Today in Literary History – May 6, 1895 – Oscar Wilde is arrested on charges of “gross indecency”

The year 1895 was the beginning of the end for the great Irish playwright, novelist and wit, Oscar Wilde.

It began well enough, with Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opening at St James’s Theatre on February 14 to great acclaim.

But, four days later the Marquess of Queensberry (famed for his rules of sportsmanship in boxing) left his calling card at Wilde’s club with the poorly-spelled inscription “For Oscar Wilde poseing somdomite” (sic).

The Marquess of Queensberry’s calling card with the offending inscription. Exhibit A at his libel trial.

This was a public accusation (the Victorian equivalent of a Twitter posting) of Wilde as a homosexual and sodomite, serious crimes at the time. The Marquess was an erratic and possibly mentally unstable character who was incensed by Wilde’s sexual affair with his young son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

After publicly receiving the card and its accusation Wilde was determined to face the Marquess in court. He wrote to “Bosie” that night, “I don’t see anything now but a criminal prosecution. My whole life seems ruined by this man. The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing. On the sand is my life split. I don’t know what to do.”

Wilde and Bosie

Wilde sued the Marquess for libel despite his friends’ warnings about the risks involved in taking the matter to court. Wilde’s friends turned out to be right. Wilde lost the case.

After losing the libel case Wilde’s friends again begged him to go into exile in Europe rather than face arrest. Wilde refused and on April 6, 1895 he was arrested on charges of “gross indecency.” He decided to stand trial and plead “not guilty” when his trial began on April 26.

This led inevitably to Wilde’s conviction, imprisonment, professional ruin, impoverishment, estrangement from his family, exile in France and Italy and ultimately his death in 1900 at the age of 46.

His name was even removed from the playbill and the marquee of the St James’s Theatre where his greatest play was still running.

Wilde was convicted on May 25 and was sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum sentence. He was taken immediately to prison, where he remained until May 18, 1897. His harsh treatment, poor conditions, and meagre food rations led to a serious decline in Wilde’s health and contributed to his early death.

The last photograph of Oscar Wilde, looking much shabbier than in his heyday.

After his release he was broke, Ill, shunned by family and society. He spent the last two and a half years of his life in Europe, mostly in Paris, depending on the charity of his remaining friends and admirers. He died of meningitis on November 30, 1900.

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