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.

Mother Clap’s Molly House

Through the various posts I’ve shared, we’ve talked a fair amount about the legality of homosexuality in various countries. What we haven’t talked much about is how the LGBTQ+ community came together when its very existence was a criminal offense.

In England, at least, gay men came together in places called “molly houses” — which were essentially taverns, inns, etc — where gay men could socialize or have sexual encounters. Other activities common in molly houses included various toying with gender roles — everything from adopting “female dialect” (I don’t know what that is — talking like a girl?), cross-dressing, and adopting female personas to false wedding ceremonies and “mock birth rituals” (that doesn’t sound like fun to me but okay). Although “buggery” could be a capital offense in England until 1861, those caught were often placed in pillories — as a result, pillories were frequently built near known molly houses and even came to be a symbol of them.

Probably the most famous and most well-documented of these was Mother Clap’s molly house, a coffee house run by a woman named Margaret Clap. Not much is known about her, but Mother Clap’s molly house was open from 1724 to 1726. Margaret may have run the coffee house out of her own private home, and she was said to only leave the premises to purchase alcohol from the tavern across the street, which she would serve to her customers. Although she undoubtedly did make money from running the establishment, her primary goal seemed to be taking care of and supporting the men who stayed there. One man who was a boarder there for two years (which was like, the whole time it was open) was arrested for sodomy, and she provided false testimony in his defense.

In February of 1726, Mother Clap’s molly house was raided by law enforcement (Wikipedia says by the police, but I’m fairly certain there was no formalized police force in London yet?) at the behest of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. (Which would raid a number of molly houses in London before 1730.) The Society had turned a number of “mollies” into informants who had surveilled the molly house for at least a year prior to the raid. These informants were not prosecuted as thanks for their cooperation. (And this would not be the last time that this tactic was used against homosexual men — this would last into the 20th century.)

Mother Clap herself was sentenced to stand in the pillory at Smithfield Market, pay 20 marks, and then spend two years in prison. What became of her after this is unknown. Mother Clap is one of only two individuals recorded to have been formally charged with keeping a molly house and found guilty (although a large number of people were charged with sodomy who were probably keepers of a molly house).

Three men arrested in the raid on Mother Clap’s molly house were found guilty and hung on May 9, 1726. The trials of these men — Gabriel Lawrence (a 43-year old milkman), William Griffin (a 43-year old furniture upholsterer), and Thomas Wright (who may have helped Mother Clap run the house or had a molly house of his own) — provide much of the details of what we now know about the LGBT community of London in the early 18th century. Dozens of others were arrested in the raid, but they were fined, put in the pillory, and imprisoned — but not put to death. I honestly can’t find any details to explain why those three in particular were singled out for execution, but knowing what I do about British society at the time it seems likely these were just the lowest class people arrested or someone influential had a grudge.

These molly houses were the precursors to the bars that we still see as being a safe place, a sanctuary for our community. As far as I know, we’ve pretty much just done away with the mock birth rituals (which, personally, I’m completely okay with.)

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

Catalina de Erauso

Let’s delve into the story of one of my favorite historical women-loving women: Catalina de Erauso. She hasn’t, as far as I know, had any sort of far-reaching impact on today’s LGBTQ+ community…. but her story’s really fun…

19029193_10100197163315309_7678398842583670678_nMost of what we know about Catalina comes from her autobiography “The Lieutenant Nun” (so take a lot of this with a grain of salt), which claims she was born in 1585 — however, her baptismal certificate states she was born in 1592. I’m more inclined to believe her on this one because otherwise — well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, nevermind. She was born into a large noble family — her brothers were all sent to the New World to participate in its conquest, her sisters were all sent to convents until a suitable husband could be found. (Only one of her sisters ever married. Ouch.)

At four years old (so, 1589 or 1596 depending who you want to believe) she was placed in a convent to be raised by nuns, just like her sisters. This was not exactly the lifestyle for someone with Catalina’s adventurous nature, so on March 18, 1600 she cut her hair, put together some men’s clothing made out of her own undergarments, gave herself the name “Francisco de Loyola“, and fled — well, fled is a strong word — casually strolled out of the convent. This made Catalina a fugitive — a status she would maintain (with great effort and enthusiasm) for many many years. (If her baptismal certificate is right, she was eight years old at this point. If she’s right, she was fifteen. That’s kind of why I believe her on this.)

