The Fall of Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

…and now the thrilling conclusion

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.

somdomiteFour 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 really didn’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.

Alan Turing

This post is like SUPER long, but this man did a LOT of stuff that is really important even to this day and he deserves to have it all celebrated. Let’s get into it:

18922167_10100196145035949_7240118909333777822_nAlan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in London. (He was one of a handful LGBT+ figures who were born on this day — the birthday is shared by Alfred Kinsey, and myself. 😛) Turing is often known as the father of theoretical computer science as well as artificial intelligence, and is known for his work in code-breaking. In truth, he accomplished a great deal more than that before his death on June 7, 1954. (And that’s why we’re doing his post today!)

Alan Turing displayed signs of genius early on in life, showing incredible gifts at science and math, which were recognized by his teachers. At the age of 13, he was sent to Sherborne boarding school — however, his aptitude for math and science was not appreciated by many of the staff there, who sought to create more well-rounded students. Nevertheless, Turing would find inspiration for much of his later work at the school — by working on advancing his own education alongside his “first love” (albeit unrequited) Christopher Morcom. On February 13 of 1930, Morcom died from complications related to bovine tuberculosis, which he had contracted several years earlier. To work through his grief, Alan dedicated himself even more fully to his studies of math.

Turing attended university at King’s College in Cambridge. (That’s Cambridge in England, not in Massachusetts, for the Bostonians reading this.) At this point, Turing began writing and publishing dissertations on things that I am truly not smart enough to explain, so I’m just going to tell you what they were and let you Google them. In 1935, Turing wrote a dissertation that proved the central limit theorem. He was elected a fellow of King’s College as a result, because neither Turing nor the committee realized that the theorem had already been proven in 1922. I guess that’s what happens when you go to university before the invention of the Internet. In 1936, Turing published a paper called “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” (I’ll admit to copying and pasting that last word there because wtf Germany, is that word for real?) In this paper, Turing essentially planned out the devices that would be called Turing machines, and proved that the-then hypothetical machine would be able to solve any computation that could be solved by an algorithm — and also apparently proved that you couldn’t mathematically prove whether or not his hypothetical machine would ever stop, or something. I mentioned that this is way over my head, right?

Apparently, someone else also beat Turing to the punch with the things he was proving about the Entscheidungsproblem (seriously, Germany, wtf?) — but Turing’s answers were considered far more accessible than those provided by Alonzo Church. As a result, Turing machines became central to the science of computers and are apparently still studied as part of the theory of computation. Likely because of their common interest in developing machines that could computer literally anything, Turing began to study under Alonzo Church at Princeton University from 1936 to 1938. It was here that Turing began to study cryptology, or code breaking. After earning his PhD, Turing returned to Cambridge to give lectures, and he also joined the British code-breaking organization called the Government Code & Cipher School (GC&CS).

The day after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Turing reported for duty at Bletchley Park — which was the wartime headquarters for the GC&CS. He is credited with essentially five different code-breaking techniques, including the bombe which was the primary automated method used by the GC&CS during World War II. For a time, he led Hut 8 — the British group in charge of breaking German naval ciphers. Never one to stop being a scholar, Turing also published two papers on mathematical approaches to codebreaking — however, these papers contained such valuable information to the British codebreaking organization that they were not actually released until 2012.

Turing’s work is estimated to have saved thousands of lives during World War II, and is said to have shorted the war by as much as two years. In 1946, King George IV awarded Turing the Order of the British Empire even though Turing’s work remained secret for years to come.

In 1945, Turing began working on an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). He also wrote and presented a paper on a hypothetical computer that could store programming — unheard of at the time. (Once again, Turing was beaten to the punch on the *idea* but the paper that preceded him was apparently too vague to be taken seriously.) On May 10, 1950 a pilot version of the ACE enacted its first program — although Turing was at Cambridge at the time and did not witness the event. Turing’s ACE would not be truly completed until after his death.

Turing also became interested in other, more obscure forms of mathematics at about this time. He developed what is known as the Turing test — a test to determine whether or not a machine had true intelligence. This test is still used today, and in fact every one of those CAPTCHA tests that drive us all nuts is a reverse Turing test. He also worked on creating a chess program for computers — even though computers capable of running the program did not exist. The algorithm was completed in 1953, but could only be demonstrated by Turing flipping through his work to play the game of chess out on and actual chessboard. He also became keenly interested in mathematical biology (which I frankly did not even know was a thing until I started researching him) and particularly in morphogenesis (I don’t know what that is either). Despite publishing his work on morphogenesis before DNA was discovered, his paper is still considered relevant by biologists to this day.

In December of 1951, Turing began a relationship with an unemployed nineteen year old named Arnold Murray. Shortly afterwards, a burglar broke into Turing’s house — Murray said he knew the man, and Turing reported the crime to the police. However, during the course of the investigation, the sexual relationship between the two men was discovered. Homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdoms at the time, considered “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Both men were charged with the crime.

Turing pled guilty to the crime. The case Regina v. Turing and Murray went to trial on March 31, 1952. Turing was convicted, stripped of his security clearance, barred from doing anymore cryptographic consulting, and given a choice: imprisonment, or probation with a hormonal treatment to lower his libido for one year. He opted for probation. The hormonal treatment, however, rendered him impotent and caused gynaecomastia (the growth of breast tissue in men). As a result of the conviction, Turing was also denied entry in the United States of America.

On June 7, 1954 Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning. His body was discovered by his housekeeper the next day. Because there was a half-eaten apple by his bed, it was assumed that he committed suicide by ingesting the cyanide with the apple. There are theories, however, that his death was actually an accident as he was keeping some lab equipment in his bedroom, which used cyanide to dissolve gold. Yet others believe he intentionally put the equipment in his room to make his suicide look more like an accident. Some are still calling for a renewed investigation into his death.

In 2014, Turing was officially posthumously pardoned for the crime of gross indecency by the Queen. His was only the fourth royal pardon since the end of World War II. As of 2016, in what is informally called the “Alan Turing Law”, others convicted of historical laws that outlawed homosexual acts are being pardoned in England and Wales.

On June 5, 2019 Alan Turing received an obituary from the New York Times as part of their “Overlooked” series.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)