Group 3 Research: Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Trials

In his article, “Re-Presenting Oscar Wilde: Wilde’s Trials, ‘Gross Indecency,’ and Documentary Spectacle,” S. I. Salamensky offers insight on Oscar Wilde’s three infamous trials that criminalised his sexual identity and, interestingly enough, was instigated by Wilde himself. According to Salamensky, Oscar Wilde was well-acquainted with fellow poet, Lord Afred Douglas. Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, grew suspicious of the relationship between his son and Wilde, and at various points threatened to disown Lord Alfred and publicly humiliate Wilde. According to an online biography titled, Famous Trials, posted by Professor Douglas O. Linder, Wilde’s 1895 trial highlighted the public dissent surrounding same-sex relationships, that at this time were seen as a criminal offence. This is due to the enactment of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1895 which states: “it is a crime for any person to commit an act of “gross indecency.” The Act had been interpreted to criminalize any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex. In his article, Salamensky notes that the Marquess kept his word, and sent multiple letters to Oscar Wilde that accused him of posing as a “sodomite” and accused him of having sexual relations with men. Instead of dealing with the Marquess in private, Oscar Wilde chose to launch a libel suit against Queensbury. Wilde’s decision to bring legal attention to these accusations against himself arguably brought about his eventual demise. The online biography offers more depth about the specific evidence brought forth during Wilde’s trials like: letters between Wilde and Douglas that suggested a romantic relationship between the two, gifts given to Wilde’s young male companions, male witnesses testifying their role in helping Wilde act out his “sexual fantasies,” people testifying they saw Wilde engage in predominantly male parties at hotels, and the presence of provocative themes used in Wilde’s literature that inevitably incriminated Wilde for having sexual relations with numerous men. In addition to the evidence brought forth against him, Salamensky claims that Wilde also made a habit of lying during the trial about his age, which legitimised suspicions against him and brought about the demise of his public image. In addition to increasing suspicions against him, Wilde’s lawyer ended up withdrawing the lawsuit which led many to believe his “indecency” were true, further implying his guilt on these accusations. Nonetheless, during his trial for “indecency” Wilde pleaded not guilty on 25 counts as well as conspiracy to commit gross indecency. However, by the end of the trials, Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty on majority of those charges, then not long after his release, he lived in poverty in France. In his biography of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellmann describes the events of Wilde’s death as being painfully tumultuous and describes Wilde foaming and bleeding from his mouth, unable to speak, and consumed by pain. While the cause of Wilde’s death is largely contested due to lack of evidence, it has been assumed that Wilde may have died from an ear infection contracted while in prison, or as Ellmann believed, from an ongoing battle with syphilis.

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