She traveled for twenty miles on foot, eating what she could find as she passed through villages, until she reached the town of Vitoria, where she encountered a doctor who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin. (Her travels through Spain involved frequent near-run-ins with her family.) He took her in, without recognizing her, and gave her clothes. She stayed with him for three months, but he sexually abused her during that time so ultimately, she fled again — this time stealing money before she left. (He kinda had it coming.) She met up with a mule driver, who took her with him to the court of King Juan de Iqiaquez. Dressed as Francisco once again, Catalina serve the king as a court page for seven months until her father — who was an important military leader for the king — showed up, so she fled once again and ended up in Bilbao. This time, she was unable to find work or a patron — but she did find a bar fight (this will become a common theme for her) and she was arrested. She spent a month in jail, and decided that being arrested was awful and if she was going to continue her life as a fugitive she was going to need to avoid it in the future. (The idea of not committing crimes apparently did not occur to her.)

She spent the next two years disguised as a man, working throughout Spain, although mostly staying close to her hometown and the convent that she had been raised in. She did not have a feminine build, and — apparently — had used an ointment to “dry her breasts”. On Holy Monday in the year 1603, she embarked on a ship for the New World. The first place she landed was Punta de Araya (which is now Venezuela) where, apparently, she was attacked by Dutch pirates who she defeated. From there, she and the crew she traveled with (which included one of her uncles, who did not recognize her) sailed to Nombre de Dios, where they stayed for nine days. Several members of the crew died due to the weather, so the crew determined to return to Spain.

Instead of going back to Spain, Catalina murdered her uncle, stole 500 pesos, told the rest of the sailors her uncle was on an errand and then she — you guessed it — fled. Still in men’s clothing, she found work as a sailor for a wealthy merchant. The large shipment she was transporting got caught in a terrible windstorm, the ship sank. Catalina managed to save herself and her master. Her master, grateful to be alive, rewarded Catalina with a house, money, and three slaves.

But Catalina’s penchant for violence would catch up to her soon. While attending the theater in Sana, a young man threatened her. She was not having any of that, so she took a whetstone, made herself a saw-tooth blade, and cut open his face. She was taken to jail, but through the efforts of her master and the bishop of the area she was soon released. One condition of her release was that she marry the aunt of the man who’s face she’d cut open. Fearful of her secret being discovered or of being tied down in a serious relationship, she refused to marry and left for Trujillo instead, where her master was opening a store.

The man who’s faced she’d sliced up tracked her there with two friends and challenged her. She killed him, she killed his friend, and then she took refuge in a church — declaring sanctuary until things died down. Around this time, Catalina began courting her master’s mistress — to the point where the mistress demanded they sleep together. Catalina wasn’t having that either — but this was also her master’s last straw, no matter how grateful he was for being saved from drowning. He gave her some money, a letter of recommendation for work in Lima, and kicked her to the curb.

Catalina presented her letter of recommendation to Diego de Solarte, a rich merchant who gave Catalina a store in just a matter of days. This new career was not destined to last long, however, as just nine months later she was caught fondling her new master’s sister-in-law and was fired. With few other career options available, Catalina joined the army and was placed under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. They marched to Chile, where she was greeted by the governor — her brother Don Miguel de Erauso, although he did not recognize her. She served in the military there for three years, earning the rank of Lieutenant. However, she was too violent and cruel towards the Native people and complaints from her fellow military officers about this prevented her from achieving any higher ranks. (And, like, I’m sorry, but having read what was the norm for the way the native people were treated at the time, I can’t *imagine* what sick, bloody things Catalina was doing to those poor people. Holy crap.)

