Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.
Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.
Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….
And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.
Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.
By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.
Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”
Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!
Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.
But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.
Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.
Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.
Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.
Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.
By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.
Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.
Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.
Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)
This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).
Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captainJohn Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)
Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.
A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.
With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?
Aside from how important queer representation in the media is, it’s also something that fascinates me. And part of that discussion, routinely, is who gets to play these characters. In an ideal world, where any queer person would be considered evenly for any role alongside cisgender and straight actors, that shouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. It stands to reason, that if transgender actors wouldn’t get considered for cisgender characters, the the reverse should be true. That’s often not the case even now. So, let’s take a moment to consider what it must have been like to be a transgender actor in the 1970’s.
Carol Byron was born in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia on September 2, 1943. She was assigned the male gender at birth and named “Richard” by a mother who ultimately abandoned her four months later, placing her child in the care of a woman named Hazel Roberts. Her new mother enjoyed teaching her song and dance routines. At eleven years old, however, her mother Evelyn came back into the picture with a new husband, and took custody of their son. This new stepfather physically abused their kid. Carol dropped out of school at 15 years old, and began working, taking a job putting makeup on mannequins and arranging the displays at David Jones. A year later, she ran away from home to avoid the abuse — but continued her job. At the age of seventeen, she took on the name Carol and began transitioning to live life as a woman.
She was arrested for crossdressing, but actually beat the charge based entirely on being flippant. Not a strategy I recommend, but when she came before the judge she asked what the “offensive behavior” was — the judge explained, dressing as a woman. And she responded, “You have a wig and robe on.” The case was dismissed.
She took on the stage name Carlotta, apparently from Empress Carlota of Mexico (who I will admit I know almost nothing about) and set about establishing herself. About this time, Lee Gordon — an promoter with a resume that included names like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland — was opening what may have been Australia’s first drag club, the Jewel Box Revue Club in King’s Cross, Sydney. They hired Carlotta as a performer. Before too long, the club changed its name to Les Girls Restaurant and kept Carlotta on for its Les Girls caberet act. The cast was advertised as exclusively men in drag, though some — like Carlotta — were transgender women. Carlotta quickly became the star of the show. Because of that, she earned the nickname “Queen of the Cross”. Although Gordon was no longer one of the owners at this point, he continued helping Carlotta as her manager.
In 1970, she had her first film appearance — credited as appearing as herself in a movie called The Naked Bunyip. This wasn’t exactly a big break, but it did open some doors. The movie was, apparently, fairly influential. One of those doors was for her to be cast as Miss Robyn Ross on a show called Number 96 — a show that had already broken ground with gay character Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham) the year before. The character of Robyn Ross was the new girlfriend of character Arnold Feather (played by Jeff Kevin), and appeared in four episodes in 1972. Ultimately, it was revealed that she was a transsexual showgirl — a fact which led to the end of the romance, and the end of her storyline on the series. Here’s her “coming out” scene — the language is, obviously, not what we would currently use. To keep this scene, and the end of this storyline a surprise, her scenes were all shot on a closed set and she was initially credited as “Carolle Lea“.
Four episodes, of course, doesn’t seem like a big deal. Especially on a soap opera, which churns out new episode practically every day. But these four episodes were a very big deal because they were the first time that a transgender person played a transgender character on television anywhere in the world.
Afterwards Carlotta decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery (also known, now, as a gender confirmation surgery). Prior to the surgery, a board attempted to cure her — putting her through torturous testing including electric shock therapy on her, though she tore the wires off of her. She also, reportedly, threw a shoe at the doctors engaging in the tests. The feisty outburst worked and she was able to get the surgery. She was not, as is sometimes reported, the first person in Australia to have the procedure. She was, however, the first person in Australia that was publicly reported as having the procedure.
Some time afterwards, she was invited to do a drag performance in London. She jumped at the opportunity, the show was hugely successful, but found she didn’t enjoy it and soon returned to Australia. Where she married a guy who’s name is nowhere to be found but since I see some places where her name is reported as Carol Spencer so I’m guessing his last name was Spencer. She tried out a life of “domestic bliss” as a housewife, but it doesn’t last too long.
Carlotta showed up on film again in 1982 playing Ron in a movie called Dead Easy. I don’t know if that character was transgender or not, it’s a fairly minor role and I haven’t seen the film.
In 1987, she toured New Zealand with a touring production of Les Girls. Short after that, her marriage ended — she left him so that he could have the opportunity to become a parent. So she resumed working at Les Girls until 1992. With her off and on career with them, she had performed with them for an impressive 26 years.
In 1994, she published her first book — He Did it her Way: The Legend of Les Girls with James Cockington. That was the same year the iconic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released. Carlotta was one of the inspirations behind the movie — and it, in turn, inspired her. She attempted to start her own show: Carlotta & Her Beautiful Boys which launched in 1996. This was a popular show but not a financial success and ended up bankrupting her after three years.
But Carlotta is not a woman who can be kept down. In 1997, she began appearing as a recurring panelist on the show Beauty and the Beast. (I’m linking to the Wikipedia page on this one because, personally, I was a little confused when that didn’t have to do with fairy tales and talking furniture.) On the show, the panelists answer letters from viewers and Carlotta’s life up to that point made her invaluable to the show. Kids, particularly queer kids, from all over Australia wrote the show specifically in the hopes of getting her advice. Here’s a clip of her on the show in 2001 (not talking about queer issues though, I can’t find any clips of that.)
She was popular on Beauty and the Beast and that led her to more appearances as a television personality. In 2003, she appeared on the short-lived comedy talk show Greeks on the Roof. She also published another book, entitled Carlotta: I’m not that Kind of Girl. Two years later, Carlotta launched a show that was a half-million dollar production based on her recent book Carlotta’s KingsX. She subsequently appeared on Good Morning Australia and on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.
Also in 2005, the cast of The Naked Bunyip reunited for a short video “In a Funny Sort of Way” which discussed the movie and its impact on Australian cinema. So, 2005 was a very busy year for Carlotta. In 2006, she appeared in four episodes of the documentary series 20 to 1. That was also the year that Australian National Portrait Gallery purchased a portrait of Carlotta and incorporated it into their collection.
Carlotta later launched a touring one-woman show called Carlotta: Live and Intimate. In 2013, she began appearing as a regular guest panelist on the morning news show Studio 10. The following year, a made-for-TV movie about her life was made called Carlotta. The film was criticized for only hinting at the harsher parts of Carlotta’s life as a transgender woman. Carlotta was played by cisgender actor Jessica Marais and while I would like to criticize that choice, but Carlotta was actually involved in the casting.
In 2018, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Her doctors caught it early, performed surgery, and she made a full recovery and jumped right back into her career. In 2019, she continued touring with her musical revue Carlotta: Queen of the Cross which features a wide variety of music, especially from other queer artists like Peter Allen (whom she had been friends with) and Stephen Sondheim.
On January 26, 2020 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQ+ community and to the performing arts. Although this is the most recent and most impressive recognition Carlotta has received for her decades of work, she’s also been recognized with the King’s Cross Award, the Drag Industry Variety Award (in 1997) and a Australian Club Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2018). That last one may have to get given to her again, as Carlotta is still performing, and no doubt has much more that she will achieve.
With his literary success following 1891’s publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde returned to writing for the theater. He penned the tragedy Salomé, but quickly turned to comedies. Lady Windermere’s Fan debuted at the St. James Theatre on February 20, 1892 and proceeded to tour England — despite the outrage of more conservative critics. He followed this work up with the 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance. He was then commissioned for two more comedies. By now Wilde was earning approximately 100 pounds each week — by today’s standards that’s about 12,211 pounds or 15,756 US dollars a week. No longer tied to John Gray, Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas turned romantic, and Wilde used that ample income to spoil his new beau.
