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.

Ronnie Kray

As much as I love showing how inspirational the LGBTQ+ people of history can be…. they weren’t all wholesome heroes. And I’ll be the first to admit… sometimes it’s fun to write about a bad guy. And Ronnie Kray definitely fits the bill.

ronaldkrayRonald “Ronnie” Kray and his brother Reginald “Reggie” were born on October 24, 1933 in London. Their parents were Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, they had a brother who was older than them by six years named Charles James Kray. Reggie was the older of the two — by ten minutes. At three years old, both twins came down with diptheria. They attended school, first at Wood Close School and later at the Daniel Street School. All in all, a fairly ordinary childhood.

As adolescent boys, thanks largely to their grandmother, the twins took up amateur boxing. Egged on by their sibling rivalry, they actually managed to be kind of successful at it. (Inherent violent tendencies probably helped too.) In March of 1952,  the twins were called upon to join the National Service in the British Army. Although they did show up to the depot as they were supposed to, they tried to leave after only a couple of minutes. A corporal tried to stop them from leaving — Ronnie punched him in the jaw and the two kept going, walking all the way back home. The next day they were arrested — the police turned them over to the army.

That September, the twins were both absent without leave again. When a police officer tried to arrest them, the duo physically attacked him — which led to them being held in the Tower of London. This gives them the grand distinction of being among the last prisoners held in the Tower until they were transferred to a military prison. They were held there until they were dishonorably discharged — and when it became apparent that that was the inevitable outcome of their incarceration, the twins became increasingly badly behaved — their antics including dumping hot tea on a guard, handcuffing a guard to their cell bars with a set of stolen cuffs, and setting their bedding on fire. Eventually, they attacked one of their guards with a vase and escaped. They escape attempt was short lived, they were soon recaptured. After their discharge, they were transferred to a civilian prison where they served time for all of the crimes they’d committed since going AWOL.

The dishonorable discharge and the criminal records killed their budding boxing careers, so the two took their violent behavior and turned it into a full-time career in organized crime. They began by starting a protection racket, but ultimately fell in with Jay Murray and, through him, became involved in armed robberies, hijacking, and arson. Through these illicit activities, they came to own several properties.

In 1960, Ronnie got arrested for running a protection racket. While he was in prison (for 18 months), Reggie was given ownership of a nightclub Esmerelda’s Barn — which, apparently, was a really happening night club frequented by very famous people despite have “barn” in its name. Owning this not only gave them more influence in the criminal underworld of the West End, and allowed them to have a base of operations for their gang “the Firm” — but also gave them legitimate income and brought them into the social circles of celebrities like Judy Garland and Diana Dors. As celebrities, the Kray brothers were much beloved — as criminals, they were greatly feared. Even the people who worked for them could face severe and painful punishments if they disappointed or failed to show the proper respect.

3194_122339497360In July of 1964, however, Ronnie caught the attention of tabloids for an entirely new reason: his sex life. The Sunday Mirror published an article implying that Ronnie Kray was involved in a sexual relationship with Conservative politician Lord Robert John Graham Boothby. Sodomy was, at this point, still a criminal act in the United Kingdoms. The Conservative party moved to shut down the news story — and so did their rivals the Labour party, as they sought to protect Tom Driburg — a member of parliament who was (relatively) open about being gay and frequently socialized with Lord Boothby and Ronnie. Ultimately, the Sunday Mirror settled out of court and paid Lord Boothy £40,000.

And while the scandal the entire event caused may have been potentially damaging for politicians in the UK — it did nothing but help the Kray brothers. The two became practically untouchable, as now neither the Labour or Conservative parties wanted Ronnie investigated for fear of what might turn up about the sexual proclivities of their own members. It took another two years before the Kray criminal empire began to unravel — and it didn’t really happen because of any police investigations.

Over the next two years, Ronnie began to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. On March 8, 1966 a shootout with a rival organization called the Richardson Gang left one of their associates in the Firm, a man named Richard Hart, dead. A member of the Richardson Gang, George Cornell, who was not involved in the shooting but was known to call Ronnie some derogatory names for gay men like “fat poof”, was drinking at the Blind Beggar Pub the next day. That pub was only like a mile away from where the Kray brothers lived, so Cornell was maybe not making the best decisions at the time (but to be fair, he’d probably been drinking for a while.) Ronnie found out that Cornell was there, and had his driver “Scotch Jack” John Dickson and his assistant Ian Barrie bring him to the pub. (Side note: if your driver’s nickname is two different kinds of liquors maybe hire a different driver. I’m just saying.)

When Ronnie walked into the pub, Cornell reportedly said “Well, looks who’s here.” And then Ronnie shot him. Barrie threatened the full-on crowd of onlookers not to say anything, shot up the ceiling a bit, and then brought his boss back out to “Scotch Jack” to drive them away. Cornell died in the hospital at 3 am.

ronnie_and_reggie_krayIn December of that same year, the Krays helped a man named Frank Mitchell escape from Dartmoor Prison. Frank was a friend of Ronnie’s, as they’d spent time together in Wandsworth Prison. The idea was that the escape attempt would bring media attention to Mitchell’s case, and he’d be reviewed for parole. (And the parole board would probably find if you’re trying to escape prison maybe you need to stay in a little longer, but what do I know?) However, Mitchell never returned to prison to be paroled — in fact, he disappeared altogether and was never seen again. Freddie Foreman, a friend of the Kray brothers, would later claim in his autobiography to have shot Mitchell and disposed of his body at sea as a favor for the twins but there’s no actual evidence supporting that because nothing has ever been found.

