Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wilde's Trials

As I told my students yesterday, I love Oscar Wilde's wit.

His life story, however, makes me sad. In 1895, Wilde was convicted of 25 counts of "gross indecency" and sentenced to 2 years' hard labor. Upon his release, he was forced to live in poverty and relative anonymity, under an assumed name, in Paris. He died of cerebral meningitis in 1900. He was 46 years old.

The trials surrounding Wilde's homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his affairs with other young men is probably one of the most famous events in the history of homosexuality in the 19th century.

"An Acte for the punysshemente of the vice of buggerie" was enacted by Henry VII in 1533: known as "The Buggery Act," it rendered the act of sodomy punishable by hanging. Anyone convicted under the Acte would also have their property seized by the government.

Even members of the clergy, if convicted, could be executed for buggery, although they could not be executed if convicted of murder.

The law was suspended for a decade, from 1553-1563, but then reenacted. While there is insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions regarding the number of prosecutions for buggery in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is evidence that prosecutions increased over the course of the 18th and 19th century, as sexual mores shifted.

The last execution for the crime of buggery took place in 1836. In 1861, the death penalty for the crime of buggery was replaced by imprisonment for a term of not less than ten years.

In the 1880's, social purity groups began to seek to control "male lust" (good luck with that). Their focus was generally on the treatment of young girls and prostitutes; they sought to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 and to curtail the operation of brothels.

Through their influence, however, The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in 1885. Section 11 of this Act stipulated that acts of of "gross indecency" were punishable by imprisonment.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act did not stipulate, however, what constituted an act of "gross indecency." It was interpreted as refering to male homosexual relationships, even if consensual.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde, already a well-known poet, novelist and playwright, began a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry (a famous boxer in his own right), was outraged and began to cause public scenes in an attempt to end the affair.

In February of 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left his calling card at The Albermarle Club in London, a club frequented by Wilde and his wife (yes, he was married and had two children), with instructions that the card was to be presented to Oscar Wilde.

This is a copy of the card:


Queensberry had written on the back of the card: "For Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite."

Yes, he spelled it wrong.

When Wilde returned to London several weeks later and was presented with the card, he decided to sue Queensberry for libel.

This was a disastrous move, to say the least.

Wilde repeatedly assured prosecutors that there was no truth whatsoever to Queensberry's claims, even though he himself knew that there was. Apparently, Wilde didn't believe Queensberry's attorneys would dig up young men from Wilde's past to testify against him.

Or offer Wilde's letters to Douglas as evidence.

When they did, Wilde had to withdraw the charge of libel, obviously, which he did in late March of 1895. That same day, however, Wilde himself was arrested and charged with 25 counts of "gross indecency" as (vaguely) defined by the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

The jury in the first criminal trial was unable to reach a verdict; Wilde was therefore free on bail for several weeks before he was retried a second time. On May 25, 1895, Wilde and his friend Alfred Taylor, were convicted.

In a little over three months, Oscar Wilde went from being one of the most celebrated wits in London society to a convicted felon, sentenced to two years' hard labor.

The transcripts of Wilde's trials are fascinating legal documents of a period of British history that, to most of us today, seems nearly unbelievable.

Great Britain repealed the buggery laws pertaining to same-sex consensual sexual relations in 1967.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."