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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

On the Trials and Punishment of Oscar Wilde

How Oscar Wilde Got in Trouble


Right before Oscar Wilde's trials in April and May of 1895, life was good. He had two plays running in London, The Importance of Being Earnest, and An Ideal Husband. His charm and wit were legendary, making him one of the most sought-after intellectuals in all of London. He carried himself with elegance, eloquence, and sophistication. Even those who disliked him from a distance for his effeminate dandyism could not resist his charisma when they met him in person.

But dark rumors swirled about Wilde's not-so-secret gay lifestyle. His sexuality had become less a matter of speculation and more an assumed fact. Since his first gay sexual experience with 17-year-old Robbie Ross in 1886, Wilde lived a double life. On the one hand, he was a conventionally married man and father of two. On the other, he was carrying on illicit sexual liaisons with a revolving door of young men. And as his fame grew, so did his recklessness. [1]

This was dangerous because being gay in Victorian England was a crime. The Criminal Law Amendment of 1885 criminalized any sexual act committed between men as "gross indecency." Though technically a misdemeanor, those convicted could be imprisoned for up to two years. [2]

A self-described aesthetic like Wilde promoted a brand celebrating the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, beauty, and comfort while avoiding everything displeasing or ugly. Incarceration in a dank Victorian prison for two years would be antithetical to all that.

And so it would prove to be.

There's every chance Wilde could have continued living his double life indefinitely. Unproven rumors may have dogged him, true, but there was no absolute proof. Libel laws in England at this time meant accusations of immoral behavior had to be backed up with conclusive evidence. Otherwise, the accuser put himself in serious legal and financial jeopardy with libel charges. Given those risks, few would be motivated enough to roll the dice in court with a charge of libel.

Unfortunately for Wilde, the Marquess of Queensberry was very motivated. Queensberry was the father of Wilde's best friend and lover, Lord Alfred "Bossie" Douglas. The idea of a sexual relationship between his son and the older writer infuriated the Marquess to the point that he began waging a scorched earth smear campaign to destroy Wilde's reputation. Egged on by the taunts of his unrepentant son, the father looked for opportunities to provoke a public confrontation.

On 28 February 1895, it all came to a head when Wilde went to the Albemarle Club. As he entered, the porter handed him an envelope from Queensberry that declared, "For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite [sic]." [3] Such a charge could not go unanswered. Feeling himself shamefully libeled, Wilde thought he had no choice but to pursue legal action.

It turned out to be a disastrous decision, giving Queensberry the kind of dramatic public confrontation he was looking for. [4] Douglas saw this as the perfect opportunity to destroy his hated father's reputation. He encouraged Wilde to file formal charges of libel against him. Wilde did so, with Queensberry arrested and released on bail the same day.

On the surface, Wilde was confident that he could prevail in court. The burden of proof in these kinds of cases was very high. Queensberry would have to prove two things: first, Wilde was really a 'sodomite,' and second, that this accusation was somehow in the public interest. [5]

Wilde and Douglas were ready to defend their relationship as strictly Platonic in court. Any accusations of sexual impropriety between the two would simply be denied. Of course, this was a lie; they were in fact romantically and sexually involved and had been for a few years. Still, the flimsy hope was that denying the relationship would create a stalemate, leaving Queensberry's word against theirs. Such an impasse would be insufficient to prove the charge that Wilde was 'posing as a sodomite.'

Wilde and Douglas
Wilde and Douglas in 1893

With that strategy in mind, Wilde went to see whether esteemed London barrister Edward Clarke would take the case. Clarke point-blank told Wilde, "I can only accept this brief, Mr. Wilde, if you assure me on your honor as an English gentleman that there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you." Wilde replied that the charges were "absolutely false and groundless." [6]

At first, it looked like Queensberry had little evidence other than some ambiguously gay references from Wilde's writing, specifically The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, this was nothing new, and Wilde felt himself on firm ground defending himself against such charges. Early on, the consensus was that Queensberry had woefully overplayed his hand and would now suffer the legal consequences for his outrageously provocative behavior.

In retrospect, there was another more astute view that should have given Wilde pause. Several friends like George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris pleaded with him to drop the case and predicted disaster if he didn't. [7] After all, English jury trials were notoriously unpredictable. Anything could happen. They also warned that Queensberry would garner sympathy as a concerned father looking out for his son's reputation against an older, predatory pervert. In this scenario, Wilde would look like the villain.