In many ways, Douglas quickly became the center of Wilde’s entire world. Douglas and several of his friends founded a magazine called The Chameleon, which was as pro-gay as any publication could be at the time without being shut down by law enforcement. Wilde was a regular contributor. Douglas also led Wilde into the seedy underground of London’s gay prostitution circles. Every time he rendezvoused with a prostitute, it followed the same pattern — Wilde was introduced to a young man by a fellow named Alfred Taylor, Wilde would take the young man to dinner, and then to a hotel room. Sometimes, Douglas would meet them there too.
Douglas’ father was John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (more commonly known just as Queensberry). He’s mostly known in history for being cruel to his family and for creating the Queensberry Rules which, apparently, are what modern boxing rules are based around. Oh, and all of the stuff we’re going to talk about. He’s known for that too. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Now, Queensberry and his son fought like all of the time even before Wilde entered the picture — and even though Queensberry was initially charmed by Wilde, it didn’t take him long to piece together what was actually going on with the two. He was not having any of it. He cornered Oscar in the Wilde family’s London house and threatened him — the initial description of this encounter ended with Wilde giving a clever retort (“I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”) but later accounts by both Wilde and Queensberry make Wilde sound much less assured and much more afraid — and with good reason.
On February 14 of 1895, Wilde’s greatest script premiered in London at the St. James Theatre — The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was led by popular actor Allan Aynesworth, who later stated that the first night of that show was his greatest triumph on stage. The show itself was hailed as a massive success, even by most critics. Queensberry had planned to attend the premier and publicly humiliate Wilde by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables onto the stage — but Wilde had made sure to ban him from the theater — which didn’t actually help calm things down at all.
Four days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a club he was known to frequent. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” (Perhaps history’s most infamous spelling error.) Wilde’s friends, including Robbie Ross, begged him to let it go, but Douglas urged him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. The problem with that was, in order to avoid going to prison, Queensberry would have to publicly prove that Wilde was a sodomite. (Or a somdomite, I guess.) Wilde had been sleeping with men for years and basically wrote about it in a very popular novel (Dorian Gray), so like not really a bright idea to challenge this. But Douglas hated his father, and was also all too happy to disagree with Robbie Ross — who he often butted heads with. Wilde was all too eager to give Douglas anything he wanted, and so he sued for libel.
Queensberry went for Wilde’s jugular almost immediately. He hired Wilde’s former college friend Edward Carson to represent him in court, and hired a number of private detectives to investigate. They amassed a veritable mountain of evidence. Wilde’s lawyer opened the trial on April 3 by preemptively asking about letters Wilde had written to Douglas (letters which Carson had procured) — Wilde claimed the letters were innocent, “prose sonnets”. Carson, meanwhile, opened by stating that he’d located several male prostitutes who were willing to testify against Wilde. Carson’s cross examination was even more brutal — and although Wilde gave sassy answers that got a lot of laughs, they didn’t help the outcome of the trial.
In the end, Carson discredited Wilde by proving he had lied about his age under oath. He also, using text from The Picture of Dorian Gray, managed to successfully paint a picture of Wilde seducing Douglas (which was almost the opposite of what had actually happened.) Moving on from this, Carson started asking about facts — inquiring about his friendships with lower-class men that he had been seen with at dinner. Wilde insisted they were merely friends and that he did not believe in social barriers.
Then, Carson directly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a certain man — Wilde proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he had not because “he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.” Carson demanded to know why that was relevant, and for the first time Wilde didn’t really have any answer. Wilde dropped the charges, and Queensberry was found not guilty. This was disastrous for two reasons: the first being that Wilde was responsible for all of Queensberry’s astronomical legal fees, which was more than he could afford — and the second being that the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency almost as soon as Wilde had left the building.
Robbie Ross and another friend named Reginald Turner tried to get Wilde to flee the country, and arranged for a train and a boat to take him to France. Meanwhile, Wilde’s mother wanted him to fight. He was basically paralyzed — either with fear or indecision — until all he could say was “The train has gone. It’s too late.” He was arrested on April 6. Ross and Wilde’s butler, under strict instructions, went into the Wilde family house and packed up all of his letters, manuscripts, and some personal items. While Wilde awaited trial in prison, Alfred Douglas visited him every day — which was nice since this was actually pretty much all Douglas’ fault, and he hadn’t done anything to help out during the criminal libel trial.
When the new trial opened on April 26, Wilde plead “not guilty”. Douglas left for Paris at the urging of Wilde. Several of Wilde’s other “somdomite” friends also left the country for their own safety — including Ross. This trial had captured the attention of the public around the world, even as far as the United States. While being cross examined, Oscar was asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name” — a phrase originating in a poem written by Douglas. (And that’s the most Douglas participated in this trial, I’m just saying.) Oscar responded with this speech that literally brings a tear to my eye every time, so I’m going to share it here verbatim even though it’s kind of long:
“‘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 that 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 older and a younger man, when the older 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.”
While this was, in my opinion, a beautiful speech….it reallydidn’t help out with the whole “not guilty” thing. Nevertheless, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Wilde’s friends were able to post bail, and Wilde was free. Sort of. He was shunned by nearly everyone; his wife wouldn’t let him back into the house. He was forced to stay with two of his few remaining friends, Ernest and Ada Leverson. At this point, even Carson attempted to intervene on Wilde’s behalf — asking the Solicitor General Frank Lockwood if they could “let up” on Wilde. Lockwood replied he would have liked to, but that the trial had been so publicized and so politicized that it was not going to be possible.
A third trial followed, taking place on May 25. This trial was against both Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who had also been arrested for procuring prostitutes for Wilde but who refused to turn state’s evidence against the writer. Sir Alfred Wills presided, and gave the harshest punishment the law allowed: two years of hard labor. He was also very clear that he would have given a harsher punishment if he’d been able to, claiming the sentence was “totally inadequate” for what he considered “the worst case [he had] ever tried.” After the sentence came down, Wilde asked, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” But his question was completely drowned out by the very large crowd that had come to see this beloved celebrity’s downfall.
Wilde was immediately sent off to Newgate Prison for processing, and then was sent to Pentonville Prison. His “hard labour” there was walking on a treadmill and separating rope fibers — so, y’know, really productive for society and all. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison. While there, he collapsed from hunger and ruptured his right ear drum.
On November 23 1895, Oscar was transferred to Reading Gaol by train. While he was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a crowd gathered to spit on him and ridicule him. At Reading Gaol, he was eventually allowed a pen and paper, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Alfred Douglas (which he was not allowed to send until he was released and which, later, Douglas would deny ever receiving.) Over the course of the self-reflective letter, Wilde does forgive Douglas for his involvement in getting Wilde into this position. The letter was partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.
Throughout the trials and his imprisonment, all eyes — even internationally — were on Oscar Wilde. LGBTQ+ people across the Western world, but especially in Europe, in particular were watching with a sort of horrified fascination. Just before the end of Wilde’s sentence, inspired in large part by the writer’s legal troubles, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee in Germany — the first organization to work towards securing legal rights for queer people.
After his release on May 18, 1897, he immediately went to France and never went back to Britain or Ireland. He took the name Sebastian Melmoth, and began to advocate — through letters to English publications — for prison reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about a man who was hanged while Wilde was imprisoned there. Also, at this point, Wilde’s wife had gotten him to relinquish parental rights to their kids and had changed their last names to “Holland” (and, yet, poor Vyvyan was still named Vyvyan.) They never divorced but were completely estranged.
