 1900.

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Comment

From Martin P on 26th April 2011
I had understood that Charles Parker's testimony (along with that of others) at Wilde's trial clearly showed his use of rentboys. Wilde was also blackmailed by rentboy Alfred Wood. Recently uncovered letters by Wilde and Douglas's companion Maurice Schwabe supposedly indicate Wilde had been introduced to the rentboy scene by Schwabe. When Wilde began such activity is indeed, however, not clear.

From Dr T on 23rd September 2010
There is no evidence that he was seeing "rent boys" and doing other things.

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