Meanwhile, the Kray brothers continued to literally get away with murder. They socialized with A-list celebrities, their legitimate business raked in cash, and the politicians in power did everything they could to prevent any investigations even while bodies were piling up (or disappearing). In 1967, Reggie’s wife committed suicide — leaving both the mental health of both the twins in a seriously questionable state. They took out a contract to kill their financial advisor Leslie Payne, giving the contract to a minor member of the Firm, Jack “the Hat” McVitie. It was a £1000 job, and they paid £500 upfront — but McVitie failed to complete it. Ronnie convinced Reggie they had only one option: to kill McVitie as an example.

After Reggie stabbed McVitie to death, Tony and Chris Lambrianou and Ronnie Bender were called in to help dispose of the body and get rid of any evidence. McVitie was a large man and his body could not fit in the trunk of a car, so they covered him and loaded him into the backseat. The car ran out of gas in front of St. Mary’s Church, so the trio set the scene up to frame another gang for the murder and left the corpse in the car at the church. The Kray brothers were furious, and called in Foreman to finish disposing of the body — which Foreman ultimately dumped in the English Channel.

However, murdering one of their own was not a good look for the twins. Members of their gang got uneasy — wondering if what happened to McVitie could happen to them as well. At about that time, Leonard “Nipper” Read of Scotland Yard was promoted to the Murder Squad — and he’d been trying to investigate the Krays since 1964. By the end of 1967, Read had gathered enough evidence to arrest both of the Kray twins — but not enough to make the charges stick. Finally, in May of 1968, Scotland Yard arrested the Kray brothers and fifteen members of their gang. They went through elaborate lengths to prevent any of the arrested members of the Firm from speaking to each other, and offered all of them deals to testify against each other — but the Krays could. They schemed to have “Scotch Jack” Dickson confess to murdering Cornell, their cousin Ronnie Hart to confess to murdering McVitie, and Albert Donaghue to confess to murdering Mitchell. Donaghue, however, flatly refused and almost immediately turned on the twins, confessing everything he knew. Next “Scotch Jack” rolled on the twins — and with his testimony, they found the bartender who had been working in the pub where George Cornell was killed. She gave her statement as well.

The evidence became overwhelming, and the only defense was essentially to try to discredit the witnesses because they were mostly all also criminals. What followed was the longest murder hearing in British history, but it was ultimately determined that the twins were going to go to jail for life and would not be eligible for parole for thirty years. Their brother Charlie was also jailed for ten years for his help in their criminal activities.

At the time of their sentencing, Ronnie was engaged to a woman named Monica — whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved. In the first seven months of his imprisonment, Ronnie and Monica sent 59 very affectionate letters to each other — even though she married someone else during that time. Ronnie was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and was sent to Broadmoor Hospital in 1979.

The twins were allowed out of prison — under heavy guard — to attend their mother’s funeral in 1982. There was basically a huge media circus about it because of their presence (and also because Diana Dors was there) so they decided to spare their family that kind of attention, and did not attend their father’s funeral in 1983.

In 1985, the staff at Broadmoor Hospital discovered evidence that Ronnie, Reggie, and Charlie were operating a business called “Krayleigh Enterprises” which offered bodyguards and “protection services” to celebrities. Frank Sinatra hired 18 bodyguards from the company when he visited the Wimbledon Championship in that year. The police investigated the business, and found no legal reason to shut it down — so, apparently, it was actually legitimately bodyguards and apparently Frank Sinatra actually legitimately needed 18 of them to watch tennis.

Also in 1985, Ronnie married a woman named Elaine Mildener who he met at Broadmoor Hospital. They divorced in 1989, after which he married a woman named Kate Howard. They divorced in 1994.

In several early interviews while imprisoned, Ronnie identified himself as a gay man, but by 1989 he was identifying himself as a bisexual man — but he certainly never denied that he was attracted to men. In fact, in one interview in the 1970’s, he said: “[Gordon of Khartoun] was like me, homosexual, and he met his death like a man. When it’s time for me to go, I hope I do the same.” In actuality, Gordon of Khartoun was not a homosexual and Ronnie met his death on March 17, 1995 from a heart attack while still being held at Broadmoor Hospital. Reggie was allowed out of prison (in handcuffs) to attend Ronnie’s funeral. (Reggie lived until 2000, when he died of cancer. He was released from prison weeks before his death on compassionate grounds.)

The Krays’ celebrity status while being horrible, awful, violent criminals has certainly left a lasting impact on our culture. There have been multiple movies, several books, and a couple of plays about them, and depictions of them appear in eight television series. But their real influence went way further than that. If you were reading this whole thinking “wow, they sound just like gangsters from the movies!” that’s because the archetype of gangster that appears in movies was essentially revamped to be more like them after their arrest — their clothes, their crimes, etc. I just kind of wish Hollywood had been a bit more fascinated with their sex scandals too.