In August, he reunited with Douglas, but the two were only together for a few months. There’s differing explanations as to why they didn’t stay together — the truth is probably a combination of both. Some say that, after everything that had transpired in their lives, they weren’t able to get their relationship back to what it had been before the trials. Others say that Douglas’ family threatened to cut him off financially. Personally, I can’t imagine that their relationship wasn’t full of resentment, probably on both sides — and if you’re struggling with a relationship that seems like it’s failing and then your family says to break it off or spend the rest of your life completely broke? Yeah, it makes perfect sense to break it off.
Wilde was impoverished for the remainder of his life, and had only a small collection of friends left to him. With nothing left to lose, he was very much open about his sexuality for the years he had left. By the fall of 1900, Wilde was fighting with illness which physicians later stated was from an infection of his right ear drum — the illness left him weak and depressed and frequently unable to leave the bedroom of the hotel he was living in. He famously quipped, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” On October 12, he sent a telegram to Robbie Ross saying “Terribly weak. Please come.”
By November 25, 1900, Wilde’s illness had developed into meningitis (the same illness that struck down his little sister so many years earlier). Robbie Ross arrived on November 29, and immediately sent for a Catholic priest. The priest performed a conditional baptism, and Wilde died the next day. His friends Reginald Turner and Robbie Ross were with him when he died. Wilde’s tomb, which is in Paris, was commissioned by Ross, who also requested a compartment be built for his own ashes — which were dutifully placed there in 1950.
In the years since his death, Oscar Wilde has become arguably one of the world’s most celebrated queer figures. In 1967, Craig Rodwell named his LGBTQ bookstore the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in order to make sure it was recognized as a safe place by others in the community. In 2014, Wilde was one of the first honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. He was also one of 50,000 men posthumously pardoned in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, also known as the Alan Turing Law.
Oscar Wildeis arguably one of the most famous and lasting playwrights since William Shakespeare — and his work was popular to boot. He was a celebrity in his time, known even then for being an extremely quotable master of one-liners.
He was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Sir William and Jane Wilde, gave him the most Irish name they could: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Just try yelling out that entire thing when you’re mad at your kid. That’s a chore. Anyways, he was the second child of three — his older brother Willie and younger sister Isola. His parents were part of Dublin’s intellectual elite — Sir William was a doctor notable for taking care of the city’s poor and who had also written and published numerous works regarding medicine, archaeology and folklore while Jane was an Irish nationalist publishing revolutionary poetry for the Young Islanders under the pen name Speranza. They instilled a love of poetry and folklore in all of their children.
Until age of nine, Wilde was educated at home by his mother, a French nursemaid, and a German governess. As such, he became fluent in French and German very early. Then he was enrolled at the Portora Royal School — a free school. While he was there, Isola Wilde died of meningitis in 1867.
Wilde graduated from the Portora Royal School in 1871 and began attending Trinity College in Dublin. There he studied classic literature and Greek alongside his older brother Willie and joined the University Philosophical Society. Through this society, he became an enthusiastic member of the Aesthetic Movement — an intellectual movement prioritizing the appreciation of beauty over social and political themes in literature, fine art, music, and other arts.
While at Trinity, he also befriended Edward Carson — a name you’re going to want to remember for later. They stayed very close friends throughout their college years, but drifted apart in adulthood. Wilde proved to be a gifted student — coming in at the top of his class in his first year of studies and eventually winning Trinity College’s highest academic award, the Berkeley Gold Medal. In 1874, having out-nerded everyone in Ireland (and with encouragement from his teachers who were probably tired of being shown up by him), he applied for and obviously received a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.
At Magdalen College, Wilde reinvented himself. He explored several organizations, religions and philosophies. He toyed with joining Roman Catholicism — despite threats that his father would cut him off financially if he was baptized into that faith. Wilde ultimately decided, at the last minute, not to do it, and sent flowers to the ceremony in his place. He said he liked their aesthetic, rather than their beliefs. Wilde also replaced his Irish accent with an upper class British accent, began to dress in formal wear literally all of the time and lavishly decorated his room with peacock feathers. It was about this time — no surprise — that he became involved in the Decadent Movement.
As anyone who’s ever been to school knows, standing out isn’t always a popular thing. People attempted to beat up or bully Wilde on more than one occasion — but Wilde was 6’3″ and really strong — especially for someone who pretty much hated sports. He once beat up an entire group of students who attacked him, then invited onlookers to go to the room of one of his assailants where they drank all that student’s liquor. He did, at some point (before or after this, I’m unclear), take up boxing — probably not so much as a sport but as a means of self-defense.
The lifestyle he’d adopted was not conducive to studying, and Wilde did not remain the star pupil he had been at Trinity. After returning late from a trip to Greece with a professor, Wilde was even temporarily expelled. Despite this, when he graduated in November of 1878, he received double first (the highest possible honor) for his Bachelor degree in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (basically, literature, just made to sound fancier.) In the same year his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize, a high honor for students at Oxford.
Wilde settled in London after graduating, though he spent a good amount of time in Paris. In 1881, a collection of his poems (now having been published in various places since roughly 1871) was published. The first print run of Poems was 750 copies — it sold out and had to have a second run printed in 1882. Despite the book’s undeniable popularity, reviews were mixed — the British magazine Punch was notably unenthusiastic. Their review stated: “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” (Don’t you sometimes wonder if people write intentionally bad reviews just so they throw in some solid gold zingers like that one?)
Because the aesthetic movement was becoming popular in the United States thanks to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (which features a character satirizing Wilde), talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte booked Wilde for a lecture tour in America coinciding with the tour of Patience. The press in the United States was even more critical of Wilde than it was in Britain. T.W. Higginson wrote that Wilde’s “only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse” and expressed concerns about the influence Wilde might have on people’s behavior.
Wilde was also subjected to some incredibly bigoted anti-Irish attacks in the press — on January 22, 1882 (just twenty days after he landed in the country!) the Washington Post published a drawing of Wilde next to the Wild Man of Borneo (one of P.T. Barnum’s “freak show” performers) and asked “How far is it from this to this?” Despite the press, Wilde’s actual lectures were very popular and his tour was extended from the original four months to almost a year long.
Wilde interacted a lot with Irish-Americans during this tour. They were, perhaps, the most critical of him out of everyone in America for abandoning his Irish accent. As a result, he actually did reconnect with his Irish roots (though not his accent) and began to get more involved in politics. He was a staunch supporter of Irish independence (despite not going back to Ireland much). He also spoke out on behalf of socialism, although his actual beliefs — which he described as anarchy — were probably closer to communism than anything. (Apparently, for all his studying, Wilde never read the Communist Manifesto.)
Between the tour and publishing The Duchess of Padua, Wilde was making a good amount of money by 1883. In that same year his first play, Vera, was produced in New York City. As his celebrity grew so — of course — did rumors that he might be a sodomite — probably more because of his entire lack of romantic attachments and his super flamboyant clothes. Some historians suggest, therefore, that it is not a coincidence that he started seeing Constance Lloyd — a woman and fellow Decadent writer who he met at a lecture in Dublin. They married on May 29, 1884. Because of the philosophical and literary values they both represented, they spent tons and tons of money on having an incredibly stylish house in London. Like, even though they were both well-off, they ended up having basically no money.
