Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Oscar Wilde, famed Irish author, poet, and playwright, was convicted of indecent conduct for his sexual relationships with men, most notably Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and was sentenced to two years of hard labor. The scandal surrounding his trial and conviction ended his career as a writer.

Summary of Event

When Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in 1891, he could never have fathomed, with all his cleverness and wit, the outcome of what turned out to be a volatile relationship. At the time, Wilde was an established literary sensation and a principal celebrity of London’s social scene, entertaining whoever happened into his company with his famous quips. [kw]Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency (May 25, 1895) [kw]Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency, Oscar (May 25, 1895) [kw]Gross Indecency, Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of (May 25, 1895) [kw]Indecency, Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross (May 25, 1895) Indecency;and Oscar Wilde trial[Wilde trial] United Kingdom;and homosexuality[homosexuality] Scandals [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency[0100] [c]Crime;May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency[0100] [c]Literature;May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency[0100] Wilde, Oscar Douglas, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, John

Douglas, sixteen years younger than Wilde and twenty-one years old when the two were first introduced, was an undergraduate at Oxford University and extremely handsome, although he was also vicious and petulant. Initially connecting over Douglas’s admiration of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Picture of Dorian Gray, The (Wilde) the two men met sporadically over the next year and were inseparable by May of 1892.

Oscar Wilde, right, with Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, 1894.

Although Douglas’s father, John Douglas, found himself charmed by Wilde’s wit, he soon began to disapprove of his son’s close relationship, as rumors of the author’s private life began to circulate through the London social scene. Although the elder Douglas threatened to cut off his son’s allowance if he failed to end his relationship with Wilde, Bosie rebelled against his often tyrannical father, sending him into a rage and prompting him to follow the two men around town. Bosie’s father attempted to sneak into the St. James Theatre on February 14, 1895, the opening night of Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895, pb. 1908), with a basket of rotting vegetables, but was denied entrance. Fuming, he left a card at Wilde’s hotel on February 18 that was addressed, “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic].”

Against the advice of close friends, Wilde sued Bosie’s father for libel on February 20, 1895, setting in motion a series of three trials that would result in Wilde’s financial and personal ruin. Wilde’s trial against John Douglas began on April 3 and played to an immense crowd of barristers, reporters, and curious onlookers. The case quickly turned against Wilde as John Douglas’s leading counsel Edward Carson questioned Wilde on the morality of his art and presented a mountain of evidence that he and his private investigators had obtained to justify the charge of sodomy against Wilde, including testimony from young men who had engaged in sexual relations with Wilde.

An illustration of the closing scenes of Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial and the sale of his personal belongings, published in The Illustrated Police News, May 4, 1895.

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Wilde withdrew his case against John Douglas on the third day of the trial, but Carson continued to present his evidence, evidence that would result inevitably in Wilde’s arrest on April 5 under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) for “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons.” Although Wilde’s offense was classified as a misdemeanor only, bail was not granted.

Wilde’s first trial against the English crown began on April 26 in the Old Bailey courthouse, and quickly became a news sensation. Most newspapers printed long and detailed descriptions of each day’s proceeding. While feigning shock and indignation at Wilde’s purported immorality, the press printed every possible lurid detail, virtually convicting Wilde before the trial even began. To pay for his debts, incurred both by the trials and by his and Bosie’s excessive spending, all of the items in Wilde’s home were sold at auction two days before the trial began, and his name was removed from theater programs and billboards in both New York and London.

The trial ended in a hung jury, and although Wilde’s reputation was all but demolished and the law had no obligation to continue with the prosecution, another trial was conducted. The Crown prevailed in the second trial, which was much more aggressive than the first, and handed down on May 25 Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency with a sentence of two years’ hard labor in Reading Gaol Reading Gaol, and Oscar Wilde imprisonment . Reportedly, prostitutes near the Old Bailey courthouse celebrated with cheers and dancing as Wilde’s conviction was pronounced.

Significance

The public humiliation Wilde suffered during his trials proved to be mild compared to the horrific conditions he would face during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. He endured constant diarrhea because he was fed rotten food, he slept on a bare plank, and he was not provided with a latrine. Furthermore, Wilde was granted one twenty-minute visit every three months only, but talking was not allowed among prisoners. While in prison, Wilde composed De Profundis (1905), Profundis, De (Wilde) a letter to John Douglas that condemns his self-centered behavior but which also provides a meditation on Wilde’s own self-destructive actions and a raw confession of his soul.

Because Wilde’s reputation in London was disgraced and his name was forever tainted by the vicious character assassination performed both by the court and the newspapers, he traveled immediately to Paris after his release on May 19, 1897. He was never again allowed to see his two sons, and all but the most devoted of his friends abandoned him. Wilde lived in destitute poverty and isolation in a Paris hotel, where he died on November 30, 1900; he was only forty-six years old.

As it became clear to Wilde that he would be convicted for his sexual relations, he began to defend what he famously called “the love that dare not speak its name” "Love that dare not speak its name" (Wilde)[Love that dare not speak its name] more directly and aggressively under cross-examination. In addition, after his release from prison, he openly discussed his homosexuality with the few friends who remained by his side and readily acknowledged his affection for men. As Wilde’s defense of homosexuality became more widely known and the conditions of his prosecution and imprisonment were revealed, Wilde became a posthumous hero for gays and lesbians, and his tombstone in Paris has become a shrine visited by thousands of people each year, some of whom kiss the gray stone in tribute. Indecency;and Oscar Wilde trial[Wilde trial] United Kingdom;and homosexuality[homosexuality] Scandals

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Brian, director. Wilde. Motion picture. Columbia/Tristar, 1998. Performances by Stephen Fry and Jude Law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Merlin. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde Versus John Douglas (Marquess of Queensbury), 1895. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keane, Robert N., ed. Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writings, and His World. New York: AMS Press, 2003.

July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

Fall, 1967: Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop Opens as First Gay Bookstore

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

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