This is precisely how it played out.

Wilde was about to discover that he had spectacularly miscalculated.


1. The Libel Trial (3-5 April 1895)


Before the actual libel trial began, Wilde and his attorney received the document called a Plea of Justification laying out the case Queensberry's legal team intended to make. It was a troubling read. Whatever confidence he had about the trial soon vanished. Unbeknownst to him, two ex-Scotland Yard detectives hired by Queensberry had uncovered a treasure trove of damning evidence and witnesses willing to talk about Wilde's sex life.

Reading through those witness statements, Wilde knew he was in trouble. Paragraph after paragraph detailed acts of 'gross indecency' with a long list of young men, many of them teenagers. Fifteen specific counts were listed with allegations that Wilde had solicited 'sodomy' with mostly teenage boys. [8] Though not every event outlined in the charges was 100% accurate, much of it was still spot on, and Wilde knew it. He later described the miserable experience of going over the Plea of Justification, line by line, with his lawyer, denying each charge and "...with a serious face telling serious lies to a bald man." [9]

He was trapped in a no-win situation. No matter what the jury decided, going to trial now meant public shame, social ruin, and quite possibly prison. However, dropping the case before it even started wasn't an option because that would look like an admission of guilt, leaving him open to criminal charges of gross indecency. There was no turning back.

The case opened on 3 April 1895 to a packed courtroom eager to witness the showdown between the proud aristocrat and the cocky celebrity. The first morning was spent with Wilde in the witness box answering softball questions from his own lawyer, Sir Edward Clarke. Wilde's wit was on full display, provoking several outbursts of laughter from the audience. Meanwhile, Queensberry sat in the dock, glowering at his enemy.

However, he need not have worried because his own barrister was about to have his turn at Wilde.

It was a bloodbath.

The afternoon session saw Queensberry's barrister, Edward Carson, begin what became the slow but methodical destruction of Oscar Wilde's reputation. It started easy enough, with Carson asking Wilde about his age. Wilde said he was 39, but Carson corrected him, saying that he was actually 40. This may seem like a minor point, but it showed Wilde's slippery attitude to the truth while simultaneously highlighting the age difference between him and the twenty-one-year-old Douglas. [10]

The dogged barrister then quizzed Wilde about his writing's supposed homoerotic elements. The focus on Wilde's literary output may seem like a weak argument to make, and alone it would have been, but it was actually only one part of a two-pronged attack by the defense.

First, Carson intended to show that Wilde's writing was filled with homoerotic references that proved he was at posing as a 'sodomite.' Second, he would demonstrate that he was not merely posing as a sodomite, but actually was one by presenting first-hand witness testimony from teens who had sexual encounters with Wilde.

Carson started with a controversial short story (The Priest and the Acolyte) from the first (and only) edition of The Chameleon, a journal where Wilde was the editor, though not the actual author of the story in question. The story tells about a pedophile priest who develops an all-consuming passion for his fourteen-year-old acolyte. The story's climax has the two lovers committing suicide by drinking poison. Needless to say, the story was a scandal in Victorian England. Here is an excerpt from Carson's cross-examination of Wilde concerning this story.

Carson-- You read "The Priest and the Acolyte"?


C-- You have no doubt whatever that that was an improper story?

W--From the literary point of view it was highly improper. It is impossible for a man of literature to judge it otherwise; by literature, meaning treatment, selection of subject, and the like. I thought the treatment rotten and the subject rotten.

C--You are of the opinion, I believe, that there is no such thing as an immoral book?


C--May I take it that you think "The Priest and the Acolyte" was not immoral?

W--It was worse; it was badly written.

C--Was not the story that of a priest who fell in love with a boy who served him at the altar, and was discovered by the rector in the priest's room, and a scandal arose?

W--I have read it only once, in last November, and nothing will induce me to read it again. I don't care for it. It doesn't interest me...

C--Do you think the story blasphemous?

W--I think it violated every artistic canon of beauty.

C-- I wish to know whether you thought the story blasphemous?

W--The story filled me with disgust. The end was wrong.

C--Answer the question, sir. Did you or did you not consider the story blasphemous?

W--I thought it disgusting. [11]

After this, Carson then read long passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray and then interrogated Wilde on its meaning.