Lloyd and Wilde had two sons — Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886) — proving beyond any doubt that celebrities have always given their kids bizarre names. During the second pregnancy, their marriage began to fall apart. According to the biography written by Daniel Mendelsohn, Wilde became “physically repelled” by his wife. It was also about this time that Wilde met Robert “Robbie” Ross — a seventeen year old university student who was pretty much openly and unashamedly gay. That was a really big deal at the time. Robbie was determined to seduce Wilde — he had recognized allusions to “Greek love” (that’s a classy way of saying gay sex) in Wilde’s work and had decided to introduce Wilde to it. And he was very successful at that. While Ross and Wilde had a fairly short-lived romantic affair, they remained very close lifelong friends. Wilde’s marriage continued to devolve, although they never divorced.
Wilde’s star as a writer continued to rise after this. Over the next several years, he published a number of short stories — most of which alluded to “Greek love” more openly than his works had before. In 1890, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel that catapulted him to an even higher degree of fame. (Incidentally, Dorian Gray was likely inspired — at least in name, if nothing else — by Wilde’s next ex-lover, John Gray. Gray did his best to deny this rumor.) It was publicly trashed by critics, particularly for the hedonism depicted in the novel — and the rather obvious references to homosexuality. It was heavily edited, some of the more transparent homo eroticism taken out and six new chapters added, and re-released in 1891. It was in this year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas (aka “Bosie” to his friends), a student at Oxford at the time but with a great interest in literature — and the two struck up a friendship. This friendship would ultimately change the trajectory of Wilde’s life — and impact the entire underground queer community of Europe.
As much as I love showing how inspirational the LGBTQ+ people of history can be…. they weren’t all wholesome heroes. And I’ll be the first to admit… sometimes it’s fun to write about a bad guy. And Ronnie Kray definitely fits the bill.
Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and his brother Reginald “Reggie” were born on October 24, 1933 in London. Their parents were Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, they had a brother who was older than them by six years named Charles James Kray. Reggie was the older of the two — by ten minutes. At three years old, both twins came down with diptheria. They attended school, first at Wood Close School and later at the Daniel Street School. All in all, a fairly ordinary childhood.
As adolescent boys, thanks largely to their grandmother, the twins took up amateur boxing. Egged on by their sibling rivalry, they actually managed to be kind of successful at it. (Inherent violent tendencies probably helped too.) In March of 1952, the twins were called upon to join the National Service in the British Army. Although they did show up to the depot as they were supposed to, they tried to leave after only a couple of minutes. A corporal tried to stop them from leaving — Ronnie punched him in the jaw and the two kept going, walking all the way back home. The next day they were arrested — the police turned them over to the army.
That September, the twins were both absent without leave again. When a police officer tried to arrest them, the duo physically attacked him — which led to them being held in the Tower of London. This gives them the grand distinction of being among the last prisoners held in the Tower until they were transferred to a military prison. They were held there until they were dishonorably discharged — and when it became apparent that that was the inevitable outcome of their incarceration, the twins became increasingly badly behaved — their antics including dumping hot tea on a guard, handcuffing a guard to their cell bars with a set of stolen cuffs, and setting their bedding on fire. Eventually, they attacked one of their guards with a vase and escaped. They escape attempt was short lived, they were soon recaptured. After their discharge, they were transferred to a civilian prison where they served time for all of the crimes they’d committed since going AWOL.
The dishonorable discharge and the criminal records killed their budding boxing careers, so the two took their violent behavior and turned it into a full-time career in organized crime. They began by starting a protection racket, but ultimately fell in with Jay Murray and, through him, became involved in armed robberies, hijacking, and arson. Through these illicit activities, they came to own several properties.
In 1960, Ronnie got arrested for running a protection racket. While he was in prison (for 18 months), Reggie was given ownership of a nightclub Esmerelda’s Barn — which, apparently, was a really happening night club frequented by very famous people despite have “barn” in its name. Owning this not only gave them more influence in the criminal underworld of the West End, and allowed them to have a base of operations for their gang “the Firm” — but also gave them legitimate income and brought them into the social circles of celebrities like Judy Garland and Diana Dors. As celebrities, the Kray brothers were much beloved — as criminals, they were greatly feared. Even the people who worked for them could face severe and painful punishments if they disappointed or failed to show the proper respect.
In July of 1964, however, Ronnie caught the attention of tabloids for an entirely new reason: his sex life. The Sunday Mirror published an article implying that Ronnie Kray was involved in a sexual relationship with Conservative politician Lord Robert John Graham Boothby. Sodomy was, at this point, still a criminal act in the United Kingdoms. The Conservative party moved to shut down the news story — and so did their rivals the Labour party, as they sought to protect Tom Driburg — a member of parliament who was (relatively) open about being gay and frequently socialized with Lord Boothby and Ronnie. Ultimately, the Sunday Mirror settled out of court and paid Lord Boothy £40,000.
And while the scandal the entire event caused may have been potentially damaging for politicians in the UK — it did nothing but help the Kray brothers. The two became practically untouchable, as now neither the Labour or Conservative parties wanted Ronnie investigated for fear of what might turn up about the sexual proclivities of their own members. It took another two years before the Kray criminal empire began to unravel — and it didn’t really happen because of any police investigations.
Over the next two years, Ronnie began to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. On March 8, 1966 a shootout with a rival organization called the Richardson Gang left one of their associates in the Firm, a man named Richard Hart, dead. A member of the Richardson Gang, George Cornell, who was not involved in the shooting but was known to call Ronnie some derogatory names for gay men like “fat poof”, was drinking at the Blind Beggar Pub the next day. That pub was only like a mile away from where the Kray brothers lived, so Cornell was maybe not making the best decisions at the time (but to be fair, he’d probably been drinking for a while.) Ronnie found out that Cornell was there, and had his driver “Scotch Jack” John Dickson and his assistant Ian Barrie bring him to the pub. (Side note: if your driver’s nickname is two different kinds of liquors maybe hire a different driver. I’m just saying.)
When Ronnie walked into the pub, Cornell reportedly said “Well, looks who’s here.” And then Ronnie shot him. Barrie threatened the full-on crowd of onlookers not to say anything, shot up the ceiling a bit, and then brought his boss back out to “Scotch Jack” to drive them away. Cornell died in the hospital at 3 am.
In December of that same year, the Krays helped a man named Frank Mitchell escape from Dartmoor Prison. Frank was a friend of Ronnie’s, as they’d spent time together in Wandsworth Prison. The idea was that the escape attempt would bring media attention to Mitchell’s case, and he’d be reviewed for parole. (And the parole board would probably find if you’re trying to escape prison maybe you need to stay in a little longer, but what do I know?) However, Mitchell never returned to prison to be paroled — in fact, he disappeared altogether and was never seen again. Freddie Foreman, a friend of the Kray brothers, would later claim in his autobiography to have shot Mitchell and disposed of his body at sea as a favor for the twins but there’s no actual evidence supporting that because nothing has ever been found.
Meanwhile, the Kray brothers continued to literally get away with murder. They socialized with A-list celebrities, their legitimate business raked in cash, and the politicians in power did everything they could to prevent any investigations even while bodies were piling up (or disappearing). In 1967, Reggie’s wife committed suicide — leaving both the mental health of both the twins in a seriously questionable state. They took out a contract to kill their financial advisor Leslie Payne, giving the contract to a minor member of the Firm, Jack “the Hat” McVitie. It was a £1000 job, and they paid £500 upfront — but McVitie failed to complete it. Ronnie convinced Reggie they had only one option: to kill McVitie as an example.
After Reggie stabbed McVitie to death, Tony and Chris Lambrianou and Ronnie Bender were called in to help dispose of the body and get rid of any evidence. McVitie was a large man and his body could not fit in the trunk of a car, so they covered him and loaded him into the backseat. The car ran out of gas in front of St. Mary’s Church, so the trio set the scene up to frame another gang for the murder and left the corpse in the car at the church. The Kray brothers were furious, and called in Foreman to finish disposing of the body — which Foreman ultimately dumped in the English Channel.
