Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Libel Trial

Edward Carson, attorney, sketch
Edward Carson, attorney,

Queensberry chose his defense counsel wisely. He engaged Edward Carson (later Sir Edward), who had attended Oxford with Wilde and had a competitive rivalry with Oscar there. A thin, balding man, Carson was soft-spoken but had the actor's command of voice that allowed him to lull a witness into a false sense of security only to drill home a point with sonorous rumblings. He was a relentless questioner who could seize a weakness or contradictory statement and use it to destroy his adversary.

When Wilde learned whom he would face in court, he replied in typical Wildean fashion: "No doubt he will pursue his case with the added bitterness of an old friend."

Returning from a holiday on the continent, Wilde was met by his family and friends, who urged him for the last time to drop the charges. They pointed out that if he should lose, the Crown would have no choice but to charge him with gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

"Who are you to set back the clock 50 years?" asked his friend Frank Harris. "You haven't a dog's chance."

But Bosie laid down an ultimatum. It's them or me, he told Wilde, storming out of the meeting. Suddenly realizing the enormous stakes, Wilde could only shrug and say it was too late to go back.

On April 3, 1895, the trial opened in London. It was a celebrated affair, for the men involved were of highest English society and the testimony promised to be as entertaining as any of the fictions Wilde had written.

Sir Edward Clarke opened the trial. In journeyman style he laid out the history of the relationship among Wilde, Bosie and Queensberry. He sought to dull the shock of the flowery language in the letters Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred by introducing them himself, rather than giving Carson the advantage.

"The words of that letter, gentlemen, may appear extravagant to those in the habit of writing commercial correspondence, or those ordinary letters which the necessities of life force upon one every day" Clarke said. "But Mr. Wilde is a poet, and the letter is considered by him as a prose sonnet, and one of which he is in no way ashamed and is prepared to produce anywhere as the expression of true poetic feeling, and with no relation whatever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it in the plea in this case."

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