C--But let us go over it [a passage from Dorian Gray] phrase by phrase. "I quite admit that I adored you madly." What do you say to that? Have you ever adored a young man madly?

W—No, not madly; I prefer love-that is a higher form.

C--Never mind about that. Let us keep down to the level we are at now.

W—I have never given adoration to anybody except myself. (Loud laughter.)

C--I suppose you think that a very smart thing?

W—Not at all. [12]

And so it went, Carson reading passages from Dorian Gray and Wilde responding with crowd-pleasing wit that also doubled as subtle evasion. Knowing that Wilde did many of the things he was accused of, those evasions become quite evident to the reader today. Defending himself against literary ambiguities and flowery language open to endless interpretations was comfortable territory for Wilde. If this had been the entirety of Queensberry's defense of his sodomy libel, Wilde quite possibly would have secured a conviction and won the case.

But Carson wasn't done, not even close. He had saved his most devastating salvos for the afternoon session. He shifted focus from the homoerotic subtext of Wilde's writing to darker, more specific allegations of sexual misconduct backed by witness testimony. Here the work of Queensberry's detectives paid off.

Sir Edward Clarke - Wilde's barrister in all three trials

First, Carson grilled Wilde about his relationship with a seventeen-year-old working-class boy, Alfred Wood. Wood, who slept with both Douglas and Wilde, blackmailed Wilde for £30 for some incriminating love letters he had found in Douglas's coat pocket. Carson knew all about the relationship and peppered Wilde with questions: "Did you ask [Wood] to your house on Tite Street?' 'Did you ever have immoral practices with Wood?' 'Did you ever put your own person [penis] between his legs?' And so on. [13]

Carson then moved on to Edward Shelley, another young man that had a brief sexual affair with Wilde. "Did you ask [Wood] to your house at Tite Street?' "Was your wife away at the time at Torquay?' Did you ever have immoral practices with Wood?' ' Did you ever open his trousers?' 'Did you put your hand on his person?' 'Did [Shelly] stay all night [at the Albemarle Hotel] and leave the next morning at eight o'clock?' 'Each of you having taken off all of your clothes, did you take his person in your hands in bed?' [14]

Next was sixteen-year-old Alphonse Conway, a newsboy and yet another of Wilde's former partners. According to Conway's later testimony, he went on an evening walk with Wilde on a remote coastal road outside Worthing. During that walk, Wilde put his hands down Conway's trousers and masturbated him until he 'spent.' The same scenario played out on another evening walk a few nights later. [15] Wilde capped the relationship by giving the lad an inscribed silver cigarette case as a parting gift.

And so ended the first day of the trial. The press had a field day with the day's salacious revelations, finding no shortage of brilliant Wildean wit and illicit sex to report on.

Unfortunately for Wilde, Carson was only getting started.

The next day went even worse. Carson questioned Wilde on his relationship with Alfred Taylor. That Carson knew about Taylor was terrible news because it offered a glimpse into the seedier corners of Wilde's sex life, corners that looked simply awful to the average person viewing the trial.

Taylor had procured a series of attractive teens for Wilde to seduce: Fred Atkins, Charles Parker, and his brother William, Sidney Mavor, and Ernest Scarfe. Taylor was a kind of pimp catering to Wilde's taste for handsome working-class teens willing to go the extra mile for a little celebrity attention and some cash. Carson asked whether Wilde had had 'intimacies' with each of them. Wilde could only deny each accusation by claiming that he was blind to social class and honestly preferred the company of much younger men, but not for sex, only companionship. [16]

Probably the most damaging moment for Wilde came when he was questioned about his relationship with Walter Grainger. It's worth quoting at length because it revealed a rare misstep for Wilde on the witness stand, but it was one that Carson was quick to pounce on.

Carson--Do you know Walter Grainger?


C--How old is he?

W--He was about sixteen when I knew him. He was a servant at a certain house in High Street, Oxford, where Lord Alfred Douglas had rooms. I have stayed there several times. Grainger waited at table. I never dined with him. If it is one's duty to serve, it is one's duty to serve; and if it is one's pleasure to dine, it is one's pleasure to dine.

C--Did you ever kiss him?

W--Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.

C--Was that the reason why you did not kiss him?

W--Oh, Mr. Carson, you are pertinently insolent.

C--Did you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?