However, murdering one of their own was not a good look for the twins. Members of their gang got uneasy — wondering if what happened to McVitie could happen to them as well. At about that time, Leonard “Nipper” Read of Scotland Yard was promoted to the Murder Squad — and he’d been trying to investigate the Krays since 1964. By the end of 1967, Read had gathered enough evidence to arrest both of the Kray twins — but not enough to make the charges stick. Finally, in May of 1968, Scotland Yard arrested the Kray brothers and fifteen members of their gang. They went through elaborate lengths to prevent any of the arrested members of the Firm from speaking to each other, and offered all of them deals to testify against each other — but the Krays could. They schemed to have “Scotch Jack” Dickson confess to murdering Cornell, their cousin Ronnie Hart to confess to murdering McVitie, and Albert Donaghue to confess to murdering Mitchell. Donaghue, however, flatly refused and almost immediately turned on the twins, confessing everything he knew. Next “Scotch Jack” rolled on the twins — and with his testimony, they found the bartender who had been working in the pub where George Cornell was killed. She gave her statement as well.
The evidence became overwhelming, and the only defense was essentially to try to discredit the witnesses because they were mostly all also criminals. What followed was the longest murder hearing in British history, but it was ultimately determined that the twins were going to go to jail for life and would not be eligible for parole for thirty years. Their brother Charlie was also jailed for ten years for his help in their criminal activities.
At the time of their sentencing, Ronnie was engaged to a woman named Monica — whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved. In the first seven months of his imprisonment, Ronnie and Monica sent 59 very affectionate letters to each other — even though she married someone else during that time. Ronnie was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and was sent to Broadmoor Hospital in 1979.
The twins were allowed out of prison — under heavy guard — to attend their mother’s funeral in 1982. There was basically a huge media circus about it because of their presence (and also because Diana Dors was there) so they decided to spare their family that kind of attention, and did not attend their father’s funeral in 1983.
In 1985, the staff at Broadmoor Hospital discovered evidence that Ronnie, Reggie, and Charlie were operating a business called “Krayleigh Enterprises” which offered bodyguards and “protection services” to celebrities. Frank Sinatra hired 18 bodyguards from the company when he visited the Wimbledon Championship in that year. The police investigated the business, and found no legal reason to shut it down — so, apparently, it was actually legitimately bodyguards and apparently Frank Sinatra actually legitimately needed 18 of them to watch tennis.
Also in 1985, Ronnie married a woman named Elaine Mildener who he met at Broadmoor Hospital. They divorced in 1989, after which he married a woman named Kate Howard. They divorced in 1994.
In several early interviews while imprisoned, Ronnie identified himself as a gay man, but by 1989 he was identifying himself as a bisexual man — but he certainly never denied that he was attracted to men. In fact, in one interview in the 1970’s, he said: “[Gordon of Khartoun] was like me, homosexual, and he met his death like a man. When it’s time for me to go, I hope I do the same.” In actuality, Gordon of Khartoun was not a homosexual and Ronnie met his death on March 17, 1995 from a heart attack while still being held at Broadmoor Hospital. Reggie was allowed out of prison (in handcuffs) to attend Ronnie’s funeral. (Reggie lived until 2000, when he died of cancer. He was released from prison weeks before his death on compassionate grounds.)
The Krays’ celebrity status while being horrible, awful, violent criminals has certainly left a lasting impact on our culture. There have been multiple movies, several books, and a couple of plays about them, and depictions of them appear in eight television series. But their real influence went way further than that. If you were reading this whole thinking “wow, they sound just like gangsters from the movies!” that’s because the archetype of gangster that appears in movies was essentially revamped to be more like them after their arrest — their clothes, their crimes, etc. I just kind of wish Hollywood had been a bit more fascinated with their sex scandals too.
History usually remembers ambitious people, who applied themselves to a chosen profession or cause and excelled. That is not exactly the case with Dorothy Ierne Wilde — better known as “Dolly” Wilde.
Dolly was born in London on July 11, 1895 — three months after her uncle Oscar Wilde was arrested for committing homosexual acts. She never met her uncle, but they had a a lot in common. (Not just the whole homosexuality thing, actually. But, you know, that too.) She was the daughter of Willie Wilde and Sophie Lily Lees and had no siblings. Willie died only in March of 1899 — leaving the three year old Dolly to be raised by her mother and her mother’s new husband, the journalist and translator Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.
There’s not much else available about her childhood (except that she liked to eat sugar cubes dipped in her mother’s perfume — ew), but in 1914 she made her way to France in order to drive ambulances for the war effort. While living in Paris during the war, Dolly met Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs and the two began a hot and heavy relationship. The relationship didn’t last particularly long, but Dolly seemed to have found her calling: having rich friends.
After World War I ended, Dolly became, basically, a full-time socialite. She wasn’t wealthy by any means, although her stepfather left her some money when he died in 1921, and mostly survived off the generosity of her friends. She lived in their guest bedrooms, or in hotel rooms, and even sometimes in apartments that she borrowed. She did all she could to live a wild, glamorous life. She had a great talent for telling stories (apparently a hereditary trait), which made her popular at parties and salons, though she never used this talent to actually pursue a career. during these years she went through a string of lovers including with the silent film actress Alla Nazimova (who starred in the 1922 movie Salomé which was based on Oscar Wilde’s book). She referred to these no-strings-attached daliances as “emergency seductions.” She also caught the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald by flirting with Zelda Fitzgerald. Although only interested in women, Dolly enjoyed the attention she received from men as well — several men over the years proposed marriage to her, but she refused them all. Other than her promiscuity, Dolly was also an alcoholic, and developed an addiction to heroin.
If any of this sounds like Dolly had tons in common with Oscar Wilde, I’m just going to point out that her nickname was “Oscaria” and she was quoted as saying “I am more like Oscar than Oscar himself.” Which is a seriously bold claim to make about someone you’ve never met. So it’s little surprise that when Oscar Wilde-super fan Natalie Clifford Barney saw her picture, and saw the family resemblance, she invited Dolly to her renowned Friday night literary salons. Dolly fell in love with Natalie, and the two were together from 1927 until Dolly’s death. The two attended numerous parties together, raising Dolly’s profile significantly — particularly in 1930 when they attended a masquerade ball and Dolly, dressed as her uncle Oscar, was described as “looking important and earnest” in The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Paris” column, written by Janet Flanner.
Dolly attempted to get clean of heroin addiction on multiple occasions — to no avail. During one stay in a nursing facility, she developed a new addiction to paraldehyde — a sleeping pill that was, at the time, available without a prescription. In 1939, Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to explore alternative treatments, stubbornly refusing surgery. With hostile German forces approaching Paris in 1940, she fled back to England — where she was still living when she passed away on April 10, 1941. A coroner could not determine the cause of death, she may have died from cancer or she may have died from a drug overdose.
She left very little behind — 200 of letters to friends and lovers, a passage written in Ladies Almanack, and the testimonies of those who knew her published in Natalie Clifford Barney’s In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wilde: Oscaria ten years after Dolly passed away.
In a lot of these articles, we’ve talked about how governments tried their best to sweep people’s queerness under the rug. That’s not exactly the case with Sir Roger David Casement.
