Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.
We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).
Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)
Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”
Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.
But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:
“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother— Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3
Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.
So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)
Must now confess, if they have any goodness
The trial just and noble.”
This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?
But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.
So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?
“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”
Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.
That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New OxfordDictionary of English.
The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.
Imagine, for a moment, if you will, that you’re watching the (fantastic) animated film Anastasia, right? And at the end of the movie, the credits roll, and then you see the disclaimer that tells you that it was fictional and none of the characters were intended to be like real people. You probably roll your eyes and chuckle a little — obviously Rasputin didn’t have a talking bat sidekick, right? But what you probably didn’t know is that that disclaimer is actually kind of a piece of queer history at play, and that it’s partially due to Rasputin that it’s there at all. But mostly it’s because of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston.
Felix was born on March 23, 1887 in the Moika Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His mother Zinaida Yusupova was last of the incredibly wealthy Yusupov family, and his father was Count Felix Felixovich Sumarokov-Elston. The Yusupovs had more money than the Romanovs who, y’know, ran all of Russia. They had four palaces in Saint Petersburg along, three palaces in Moscow and 37 estates elsewhere in Russia. Not just old money sitting around gathering dust either — they were raking it in with coal mines, iron mines, oil fields….all kinds of industries that were booming at the time. So, the point I’m trying to drive home here is….he was born into money. He just had to inherit it.
Standing in the way of that inheritance was his older brother Nicholas Felixovich Yusupov. Nicholas was a lady’s man and a womanizer, but someone Felix looked up to as a child — but was also deeply jealous of him. According to Felix’s memoirs Lost Splendour, Felix lost his virginity while abroad with his family in Contrexeville, France in a chance encounter with an Argentinian man, who’s name never came up, and his girlfriend when he was still pretty young. He confided the experience to Nicholas, but — to Felix’s frustration — his elder brother ignored him, convincing Felix to keep such stories to himself in the future. (I think it’s relevant to note that, whenever this encounter comes up in his memoirs it is always the Argentinian man he talks about and the woman is just “his girlfriend.”)
Felix also soon discovered a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes for parties — he discovered he enjoyed the clothes, and the attention he received from men. Nicholas encouraged this, and brought Felix — in dresses — out to debaucherous parties with him. He began performing in drag at a cafe in Saint Petersburg called The Aquarium — until his mother recognized him during one of his shows that she happened to attend. Although the scandal was kept secret, it ended Felix’s performance career. He continued to dress in drag for parties, however, until his father learned of these “pranks” and furiously threatened to send him to a Siberian convict settlement.
Nicholas was killed in a duel at 26 years old on June 22, 1908. The duel, which was over the affections of a married woman, was something of a surprise to most of the family — Felix, however, had been warned about it (by the woman in question) well in advance and made no moves whatsoever to prevent it from happening. As a result, Felix no longer had to split the family fortune. And before you say I’m being cynical, I present to you this excerpt from Felix’s own memoirs, immediately following his brother’s death: “The thought of becoming one of the richest people in Russia intoxicated me.”
Although Felix clearly came out ahead, there were a lot of people who lost in that duel. Nicholas died. The married woman left her husband and joined a convent, so he still lost his wife. Felix’s mother battled severe depression for the rest of her life, brought on by the death of her eldest son. And then there’s Maria Golovina, a woman who had been in madly love with Nicholas and mostly ignored by him. She latched onto Felix as, essentially, her new best friend to help her through grieving. Her family, however, decided she needed “professional help” from self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin. When they met, Felix was not impressed by Rasputin, and immediately believed him to be a depraved con artist, writing “The young woman was too pure to understand the baseness of the ‘holy man.'”