W--No. It is a childish question.

C--Did you ever put that forward as a reason why you never kissed the boy?

W--Not at all.

C--Why, sir, did you mention that this boy was extremely ugly?

W---For this reason. If I were asked why I did not kiss a door-mat, I should say because I do not like to kiss door-mats. I do not know why I mentioned that he was ugly, except that I was stung by the insolent question you put to me and the way you have insulted me throughout this hearing. Am I to be cross-examined because I do not like it?

C--Why did you mention his ugliness?

W--It is ridiculous to imagine that any such thing could have occurred under any circumstances.

C--Then why did you mention his ugliness, I ask you?

W--Perhaps you insulted me by an insulting question.

C--Was that a reason why you should say the boy was ugly?--

[The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson's repeated sharply: "Why? Why? Why did you add that?" At last the witness answered]:

W--You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously. I admit it.

C--Then you said it flippantly?

W--Oh, yes, it was a flippant answer. [17]

For many in the court that day, this exchange was devastating for Wilde. It sounded like Wilde's only reason for not kissing Grainger was that he was ugly. The implication, of course, was that Wilde only kissed pretty boys. Later that day, Carson announced that he had even more witnesses to call in the coming days. Plus, Alfred Wood was back in London and willing to testify. Charles Parker would also appear in court to tell his story. Finally, the Savoy Hotel staff were willing to attest to the 'immoralities' they had seen in Wilde's room. Carson was just getting started. [18]

So ended the calamitous third day.

Wilde's barrister saw the writing on the wall. He realized that the jury would almost certainly vote to acquit Queensberry based on the carpet bombing of evidence that Carson had presented so far and promised to present in the coming days. If the trial continued with a non-stop barrage of damning witness testimony, the stain on Wilde's reputation would only deepen. There was no viable road to victory. Clarke recommended consenting to a 'not guilty' verdict for Queensberry on the charge of 'posing as a sodomite.' This was another way of saying that Queensberry's accusation had merit.

That is what happened. Queensberry was acquitted and became a folk hero of sorts, the father who had risked everything, even prison, to protect the honor and virtue of his ungrateful son against the disgusting predations of a middle-aged pervert. He was greeted by cheering crowds after the trial. Wilde's legal team hoped that it would end there, and Queensberry would drop any further legal challenges against Wilde.

This was not to be. Queensberry was about to go on the offensive.


Illustration of Oscar Wilde's Criminal Trial, 1895
Illustration of Oscar Wilde's Criminal Trial, 1895

2. Prelude to the Two Criminal Trials of Oscar Wilde

The next day (6 April), Queensberry urged the Crown to charge Wilde with gross indecency based on the libel trial's revelations. The Crown did so, issuing an arrest warrant later that afternoon and taking Wilde into custody that night. He was charged under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act for 'committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons.' [19]

To add insult to injury, Wilde was denied bail and had to sit behind bars at Holloway as his life fell apart during that awful month of April. The legal expenses in the libel trial had drained his bank accounts. His two plays running in London were soon canceled, eliminating his last income sources. Creditors soon called in their debts and forced an estate auction of everything Wilde owned. And this was all before Queensberry added his own legal fees to his debts. [20] Finally, Constance, his long-devoted wife and mother of his two sons, was advised to divorce Wilde and cut him out of her life for good. Wilde lost custody of his boys and would never see them again.

The committal proceedings began the next day (7 April). Wilde found himself in the dock with Alfred Taylor, the man now infamous for procuring attractive lower-class teens for Wilde to sleep with. The same witnesses mentioned in the libel trial were brought forward: the Parker brothers, Alfred Wood, Fred Atkins, Sidney Mavor, and Edward Shelley.

All were willing to testify about their sexual encounters with Wilde in return for immunity. It also quickly became apparent that Queensberry was funding at least some of the witnesses. Edward Shelley was paid 20 guineas a day (he earned 15 a week at his job) for two days' attendance at the trial. The Prosecution bought Charles Parker a brand new suit for his court appearance. [21]

At this point, everyone assumed Wilde was guilty. The public lapped up the scandal with righteous indignation. Jeering crowds met Wilde every day when he arrived at court. The press reveled in the details of Wilde's sins. The National Observer wrote, "There is no man or woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry for destroying the High Priest of Decadence." [22]


3. The First Criminal Trial (April 26 to May 1, 1895)


After three weeks in jail, Wilde looked 'haggard and worn' when the trial began on 26 April. After reading the long list of charges, the prosecution went to work. What followed over the next five days was graphic testimony filled with all the lurid details of Wilde's sexual encounters with each man.