Casement was born in Sandycove, Ireland on September 1, 1864 (why, yes, the timing of this article is intentional, thank you very much!) His father, Captain Roger Casement, was active in the military and fought in various regions — including present-day Afghanistan. The family moved to England around 1867, where Casement’s mother secretly had him baptized as a Roman Catholic (although there’s some dispute over the exact details of this baptism.) Casement’s mother died six years later, and they returned to live in Ireland. Four years after that, his father died. Casement and his brother (Thomas Casement, who helped establish the Irish Coastguard Service) were forced to live on the generosity of relatives. By 16 years old, he had abandoned a formal education and taken a job with a shipping company in Liverpool.
By 1884, Casement had taken a job working for Henry Morton Stanley and the African International Association — which was basically a front to allow Belgium to take over the Congo. Casement was employed to conduct a survey to improve communication within the region. As part of this, he recruited laborers and supervised them as they built a railroad to help traders bypass the Congo River. When he arrived in the Congo, Casement believed that colonization would help bring moral and social progress to the continent of Africa — something he still believed in 1890 when he met Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the next nine years, both became disillusioned with the supposed benefits of colonization on the African people — Conrad expressed this by writing Heart of Darkness. Casement would write something else entirely.
In 1901, Casement began serving the British consul in French Congo. It was in this position that he was commissioned, in 1903, to investigate the human rights situation in the colony under King Leopold II of Belgium’s leadership. Casement spent weeks traveling throughout the Congo, interviewing everyone from workers to mercenaries. And then he wrote the Casement Report. The document painted a picture of Leopold exploiting the Congolese and using the natural resources of the land — primarily rubber — for his own personal profit, as an entrepreneur and not as the king of Belgium. Furthermore, his private military force the Force Publique were terrorizing and murdering the Congolese to increase profits and productivity. The report was incredibly controversial, and many doubted its veracity. However, the report became public in 1904 — which made the Belgian Parliament force Leopold to set up an inquiry, which confirmed the report’s findings. As a reward for his efforts, Casement received a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG). Ultimately, this all resulted in Leopold’s reign over the Congo being usurped by the Belgian Parliament, and the Belgian Congo being formally established.
By that point, however, the British consul had reassigned Casement — in 1906, they sent him to Brazil. In 1909, a journalist named Sidney Paternoster wrote an article in a British magazine called Truth that accused the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) of abusing their rubber-harvesting laborers, and destroying and stealing rubber from their Colombian competitors. As most of the economy of the British-controlled parts of that region depended heavily on PAC, the consul took the article very seriously and assigned Casement — at that point the consul-general — to investigate. Casement made his way to the Putumayo District, which was technically outside the jurisdiction of the national government and was near the border of Colombia but was also where a lot of PAC’s rubber was harvested.
Casement found the conditions at least as bad as those in Congo, and his subsequent report has been called a “brilliant piece of journalism.” Using first person accounts from both the victims of abuse and from their abusers, he painted a clear and undeniable picture. Much of PAC’s labor came from unpaid indigenous people, who were kept nearly starving and sometimes branded with hot irons. The indigenous women and girls were frequently raped. Any indigenous person was liable to be casually murdered and forgotten.
Casement’s first report about this was made public in Great Britain in 1910. The British people were outraged. The heads of PAC and the Peruvian government vowed to make changes and improve conditions, and to that end the Peruvian government attempted to prosecute the men Casement had exposed to be murderers — most of them managed to escape arrest and were never seen again. In 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to the region to see if conditions had improved. Though some things had improved, Casement’s scathing report explained of terrible and sometimes fatal punishments inflicted on entire families — having parents and their children held in pillories, sometimes for months. He described parents, held in the pillories, being flogged to death while their children were forced to watch.
The scandal cost PAC huge business losses, and ultimately the company collapsed. The head of PAC, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted and ultimately went on to have a successful political career in Peru. Casement, meanwhile, returned to England where he was knighted. In 1913, Casement retired from the British consul and began to focus on politics. Or rather, on his political view that Great Britain should just rule over Britain — which meant that Ireland should be independent. Casement had joined some groups that wanted an independent Ireland years earlier, while on leave from the Congo. Several of his Irish nationalist friends and he formed a new group, called the Irish Volunteers.
Casement traveled to the United States to raise money for the new organization, and to reconnect with some exiled Irish nationalists such as those of Clan na Gael. Clan na Gael initially believed Casement to be too moderate, though he eventually won them over — partly by helping organize and get funding for things like the Howth gun-running, where 1500 rifles were delivered to the Irish Volunteers on July 26, 1914. In this event, the guns were delivered on a yacht to Howth harbor, unloaded in broad daylight in front of a huge crowd, and yet the Irish Volunteers were able to completely avoid law enforcement.
In August of 1914, World War I broke out. Casement traveled to New York to meet with John DeVoy (of Clan na Gael) and the German diplomat Count Johann Berstorff. Together, they cooked up a plan — if Germany would supply weapons to the Irish, they would revolt against the British, forcing Britain to divert military forces from fighting the Germans. To secure this plan, Casement donned a disguise and traveled to Germany. Along the way, the British government offered his traveling companion Adler Christensen a great deal of money to betray Casement — and the diplomat Mansfeldt Findlay also subtly implied that Casement was involved in homosexual relationships, and that this could be used as leverage. (I know you’re all like “finally some gay stuff!” Not really, but we’ll get there, I promise!) Christensen did not take the bait, and Casement successfully made it to Germany.
In Germany, he spent most of his time negotiating. He managed to secure a written promise from Germany to never invade Ireland, no matter the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, Casement also attempted to negotiate the release of 2,000 Irish prisoners-of-war, on the condition that those POWs fight for Irish independence. 52 of the prisoners committed to the cause and were freed on December 27, 1914. Around that time, he was also helping connect some of his American contacts with the people behind the Hindu-German Conspiracy — which was a similar cause, Indians hoping to use the war to their advantage and secure independence for India.
In April 1916, Germany offered 2,000 rifles to the Irish revolutionaries, and ten machine guns. However, Casement could not secure any German officers to help train the Irish in the use of the machine guns. Casement came to believe the Germans were toying with him — giving just enough support to lead to a rebellion that would distract the British, but that was still doomed to fail. (He was pretty smart, y’know?) With the promise of these weapons, the other leaders of the Irish rebellion — home in Ireland — planned out the Easter Rising. The plan was completed by the time Casement learned it was happening — and, when he heard about it, he realized it could not succeed without more support from the Germans. On April 9, he set off for Ireland in the submarine SM U-19 determined to stop or, at least, delay the plan.
However, the plan started going badly pretty much right away. The men Devoy sent to the docks to collect the weapons drove off the pier and drowned. The weapons themselves never arrived — the British had been tipped off that weapons might be smuggled into Ireland, and were able to stop and intercept the ship carrying them even though it was disguised as a Norwegian freighter. The ship was scuttled, and the German crew were taken as prisoners of war.
Casement was dropped off in Ireland on April 21 — three days before the Easter Rising was planned. He was suffering from a bout of recurring malaria (a condition he’d suffered from periodically since his days in the Congo), and was too weak to travel any further. As a result, he was rather quickly discovered at McKenna Fort (which is now, as a result, known as Casement’s Fort) and arrested on the charges of high treason, sabotage, and espionage. The Irish Volunteers were ordered not to try to rescue Casement, so as not to use any of the precious ammunition they’d managed to acquire for the Easter Rising (which was still scheduled to take place. I mean, literally everything was going wrong, so why not?) The rebellion did take place, lasted six days, and was ultimately a failure with tons of people being imprisoned and executed.