From 1909 to 1912, Felix attended University College at Oxford, studying forestry and English. He was essentially forced there by his family, who believed it would help ground him. Not so much. While there, he did found the Oxford Russian Club, which was something I suppose, but Felix was still living extravagantly. He was a member of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club — which was basically a dining club for rich boys — and employed a full staff at his residence, including a chef, a valet, a housekeeper, as well as housing numerous pets including a bulldog, three horses, a bear cub, and a macaw. According to the University College Oxford website, he spent more money while attending the school than almost any other student. He spent most of his free time partying with friends like Oswald Rayner (remember that name!), and ultimately became very good friends with pianist Luigi Franchetti and Jacques de Beistegui. I’m hesitant to say that there was anything physical or romantic about his relationship with either, because I can’t find any information about who they were outside of what I’ve just said, but they did both move into his English home at 14 King Edward Street. I’m not saying anything definitive but there’s an awful lot of people (and animals) in what is, by all outside appearances anyways, not a particularly large residence. Little bit crowded in there even if people are sharing beds, that’s all I’m saying.
Anyways, in 1912 Felix returned to Russia without graduating, writing that he was too busy in Russia to return to school. He developed a relationship with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich — something heavily implied in his own memoirs to be more than a friendship, but less than a romance. There’s no evidence that Dmitri felt the same way about Felix. Felix rejected the advances of one of Dmitri’s friends, and Dmitri was sent elsewhere — effectively ending whatever their relationship may have been for the time being. Felix was pretty quickly married off to Princess Irina Alexandrovna, the only neice of Tsar Nicholas II. Their wedding was on February 22, 1913 and although the wedding was described as modest, don’t worry, it’s not a “real people” version of a modest wedding — Irina was wearing a veil that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette. You know, nothing like getting “something borrowed” and “something old” out of the way at the same time. For their honeymoon they went to Jerusalem, London, and Bad Kissingen in Germany.
They were both still in Germany when World War I began in August of 1914. They were detained in Berlin. Because European royalty is pretty much all one really weird family tree, Irina reached out to her relative the Crown Princess of Prussia to try to help them get back to Russia, but Kaiser Wilhelm II was not about it, and instead offered them their choice of one of three German estates to reside in for the duration of the war. However, Felix’s father intervened by way of the Spanish ambassador to Germany, and the newlyweds were allowed to return to Russia as long as they went there by traveling through Denmark and Finland.
On March 12, 1915 Irina gave birth to their first and only child — a daughter named Irina Felixovna Yusupova — nicknamed Bébé. Irina and Felix found they were both utterly incapable of actually taking care of a child, and so Felix’s parents did most of the parenting. Nevertheless, Bébé was very close with her father and quite distant from her mother. This was probably because Felix and his parents spoiled her rotten. There’s also a distinct possibility that Irina wasn’t thrilled with Felix’s, in his words, “love affairs of a special kind” which were, y’know, with men. He once wrote “One may censure those relationships but not the creatures for whom normal relationships against their nature are impossible.”
Around this time, Felix decided to use some of his vast fortune to help out with the war, converting part of Liteyny Palace into a hospital for soldiers. Felix did not have to actually serve as a soldier because there was a law that stated only sons did not have to serve — nevertheless in February 1916 (after a scathing letter from the Grand Duchess Olga to Tsar Nicholas II called him a “downright civilian” and “a man idling in such times”) Felix began attending the Page Corps military academy.
Meanwhile, concern began to grow that Russia would concede to Germany in the war. Part of this was due to Russia’s economic decline, which many people — particularly those loyal to the monarchy — blamed, at least in part, on Grigori Rasputin and his undue influence with the tsar’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna. Felix, for his part, remained convinced that Rasputin was drugging the tsar in order to slowly weaken him and eventually make the tsarina the regent even at the time of writing his memoir.
What actually transpired is a bit of a mystery. While the official accounts, as told by Felix and his cohorts, match up with each other reasonably well albeit not perfectly, the autopsy reports tell a drastically different story. And further evidence from British Intelligence indicates yet a third different story. But since this is an article about Felix, I am going to focus on his version of events as explained in his memoirs.