First, there was Charlie Parker, who testified that Wilde 'committed the act of sodomy with me.' He described how Wilde asked him " imagine that I was a woman and that he was my lover. I had to keep up the illusion. I used to sit on his knees and he used to play with my privates as a man might amuse himself with a girl." Parker told of giving and receiving hand-jobs with Wilde, though he claimed he resisted demands to perform oral sex. [23]

Alfred Wood testified how at dinner one night in a private room at the Florence Restaurant, Wilde had put his hands in Wood's pants and persuaded Wood to do the same for him.

Fred Adkins told how he once walked in to find Wilde in bed with Maurice Schwabe.

Edward Shelley confessed that Wilde had 'kissed and embraced' him after dinner at the Albermarle Hotel.

In addition to the stories from these young men, there was equally damaging testimony from numerous landladies, hotel staff, and others willing to link Wilde with many of the men who testified. The chambermaid at the Hotel Savoy reported finding sheets stained with bodily fluids after Wilde's stays. [24]

On the third day, the Prosecution read out the full transcript from the Queensberry libel trial. Thus, the earlier revelations from Wood, Conway, and Shelley were added to the record.

Wilde's defense was still headed by Edward Clarke, his lawyer from the disastrous libel trial. Given the terrible outcome of that case and perhaps feeling a bit guilty that it happened under his watch, Clarke represented Wilde pro bono, not that Wilde had any money to pay him anyway.

Clarke tried to discredit the witnesses, not a bad strategy given most of the accusers' shady backgrounds. He noted that several of them, like Alfred Wood, were known liars and blackmailers. This was indeed true. Fred Atkins was removed when he perjured himself by denying involvement in a separate blackmail case.

Clarke noted that Shelley continued a friendly correspondence with Wilde for months after the supposedly traumatic encounter at the Albermarle Hotel, so it must not have been all that bad. Perhaps less convincing was the claim that the soiled bedsheets at the Savoy, which the housekeeper had seen, were nothing more than the result of diarrhea. Actually, in the case of the soiled sheets, it turned out that the cleaner had mistaken Douglas's room for Wilde's. However, Wilde said nothing to correct the error for fear of implicating Douglas. [25]

Moreover, Clarke argued that no man in his right mind would have instituted proceedings against Queensberry in the first place if he had been guilty of the supposed libel. Only a man convinced of his innocence would stay in England after reading Queensberry's Plea of Justification. Only an insane man would stay if he were, in fact, guilty. Remember, this Plea contained a list of witnesses willing to testify that Wilde was indeed a sodomite. Clarke said, "Insane would hardly be the word for it, if Mr. Wilde really had been guilty and yet faced the investigation." [26]

When the Prosecution led by Gill began its cross-examination, the focus turned to two sonnets by Alfred Douglas, 'In Praise of Shame,' and 'The Two Loves.' Both sonnets were then read aloud before Gill asked Wilde to explain the "love that dare not speak its name." Next came Wilde's now-legendary reply.

Gill-- "What is the "Love that dare not speak its name"?

Wilde-- "The Love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it." (Loud applause, mingled with some hisses.) [27]

When Wilde finished, a hush was followed by a burst of thunderous applause from the gallery. This was Wilde at his most eloquent. This idealized vision of love between older and younger men was traced back to ancient Greece. In his own life, this idealized affection came closest to reality in his relationships with Robbie Ross and Alfred Douglas. But as Wilde biographer Mathew Sturgis points out, this ideal was hardly the case in his fleeting encounters with the many other young men (Wood, Shelley, Atkins, Conway, Schwabe, and others). [28]

Clarke's closing speech again sought to cast doubt on the Prosecution's witnesses. He added that Wilde's willingness to prosecute Queensberry for libel showed none of 'the cowardice of guilt.' The ideas expressed in his writing might be 'inflated, exaggerated, and absurd,' but so what? Those were the products of a great artist. Why should that condemn him? Yes, Wilde showed poor judgment in associating himself with lower-class young men of dubious virtue. Still, his generosity toward those less fortunate should not be equated with guilt. [29]