Casement was brought to Brixton Prison and placed under suicide watch. This seems to have been primarily because they wanted to make absolutely sure he was still alive for his trial, which was very public and very publicized. Prior to this trial, Treason Act 1351 had only applied to crimes committed on British soil, but Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The courts adopted a new interpretation of the law, basically just so they could try Casement for his actions. This whole interpretation was basically legitimized by the court saying that a certain comma wouldn’t have been included in the original Norman-French text. Casement later wrote that he was “to be hanged on a comma” — which is where that saying originates.
Apparently, during the search for evidence, the prosecution came into possession of what is now referred to as “the Black Diaries” which described various sexual experiences that Casement had had with other men throughout his life — mostly sex that he paid to have with other men. The prosecutor, F.E. Smith, suggested to the defense that they release these and that, with those in evidence, Casement might be found guilty but insane and thereby escape the death penalty. Casement rejected the idea. So, instead, the government surreptitiously leaked the diaries to the public in an effort to turn opinion against him — as Casement was still fairly popular for his work in the Congo and Peru.
Casement was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He appealed both the conviction and the death penalty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats all petitioned for leniency, for Casement to avoid the death penalty. Yeats, specifically, was convinced that the diaries were fake and that Casement was the victim of a conspiracy meant to defame and destroy him. The United States Senate also sent an appeal against using the death penalty for Casement, which the British cabinet soundly rejected at the behest of F.E. Smith — proving that his idea to have Casement’s defense release the diaries was never actually intended to save his life. Unfortunately, partly because Casement was now being painted as a sexual degenerate and partly because a lot of British people were so offended at the idea of an independent Ireland, many of his other friends and family had abandoned him — including his old friend from Africa, Joseph Conrad. A few relatives covertly donated to his defense fund, but none of them publicly spoke out on his behalf. As such, Casement’s appeals were denied. His knighthood was stripped from him on June 29, 1916 and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916.
Initially Casement’s body was buried at the prison cemetery. The British government rejected requests to repatriate the body to Ireland for years. They finally relented in 1965 and — despite Casement’s knighthood having been rescinded — the paperwork for the body calls him “Sir Roger Casement.” Although Casement’s last wish was to be buried on Murlough Bay, the only condition of the repatriation was that Casement could not be buried in Northern Ireland — as they feared what stirring up the Catholics might cause. Casement was given a state funeral with military honors, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. His funeral was attended by 30,000 people including the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera — the last surviving participant in the Easter Rising.
You may have noticed that Casement’s sexuality only seems to appear in his biography when it’s being used as blackmail. Casement was very good at keeping his private life private, as one would need to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and really doesn’t seem to have had any substantial or impactful romantic or sexual relationships with other men. This has led to some seriously heated debates about whether or not Casement was, in fact, queer at all. Were the Black Diaries fake? There’s been some pretty convincing arguments that they were. I’ve taken the opinion that they were not — or at least not entirely. I’ve been convinced by two things: firstly, Casement’s friend John Harris viewed the diaries in 1916, and was himself skeptical of them. Harris wrote: “I was so firmly convinced, that the diary was not Roger Casement’s handiwork. Alas, when it was put before me and I had examined certain parts, my confidence was shaken. Then I came upon two or three facts only known in Europe to Casement and myself, and then my hopes were scattered…” The second thing that convinced me was a handwriting analysis done in 2002 that compared the diaries to things Casement wrote while in the Congo, and matched them. So its pretty convincing at this point that Casement was — as Jeffrey Dudgeon put it when he published a compilation of the Black Diaries in 2016 — a “busy homosexual.” I can only hope that 100 years after my death, someone will describe me that way too.
The White Swan was a molly house located in Clare Market — where Vere Street and Clare Street intersected in London — during the year of 1810. As the story goes, a man named Yardley had partnered up with a man named James Cook to open the molly house. Both of them, according to all accounts, were perfectly heterosexual (and Yardley supposedly had a wife) but eternally greedy.
Part tavern, part brothel, the White Swan was notable for the wide assortment of attractions it offered for homosexual men. In the basement, there was a room with four beds in it, a lady’s dressing room with a wide array of cosmetics and make up, and a makeshift chapel where the Reverend John Church performed wedding ceremonies — considered by some to be the first same-sex marriages in England, although they weren’t recognized by the government. Although guests of the White Swan were allowed to participate in sexual activities together free of charge, there were also a number of prostitutes offering services for a charge. No “unusual services” were offered (meaning, nothing too kinky.)
The White Swan had barely been open for six months when it was raided by Bow Street Runners — essentially the police in London at the time — on July 8, 1810. During the raid, a crowd gathered outside — reportedly mostly of women — which was such a vicious mob that some of the prisoners were nearly killed being transported out of the molly house. Twenty-seven men were arrested — including Cook. (Yardley, somehow, seems to have escaped. Which is part of why we only know him as “Yardley” and I couldn’t even tell you if that’s his first name or last name.) Most of these men were released due to a “lack of evidence” (loosely translated, in this case that most likely means “bribing the cops”.)
Those that remained in custody became known as “the Vere Street Coterie“. They were all lower middle class, or even poorer, and certainly unable to afford the bribes that would have been needed to drop the charges. Their names were:
William Amos (aka Sally Fox)
Two others — John Newball Hepburn and Thomas White — were also arrested, though they were not at the White Swan on July 8, due to testimony from an informant. Cook, unlike the others, was not charged with sodomy, but with running a “disorderly house” (a phrase I have to admit I love.) Aspinal was sentenced to a year long prison sentence, as he was considered “less culpable” (though I don’t know why.) Cook, Amos, Kett, Thomson, Francis, and Done were all sentenced to an hour in the pillory. Amos, because this was his third offense, was also sentenced to three years in prison.
On September 27, 1810 the city of London provided 200 armed constables (100 on foot, 100 mounted) to be present to protect the men while they stood in the pillory (which actually involved walking around in a circle around an axis, with your head and hands locked into the frame — not so much just standing.) The constables however, did not do much, and the massive crowd (estimated to be thousands of people) was vicious. The police actually assisted several women in forming a circle around the six men in pillories so that they could pelt them with mud. Others in the crowd found other things to throw at the men — vegetables, fruit, dead fish, dead cats and dogs, feces, spoiled eggs — basically anything disgusting that they could get their hands on. Cook and Amos were the first two placed in the pillories, and suffered the worst of the crowd’s attack — Cook was almost unconscious by the end of the hour. They were all pretty seriously injured.
Hepburn — a 42 year old soldier — and White — a 16 year old drummer for the guard, who also worked as a prostitute at the White Swan — both received a much harsher punishment: on March 7, 1811 they were executed by hanging at Newgate Prison.
Cook refused to implicate any of his clients to law enforcement after his ordeal — though, lest we mistake him for an ally, it should be noted that he proceeded to make money by blackmailing members of the clergy who had apparently escaped arrest during the raid. Until he was imprisoned for an assault that was probably a frame job, and his family was systematically driven out of England.
The entire event — the raid and the subsequent punishment — was written about by a lawyer named Robert Holloway in a pamphelet called The Phoenix of Sodom in 1813 (which was intended to encourage the public’s homophobia). The events, including or perhaps especially the publication of the book, sent ripples through England — homosexuals, particularly men, felt an even greater necessity to remain hidden — probably a driving reason in Lord Byron‘s marriage in 1815, and (when that failed to curb rumors about his proclivities) one of the reasons he left the country for good in 1816. England continued cracking down harshly on homosexuality for several years — and London wouldn’t see another molly house (that we know of) until the Hundred Guineas Club opened in the 1830’s.
Like so many historical figures, James Barry‘s gender identity is kind of a mystery because the language and understanding we have of gender today has really evolved immensely since the 19th century. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident that James Barry was transgender and not just trying to escape the confines that came with being a woman in Regency era Britain. I’ll justify that as we go through this.