It was little wonder that when he received a letter from Vladimir Purishkevich proposing that Felix join him and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (whom Felix still pined for) in assassinating the Rasputin, that Felix joined in eagerly — although he insisted on being involved in mapping out the scheme itself. Purishkevich also recruited Doctor Stanislaus de Lazobert and contacted Samuel Hoare at the British Intelligence Service, which is perhaps why MI6 operative and Felix’s college-friend Oswald Rayner visited with Felix a number of times the week that the plot unfolded. Meanwhile, Felix recruited lawyer Vasily Maklakov and an army officer named Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, who was recuperating from an injury sustained in the war.
Felix worked through his friend Maria Golovina, who had introduced him to Rasputin years before, to ingratiate himself to the tsarina’s advisor. It was quite successful and easy — particularly laying the trap. Felix lured Rasputin in with an invitation to the Moika Palace, with a promised invitation to meet his wife Irina, who was actually in Crimea at the time. Dr. Lazovert prepared cyanide crystals, sprinkling them over the tops of cakes and leaving some to be poured into Rasputin’s drink. Lazovert was convinced that it was enough cyanide to instantly kill several men.
Felix brought Rasputin to his home, all of his other cohorts hiding upstairs from the dining room. encouraged Rasputin to partake of the cakes and poured him three poisoned glasses of wine. The cyanide, however, had no effect discernible effect (though the wine slurred his speech.) Excusing himself, Felix went upstairs to discuss this surprising lack of a turn of events with his friends, and they ultimately determined the next course of action had to be to shoot Rasputin. Upon returning to the room, Felix shot Rasputin in the chest. Dr. Lazovert rushed in and, after a brief examination, determined he was in fact dead.
The last part of the plan involved Sukhotin bringing Rasputin back to home, so as to avoid arousing suspicion. However, as they prepared to do so, Rasputin leapt to his feet and charged at Felix — who was forced to hit Rasputin with a rubber club to escape his grasp. Rasputin began crawling out the door into the courtyard, and disappeared into the night. Purichkevich fired two shots into the dark after him. They pursued Rasputin into the courtyard, and Purichkevich shot him two more times.
The gunshots, of course, aroused police suspicion. Felix tried to convince the investigating police officer that it was just a drunken friend firing a gun — but Purichkevich proclaimed that he had killed Rasputin. The police officer agreed not to turn them in. After all of this excitement, Felix passed out and his servants put him to bed. He was later told that Dmitri, Sukhotin, and Lazovert took Rasputin’s body, wrapped it in linen, placed it in a car, drove it to a bridge, and dumped it in the water (breaking the ice as they did).
Although that police officer did not report Purichkevich’s confession, the police investigating Rasputin’s disappearance found the unusual gunshots happening at the same night, at the home of someone acquainted with the missing person to be suspicious. Felix was questioned the next day. The police let Felix go, as he repeated the story about a drunk friend, but rumors flooded Saint Petersburg that Felix had killed Rasputin at the Moika. The tsarina ordered the police to search the Moika — but, because Irina was a Romanov, such a search could only be ordered by the tsar himself. A lucky break, as it gave Felix and his servants time to clean up all of the blood. After that task was completed, the conspirators met for lunch to decide on a story. They all agreed to stick to the story Felix had already told the police.
Though they stayed with this story, and were questioned without arrest a handful more times, Felix and Dmitri were forbidden from leaving Saint Petersburg. The tsarina was already calling for their execution, despite no evidence linking them to a crime. The body took days longer to recover, but it was eventually found. Police were sent to protect Dmitri and Felix, who had made things easy on both their protectors and the multitude of people who wanted to kill them by taking up residence in the same palace. As much as that must’ve been nice for Felix, as I said before, there’s no evidence Dmitri returned his feelings and at this point they were both pretty focused on the aftermath of the assassination they’d committed.