She was extremely frustrated by this, and so took out her frustration on literally anyone she met on the road. She killed people, she burned crops, she was generally a menace. She murdered the chief auditor of the city of Conception — and declared sanctuary in a church where she stayed for six months. She left the church after six months to serve as the second in a friend’s duel. (She did have friends! Which is kind of amazing all things considered.) In the course of the night time duel, she killed the other man’s second — only to discover that he was her brother Don Miguel.

This is the only event in the entire autobiography that makes Catalina even come close to being introspective. It left her depressed (and in prison) for almost a year. Then, I guess, she just got over it and left for Argentina. The journey across the Andes almost killed her, but she was saved by a villager, who nursed her back to health but somehow never noticed that Catalina was a woman. While she was recovering, she ended up engaged to two women at the same time. Hey, y’know, it happens. Still unwilling to settle down with either of them, she skipped town right before the first of the two weddings.

She made her way to Potosi, where she took a job as an assistant to a sergeant and joined in with his mass murders of the natives. Some time after that she was accused of a crime that she did not commit (for a change) and imprisoned, where she was tortured (and yet, they still never noticed that she was a woman). After she was released from prison, she devoted herself to smuggling — but soon a lawsuit forced her to seek sanctuary in a church once again. After leaving the church, she got into a fight with a man and killed him, and was sentenced to death. Through fortunate events for her, her execution was postponed, she escaped and — spoiler alert, this is not going to surprise you — sought sanctuary in a church.

After escaping from that, she got into an argument with a sheriff’s servant and, of course, murdered him. (In broad daylight. In front of the sheriff. Not her finest moment.) She was sentenced to death again — and this time, she was unable to evade capture. She was clever though — more clever than she’d been when she murdered the sheriff’s servant right in front of him — and demanded that she be allowed to confess her sins to a priest. She was brought to a church — where she declared sanctuary. (Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Anyone?)

She fled from the church and returned to Peru, where it did not take long for her to get into another violent dispute and get arrested. With the death sentence hanging over her head and not going away in the foreseeable future, Catalina confessed to the bishop that she was actually a woman and a nun. The bishop had her examined by nuns, who determined that she was still a virgin. This, apparently, made her some sort of miracle and she became an overnight celebrity. She was basically given the choice of facing execution for her crimes, or writing down a confession and returning to Spain. That confession ultimately became her autobiography, the number one source for all things Catalina de Erauso. (Pretty much the only source for most of this.)

Once back in Europe, she petitioned the king to give her a pension due to her military service (and her celebrity status). Later, she traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Urban VIII who gave her special leave to continue to wear men’s clothing if she so desired — but reminded her that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. Returning to Spain, Catalina petitioned the crown for compensation for money she lost traveling to Spain and for a reward for her military service.

One of the last events recounted in her autobiography, which ends in the year 1626 (four years before her estimated date of death), she encountered a cardinal who told her that her “only fault is that [she was] a Spaniard.” She replied, “With all due respect, that is my only virtue.” At least she had one virtue.

Eventually, Catalina returned to the New World and then pretty much disappeared from history until her death in 1630.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion with Catalina about her sexuality and gender identity. And that’s a worthwhile discussion given that basically none of the terms we used to describe these things existed back then. Of course, as with pretty much any LGBTQ+ historical figure, there are those who are try to claim that she was straight and cisgender, and she only pursued women to keep her disguise intact. Some of these historians — and I use that term loosely — have invented romantic relationships with men that do not appear anywhere in her autobiography. In fact, she does not discuss any romantic anything towards men in her autobiography (or any other writings), despite there being several romantic and sexual encounters with other women. The autobiography, in my opinion, is not at all unclear about her exclusive attraction to women. She never expresses any interest in men, and virtually every woman who isn’t related to her is a potential love interest.

The only case that can really, justifiably be made for Catalina being straight, is if she’s transgender rather than cisgender. And that is totally a possibility. The only reason I’ve discussed her in the context of being a lesbian rather than being a transgender man is because — in my opinion (she’s not still around to ask) — it seems like she’s always aware she’s a woman disguised as a man. It doesn’t seem — to me — like she identifies as a man at all. I could be totally wrong on that, especially given that she continued to dress like a man even after her secret became public knowledge.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)