He was the second child born to Jeremiah and Mary-Ann Bulkley in Ireland, though there is very little information about his early life. He was named Margaret Anne Bulkley and lived as a girl until at least age 19. What little information can be found and verified seems to indicate he was born in 1789 — for instance, a letter dated January 14, 1805 states that the young “Miss Bulkley” was fifteen years old at the time. The date of birth is a bit confusing, because there are also sources that indicate he may have been born in 1792, 1795, or 1799. These are probably due to Barry lying about his age through his military career.
There is also some indication that Barry was assaulted as a child, resulting in a pregnancy. The child this produced is theorized to be the youngest Bulkley child, Juliana, who was raised as Barry’s sister.
The Bulkley family had serious financial difficulties — and ultimately they concocted a scheme to produce a better income. “Margaret Anne” adopted the name James Barry and posed as the nephew of the Irish artist James Barry (who was Mary-Ann Bulkley’s brother). Along with his mother (his “aunt” in letters), Barry boarded a ship bound for the University of Edinburgh in 1809. It is from the envelope of one letter from this trip that researchers were able to trace Barry back to his early childhood — the back of the envelope discreetly bore the words “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.” After this point, Barry never permitted anyone to see him change clothes and lived as a man both publicly and privately.
Barry began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Due to his effeminate facial features, many students believed Barry to be a pre-pubescent boy (like, some kind of prodigy, I guess?) and the university even tried to stop him from taking the final exams because they believed he was too young. The Earl of Buchan intervened, and Barry graduated in 1812 and almost immediately enrolled in courses at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. On July 2, 1813, Barry passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons.
On July 6, 1813 Barry was commissioned as a hospital assistant in the British army. For anyone keeping track, that’s a four day turn around on graduating school and landing a job. Barry was initially stationed at Chelsea, and then sent to Plymouth to serve at the Royal Military Hospital there. He was promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces (which apparently is the medical equivalent of a lieutenant) on December 7 of 1815.
In 1816, Barry was sent to Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s previous benefactor, the Earl of Buchan, had sent a letter of introduction to the governor Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset. Barry quickly impressed the governor’s family by treating his ailing daughter. Barry was essentially welcomed as a member of the family, and in 1822 Somerset promoted Barry to Colonial Medical Inspector — which was a pretty massive jump in station and in responsibility. Barry spent the next decade significantly improving conditions — especially for slaves, prisoners, prostitutes and the mentally ill. Barry even made a priority out of improving the conditions in hospitals and leper colonies. Barry is notable for being one of the handful of medical professionals at the time who understood that humanitarian conditions — particularly hygiene, diet, and fresh air — were vital to sustain a healthy population and prevent the spread of disease.
Although he used excellent bedside manner with patients, Barry was otherwise outspoken, impatient, brash, and often tactless — particularly when it came to criticizing other people when it came to medical concerns and policies. Not surprisingly, a lot of people did not like Barry because of this but his close friendship with the governor shielded him from consequences. That’s probably a large factor in one major event that took place in 1824: Lieutenant General Charles Henry Somerset was accused of “buggering” Barry. An investigation and a trial followed.
Now, buggering — which, of course, was the act of homosexual intercourse — was still very illegal in the British Empire and could still carry the death penalty. Nevertheless, nobody even seems to have considered that Barry was biologically female and Barry certainly didn’t offer up this information. This is one reason that I’m convinced that Barry identified as a man — Barry never came forward to save Somerset. Somerset also never revealed anything, even though it’s considered probable that he knew.
Though the case failed to prove any buggering, it proved humiliating for both Somerset and Barry. Barry managed to redeem himself in June of the same year — by performing a Cesarean section (without anesthesia) where both the mother and child lived. This was one of the first times this ever done and was the first time this had been accomplished anywhere in the British Empire or, as far as we know, in Africa. This feat easily secured Barry’s position as the best doctor in the colony.
On November 22, 1827 Barry was promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. The following year, he was assigned a new posting in Mauritius. After only a year there, Barry took a leave because Lord Somerset had fallen in. Barry personally cared for Somerset until his death in 1831, at which point Barry was sent to Jamaica and then, in 1836, to Saint Helena.
Barry’s abrasive personality had not mellowed out over the years, and while stationed at Saint Helena he came into some sort of, let’s say, “gentleman’s disagreement” with another officer that resulted in Barry facing a court martial that ultimately found him not guilty.
In 1840, Barry was promoted to Principal Medical Officer and assigned to the Leeward and Windward Islands of the West Indies. His assignment was to improve the conditions of the soldiers stationed there. This posting was apparently uneventful until Barry contracted yellow fever in 1845 and returned to England on sick leave. After being cleared for duty in 1846, Barry was stationed in Malta where he quickly ruffled feathers by — apparently — sitting in a seat in church that was reserved for clergy. This led to a formal reprimand, but Barry was less concerned with hurt feelings and more concerned with the looming threat of cholera. The disease ultimate did breakout, despite Barry’s efforts, and he was called on to treat it.
Although the cholera epidemic lasted until 1860, Barry’s superiors sent him to Corfu in 1851. On May 16, they promoted him to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals. Barry requested to be posted in Crimea, but the request was denied. In turn, Barry requested a leave and traveled to Crimea anyways. While there, Barry had a run-in with Florence Nightingale. The only descriptions I can find of the event come from Nightingale, but it sounds like Barry, on horseback, confronted her about something while she was (I’m guessing) crossing camp either to or from showers because she was basically naked. Whatever transpired, it left Nightingale with a deep dislike of Barry, whom she later described as “the most hardened creature [she] had ever met.”
On September 25, 1857 Barry received a promotion to Inspector General of Hospitals and was posted to Canada. He remained in this post, improving healthcare particularly for the poor, until he was forcibly retired from military service because of age and illness on July 19, 1859. He returned to London, where he lived quietly with only his servant John Joseph Danson (who had been with Barry since his first posting in South Africa) and a poodle named Psyche. Barry died from dysentery on July 25, 1865. Shortly thereafter, Danson disappeared — but is believed to have gone to Jamaica.
Despite having left strict instructions that his body not be examined in any capacity after his death, the truth of Barry’s biological sex was discovered. The physician who had issued the death certificate, Major D. R. McKinnon, had written on the certificate that Barry was a male. Afterwards, a woman — who is believed to have been laying out Barry’s body for burial — discovered Barry was biologically female and showed signs of having given birth at a young age. She attempted to use the secret to blackmail McKinnon. However, Barry had no known surviving family and McKinnon was not especially concerned (stating that he had figured Barry was a “hermaphrodite” but that it was “none of [his] business”), so he shrugged her off. The woman leaked this information to the press. A number of people responded by claiming to have known it all along, and Florence Nightingale responded by writing a scathing letter about how much she didn’t care what he was, she still really didn’t like him.
The British Army, in an effort to save face as women were allowed to be neither officers nor doctors and Barry had been both, sealed all records about Barry for the next hundred years. Isobel Rae, a history, gained access to the records in the 1950’s and ultimately pieced together Barry’s history from before he transitioned.
There’s a lot of discussion regarding whether or not Barry was truly transgender. Some would argue that because he transitioned with the help of his family in order to financially aid his family means it was all an elaborate ruse. Obviously, I’m firmly in the other camp that he was — living as a man even in private, not even breaking from his gender expression to prove a friend innocent of buggery, and trying to maintain that gender identity even in death despite not having any surviving family — to me, that all indicates someone who vehemently identified as a man.