Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE

The First Trial

Oscar Wilde, portrait
Oscar Wilde, portrait

A grand jury indicted Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the local procurer whose name had come up several times in Queensberry's investigation, with indecency and sodomy. The evidence against Taylor was at least as damning as that against Wilde, and the young man was under tremendous pressure to turn state's evidence against Wilde. Taylor declined.

On April 26, 1895, the Crown began presenting its case against Wilde. There were 25 counts against each of the men, ranging from gross indecency to conspiracy to commit gross indecency and sodomy. The prosecutor, Charles Gill, another Oxford classmate of Wilde's, called a succession of young men, some working class gentlemen and others of more ill repute.

The most damaging witnesses were the brothers Charles and William Parker, admitted prostitutes who had apparently been brought into the trade by Alfred Taylor. Parker's testimony was particularly harmful.

CHARLES PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. "This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?" I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde's sitting room on the second floor.

PROSECUTOR GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

GILL: Let us know what occurred there?

PARKER: He committed the act of sodomy upon me.

In the days leading up to the trial and during the first few days, Bosie was a daily visitor to Wilde in jail. However, Sir Edward Clarke, who was defending Wilde pro bono, felt it was dangerous having Lord Alfred in London and demanded that he leave the country, lest he be subpoenaed to testify. Queensberry had done everything he could to keep his son's name out of the investigation and trial, but even he could not guarantee Bosie's safety now. Reluctantly, Lord Alfred joined Wilde's other gay friends in Calais.

Some of the other men who testified against Wilde included Alfred Wood, who had blackmailed him for the letters he sent to Bosie, and Robert Clibborn, who had earlier blackmailed both Wilde and Bosie. Others testified to Taylor's odd habit of keeping the shades drawn in his "perfumed" apartment and to having young boys who dressed as women there.

The circumstantial evidence against the men was substantial. A chambermaid testified to fecal stains on a sheet in Wilde's rooms, another man told jurors that he had come to give Wilde a massage only to find a young man already asleep in Wilde's bed.

The high point of the first criminal trial came during Wilde's cross-examination by prosecutor Gill. It showed the world that, while Wilde might have appeared physically broken, his spirit was undaunted. The interaction came as Gill was asking Wilde about his literature.

"What is 'The Love that dare not speak its name?'"? Gill asked, undoubtedly hoping for a straightforward response. It is unlikely he was prepared for Wilde's off-the-cuff response.

"'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 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 elder and a younger man, when the elder 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. "

Although he was adamantly against homosexuality, Justice Sir Arthur Charles was not one to allow the seriousness of the accusation to trump the law and before giving the case to the jury, he dismissed the conspiracy charges, as there was never any evidence offered that would show Taylor and Wilde conspired together to commit sodomy. The majority of the charges dropped, then, Sir Arthur asked the jurors to retire to consider the evidence.

The jury was out just more than four hours and returned to the courtroom undecided on most counts. They had agreed on one, and found Taylor and Wilde not guilty of gross indecency. On the others they were hopelessly deadlocked, either 11 to 1 or 10 to 2 for conviction, depending on which newspaper one read.

For a moment, Wilde must have thought the worst was over. He was wrong. Gill immediately stood and announced the Crown's intention to retry the case. This time, however, Wilde was granted bail.

There were many on both sides that wanted the incident forgotten and begged Gill's supervisor not to retry Wilde. He was a beaten man; his estate was bankrupt and no matter how well he wrote in the future, no theater would produce his plays and no publisher would touch his literature. Oscar Wilde had been drummed out of polite society and was expected to leave the country to whither and die somewhere else, awash in his shame. But the pressure on the Crown was too great and a trial was ordered to begin forthwith.

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