Now, the autopsy of the body revealed a lot that doesn’t add up to Felix’s version of events. They found Rasputin had been shot by three different guns — one of which was the standard issue for British Intelligence operatives. The same type of gun, in fact, carried by Oswald Rayner. (Although the memoirs note that Oswald was aware of the plot to kill Rasputin, it only mentions him checking in on Felix the day after the murder.) The examination of the body also indicated that Rasputin had been severely beaten, and that someone had tried to castrate him. Tried, and failed — not sure how that works but okay. None of that was mentioned in Felix’s story and that lends some credence to the theories that he wasn’t actually involved at all.
Anyways, unable to find evidence proving anyone else killed Rasputin, and unable to find enough evidence they had killed Rasputin, Dmitri and Felix were exiled from Saint Petersburg. Dmitri was sent to Persia, ordered to remain there under the supervision of the military general commanding troops there. Felix was sent to his family’s estate in Rakitnoye. (It helps to have like forty residences, right?) Felix was really heartbroken to be separated from Dmitri. I guess he thought after they assassinated one of the most influential people in Russia, he and Dmitri would live together forever?
This was January of 1917, however. So anyone who knows Russian history at all knows what’s about to happen to the tsar who ordered that exile. The February Revolution began on March 8, by March 12 buildings in the capital were ablaze and by March 15, Tsar Nicholas II had given up the throne of Russia. This ended Felix’s exile from Saint Petersburg but overall made things very complicated for him. His wife was a Romanov, but most of the population thought Felix was a revolutionary because he’d murdered Rasputin. He spent some time kind of playing both sides, clearing out valuable possessions from his family estates, trying to keep below the radar of the new provisional government (who were very much trying to keep an eye on him) and trying to help the imprisoned Romanovs with whatever influence he still had. When the Bolshevik government fully came into power, Felix and Irina headed to Yalta to stay even further below the radar — but be closer to one of the places where some of the Romanovs were being kept in the hopes of somehow improving their situation.
However, when that proved impossible, Felix and Irina went into permanent exile from Russia. They traveled to Italy, but ultimately settled in Paris, France. They began a couture fashion house called IRFE, and Felix became known for his charitable giving towards France’s Russian immigrant community. He published his memoirs, Lost Splendour: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin in 1928. Rasputin’s daughter promptly sued him, but the case was dismissed as the French courts had no interest in dealing with a political assassination that had occurred in Russia in any capacity whatsoever. The stock market crash of 1929 (and some poor financial decisions Felix had made) led to IRFE being closed.
In 1932, Felix and Irina sued MGM for invasion of privacy and libel for their portrayal of Irina (as “Princess Natasha”) in the film Rasputin and the Empress. In the film, Princess Natasha is seduced by Rasputin. The English courts sided with the Yusupovs and awarded them $127,373 in damages (over $2 million when adjusted to today’s values!) The court specifically mentioned that text appearing at the beginning of the movie made it seem like it was intended to be a retelling of actual events and worked against MGM’s arguments. As a result, MGM began attaching a disclaimer to each of their films, declaring it as a work of fiction with no intended similarity to any person living or deceased. Numerous other studios followed suit — and to this day, that boilerplate disclaimer shows up on almost every American movie. He was involved in a handful of other, less consequential lawsuits over the next few decades and Felix passed away on September 27, 1967.
Felix remains somewhat of a controversial figure — not because it’s his fault that movies have to explain that they’re fictional in a disclaimer, and not just because he may have murdered Rasputin. Also because, I’m sure you guessed this, his sexuality is often called into question. Per usual, a lot of historians claim he could not have been bisexual. His Wikipedia page even falsely claims that he outright denied being bisexual in his memoirs. I just read his memoirs for this article, they’re available online for free right here. The closest I found to any such denial is this quote: “I have often been accused of disliking women. Nothing is further from the truth. I like women when they are nice.” Nothing about that is a denial of bisexuality especially since right before it is this statement: “I thought it quite natural to take my pleasure wherever I found it, without worrying about what others might think.”
So there you have it, the story of Russia’s bisexual, drag-performing, accidental revolutionary, clumsy assassin prince and how he changed both Russian history and cinematic history forever.
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.