The Prosecution closed with a simple appeal to common sense. Why would these witnesses come forward to give testimony that blackened their own reputations? What good would it do them when weighed by the cost? And then there was the pattern in Wilde's relations with these men. Taylor introduced them to Wilde, who then seduced them. When it was done, Wilde would give a few pounds and a silver cigarette case. There was a pattern of behavior in the testimony that implied guilt. Surely, the Prosecution argued, this was enough corroborating evidence to convict. [30]

While most, including Wilde, were convinced that a guilty verdict was imminent, the jury could not reach a decision. The Prosecution immediately announced that a retrial would take place in three weeks. Wilde was denied bail in the meantime and returned to his jail cell.


4. The Second Criminal Trial (May 20-26, 1895)


Wilde spent only a few days in jail this time. On 3 May, bail was granted, but in the amount of £5,000. By now Wilde was utterly broke and needed a few days to secure the funds through friends and sympathizers. On 7 May, he was released. But his problems didn't go away with this temporary freedom. Queensberry was determined to prevent a reunion between Wilde and Douglas and so showed up at the Midland Hotel to confront Wilde.

Douglas was not even in London, but Queensberry suspected otherwise. Wilde fled to the Great Northern Hotel across the street, but Queensberry followed him there as well. Wilde fled again. This tragicomedy happened a few more times throughout the evening, with Wilde fleeing to a different hotel and Queensberry following like some relentless side-burned Greek fury. In the end, Wilde took refuge at his mother's house. [31]

Wilde's mental health was in rapid decline. He began drinking heavily between trials to dull the pain. Many suspected that he would commit suicide rather than face prison. Urged to flee abroad before the second trial started, Wilde refused. He wrote to Douglas that he would rather be a martyr than a fugitive. "A false name, a disguise, a hunted life, all that is not for me, to whom you have been revealed that high hill where beautiful things are transfigured." [32] So Wilde stayed, even though he could have easily fled to France.

The second trial before a new jury began on 20 May. This time he faced eight counts of gross indecency with Charles Parker, Alfred Wood, Edward Shelley, and some boys at the Savoy Hotel. In the second case, the evidence and arguments closely mirrored those given at the first trial and need not be repeated here.

Queensberry was there every day, no longer glowering in rage but now gloating at the disgrace of his enemy. Wilde sat through the second trial in a posture of apathetic indifference, doodling and paying little attention to the proceedings. He was resigned to a guilty verdict; the trial was a mere formality to that eventual outcome.

There appeared a brief glimmer of light in the darkness when the judge dismissed Edward Shelley's testimony as unreliable without corroboration, of which there was none. Clarke was also able to cast doubt on the 'dirty sheets' testimony from the Savoy by getting the chambermaid to admit that she was near-sighted and never wore glasses to work. [33]

While the public was convinced of his guilt, others were not sure. In the first trial, the Prosecution's case had been more overwhelming and had still resulted in a hung jury. Maybe the same thing would happen here, convincing the Prosecution to finally drop the case rather than pursue a third criminal trial.

Wilde, though, was ready for a guilty verdict and spent what would be his last night of freedom saying farewell to friends. He wrote to Douglas, "Every great love has its tragedy, and now ours has too, but to have known and loved you with such profound devotion, to have had you for a part of my life, the only part I now consider beautiful, is enough for me... Our souls were made for one another, and by knowing yours through love, mine has transcended many evils, understood perfection, and entered into the divine essence of things." [34] Here, finally, was Wilde's idealized Greek love in practice.

The next day went as everyone expected. Oscar Wilde was found guilty on all charges except the one pertaining to Edward Shelley. Judge Wills offered these scathing comments to Wilde and co-defendant, Alfred Taylor:

"People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worse case I have ever tried. that you, Taylor, kept a kind of male brothel it is impossible to doubt. And that you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is equally impossible to doubt." [35]

Judge Wills sentenced Wilde to two years of hard labor, the maximum allowed by law, and made sure everyone knew that he wished it were more: "In my judgment, it is totally inadequate for such a case as this." [36]


5. After the Trial: Oscar Wilde's Life in Prison


He was stripped, examined, and issued a drab prison uniform before being given his first daily dose of potassium bromide, a libido-quelling sedative given to the prisoners to keep them docile. He wept when his trademark locks were cut. [37] His prison cell was a 13 X 7-foot bare rectangle with little more than a plank for a bed, a thin blanket, and a gray, opaque window as his only connection to the outside world. Used to dining on fine cuisine, prison food made him sick to his stomach. [38]

The regime at Pentonville was brutal. Inmates were kept isolated for all but a few hours each day. They were not permitted to speak to one another, even on those rare occasions when they were together. Punishments for talking to fellow inmates ranged from the loss of food to the loss of privileges (what few they had), to complete solitary confinement.

