Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


"To Oscar Wilde"

Like a master chess player, Queensberry plotted his moves to destroy Oscar Wilde. And Wilde walked right into the trap.

It was a high time for Wilde. Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest were both critical and popular successes as was another play, The Ideal Husband. Master of the epigram and the bon mot, Wilde was the toast of London and a popular guest at parties. Seemingly uncaring that Queensberry was planning his downfall, he openly consorted with "renters" young male prostitutes and held court in some of London's finest establishments.

At the Albemarle Club where Wilde dined, Queensberry left his calling card complete with misspelling of the libelous word: "To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite." Wilde felt he was left with no other choice but to defend his honor and sue for criminal libel. Queensberry had been stalking him, had threatened his livelihood and now insulted him publicly.

Friends urged him not to sue, to shrug off the insult and move on, perhaps traveling to America or the continent. But Wilde would have none of it. He brought criminal charges against Queensberry and demanded satisfaction.

The marquess expected no less and was prepared. In police court on Bow Street he made the statement that not only had he called Wilde a sodomite, he had done so for the good of the general public. This last statement was important, because now if Wilde lost, the government would have no choice but to pursue criminal charges for gross indecency. To do otherwise would show favoritism for the elite.

Wilde expected the trial to be little more than a chance to exhibit his witty repartee on the stand. After all, it was up to Queensberry to prove the truth of his statements, not for Wilde to disprove them. The courtroom might have been a place of combat, but it was the type of combat that Wilde, not Queensberry, could exploit.

Sir Edward Clark, sketch
Sir Edward Clark, sketch

Wilde approached one of England's most respectable barristers, Edward Clarke, and asked him to take the case for the prosecution. Clarke's reputation was one of immense respectability and correctness. He did not often take cases in which he suspected his client was guilty and he demanded honesty from those he represented. His previous experience with sodomy cases was in the divorce court, where he represented jilted wives.

"I can only take the case, sir," Clarke said, "if you assure me on your honor as an English gentleman that there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you."

Wilde very firmly said Queensberry's charges were groundless and false and Clarke agreed to take the case.

The suit was doomed from the start, and Wilde's closest friends knew it. The general feeling among those who cared in London was that Wilde was gay and that Queensberry's allegations were true. It was also commonly believed that no jury would rule against Queensberry, for he could easily play the desperate father trying to save his son from Wilde.

But Lord Alfred was adamant that Wilde pursue the charges. His family, which believed the men when they said nothing untoward was going on between them, agreed to pay for the trial, taking away Oscar's last escape route.

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