For Wilde, a man who had lived for social interaction, the prison regime was a brutal shock. Contact with the outside world was not permitted for the first three months, and then only one letter - one sent and one received - was allowed. Prison time moved at a crawl, and Wilde's sharp mind was dulled by the potassium bromide he was forced to take and the lack of intellectual stimulation. [39]

After six months, he was transferred to the prison at Reading. During the transfer, Wilde was forced to stand handcuffed in his prison uniform on the public platform at Clapham Junction waiting for the train. Realizing that here was the famous Oscar Wilde standing humbled in chains, a crowd gathered to jeer at the poor man. Wilde recalled the traumatizing experience later on. "When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob."[40]

At Reading, conditions improved a little bit, though not by much. The warden, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaacson, made the gentleman prisoner's life hell, bragging that he was 'knocking the nonsense out of Wilde.' If this heartless treatment continued for the duration of his sentence, Wilde might not have survived.

Fortunately, after a few months, Isaacson was replaced by Major Nelson, who was much kinder and more sympathetic to his famous prisoner's plight. The kind-hearted Nelson made sure that Wilde received spectacles to read and treated a painful ear infection, something the previous warden had ignored. His diet was significantly improved to the point that he started putting on weight again. He was also exempted from the hard labor regime, working in the garden instead.

Nelson even had Wilde draw up a list of books to be added to the prison library. Nelson allowed Wilde to read books and write a page a day. Wilde used this opportunity to write De Profundis (from the depths), a cathartic purge of all his resentment that had built up toward his former lover, Douglas. These intellectual outlets worked wonders on his attitude. His spirit began to rebound, and he was optimistic about the future again. By the end of his sentence, Wilde was upbeat, though chastened, and quite popular with his fellow prisoners and wardens alike. [41] It looked like the old Oscar might truly be coming back from the depths. Sadly, this was not to be the case.


6. Oscar Wilde's Sad Life After Prison


As Wilde's release date approached, he was both excited at the prospect of freedom and terrified at the idea he was to be a social pariah for the rest of his life. [42] When he was released, he went to France to escape the hatred and contempt that English society felt for him. These last three years were spent struggling to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. Constance had not divorced him but allowed him a modest £150 annual pension under the condition that he never hook up with Lord Douglas again.

Wilde soon broke that rule. Even after the bitter condemnation of Douglas in Wilde's De Profundis, the two reconciled and briefly lived together in Naples. It soon became apparent that whatever love the two had had before was gone. After a few months, they anticlimactically went their separate ways. Wilde had changed from his prison experience. Douglas had not.

The spark of Wilde's creativity was gone as well. He struggled mightily with depression caused by his financial and social anxieties. After his break with Douglas, he confessed to his friend Robbie Ross that he couldn't bear being alone. [43] In 1898, he moved to Paris with the hopes of kickstarting his writing career again. It was not to be. Depression made him turn to drink, which did nothing for his writing. Other than the Ballad of Reading Gaol, completed soon after his release from prison and published in 1898, and a few letters on prison reform, Wilde wrote little else.

He had left prison determined to leave behind the 'madness' of his sexual past. This did not last long. Shunned by polite society and deeply lonely, Wilde turned to teenage male prostitutes to fill the void. One wonders if Wilde finally concluded that if he were going to be forever despised, what was the point in denying himself the pleasures he so craved? And so he lingered on in this state a few more years, impoverished, shuffling from one cheap Parisian hotel to another, creatively sterile, and given over to drink and male prostitutes.

The sad remnants of Oscar Wilde died of an illness in 1900. Today, he is a tragic symbol of a good man persecuted for his sexuality by a repressive and backward system. This is true as far as it goes. He did not deserve the draconian judicial and social punishments he received for being gay. On the other hand, some of Wilde's sexual exploits haven't aged well. Alfred Taylor did procure working-class teenage boys for Wilde to use sexually. That he paid them for their services with trinkets doesn't change the nature of these transactions or the power imbalance between him and his targets. Some were legal adults, but others were under eighteen and therefore much more vulnerable.

And what about Constance, the heartbroken wife and mother of his children that he so callously betrayed? After his conviction, she changed her last name back to Holland and fled England with her sons to live in Switzerland. His behavior had ruined her life, though she truly loved him until her dying day. After he left prison, the annual allowance of £150 that she authorized saved Wilde from utter destitution. Even so, she understood that his reckless behavior meant that things could never go back to the way they were.

Her love and devotion were tempered by the clear-eyed awareness that Wilde's nature meant he never could truly reciprocate those feelings. After Wilde reconciled with Douglas and they lived together in Naples, she bitterly wrote to a friend: "punishment has not done him much good since it has not taught him the lesson he most needed, namely that he is not the only person in the world" [44] In other words, 'same old Oscar.' She never hated her husband and admired his artistic genius to her dying day, but she understood that getting too close to Oscar Wilde would only bring her pain and suffering. As painful as it was to her, she kept her distance.

Constance Holland died in 1899 after a debilitating and painful spinal illness. Her suffering is often overlooked in the posthumous drive to make Wilde into some kind of martyr for artistic freedom of expression and open sexuality. She seemed so dull and conventional compared to her flamboyant husband. How could she compete? Fair enough, but at the end of the day, whose love was the most enduring in this story? Whose love was truly the most selfless? And yet, who suffered the most collateral damage from Wilde's actions? There's more than enough tragedy to go around here.

Does that negate everything Oscar Wilde did? Were his contemporaries right to shun him the way we do Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby? That's for you to decide.

But if we're looking for moral purity and perfection in our cultural icons, whatever that means, and however that is defined, then we'll forever be disappointed. Wilde was in many respects a decent human being, and it's hard not to feel profound sympathy for his plight. That said, his flaws should not be glossed over.

Still, his contributions to literature and culture were real and significant. The Picture of Dorian Gray is still a great novel. The Importance of Being Earnest is still a funny and witty play. Salome amazes audiences to this day. His epigrams remain witty, funny, paradoxical, sage, and iconoclastic, even a century later. In short, Wilde left the world culturally richer than he found it, even though he left a trail of ruin and suffering for himself and those closest to him.



1. Joseph Pearce. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Kindle Edition, Ignatius Press, 2015, 497.

2. Matthew Sturgis. Oscar: a Life. Head of Zeus, 2018, 340.

3. Pearce, 325.

4. Sturgis, 544.

5. Ibid., 541.

6. “The Trials of Oscar Wilde: An Account.” Edited by Douglas O Linder, Famous Trials, UMKC School of Law,

7. Pearce, 326.

8. Ibid.

9. Sturgis, 547.

10. Ibid., 550.

11. “Testimony of Oscar Wilde on Cross Examination (April 3,1895)(Literary Part).” Edited by Douglas O Linder, Famous Trials, UMKC School of Law,

12. Ibid.

13. Sturgis, 552.

14. Ibid.

15. Sturgis, 517.

16. Sturgis, 553.

17. “Testimony of Oscar Wilde on Cross Examination (April 3,1895)(Factual Part).” Edited by Douglas O Linder, Famous Trials, UMKC School of Law ,

18. Sturgis, 537.

19. Pearce, 327.

20. Sturgis, 566.

21 Ibid., 562.

22. Ibid., 564-565.

23. Ibid., 568.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., 569.

26. Ibid.

27. “Testimony of Oscar Wilde.” Edited by Douglas O Liner, Famous Trials, UMKC School of Law,

28. Sturgis, 571.

29. Sturgis, 572.

30. Ibid.

31 Sturgis, 579.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., 582.

34. Ibid.

35. Pearce, 330.

36. Ibid.

37. Sturgis, 602.

38. Ibid., 588.

39. Ibid.

40. “De Profundis.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays, by Oscar Wilde, Harper Perennial, 2008, pp. 873–957.

41. Sturgis, 610-612.

42. Ibid., 618.

43. Tóibín, Colm. “Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years and Oscar's Ghost Review – Wilde after Prison.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Nov. 2017, .

44. Pearce, 372.



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