Notable Historical Trials IV – Oscar Wilde

This final chapter in the Folio Society‘s book on historical trials is about Oscar Wilde, the playwright.  Like the Whistler case, I find this one pretty trivial rather than notable. I suppose it has one life lesson to teach the reader.  If you are guilty of X, don’t sue someone for libel for saying you are doing X.

Wilde was having an affair with the son of Lord Queensberry, who objected to this. Wilde made a bad situation worse by exercising his wit on the poor father.  When Lord Queensberry became even more vocal, Wilde decided to sue him.  Of course, he lied to his lawyers, saying there was no truth in the charges.

Wilde thought he was a clever fellow, but instead comes off as a numbskull.  Queensberry’s defense came up with all kinds of evidence that Wilde had repeatedly used a procurer to deliver young lads to his rooms.   His letters to the boy were pretty plain, despite Wilde’s lame attempts to call them ‘art’.  He had paid blackmail money on a previous occasion to avoid exposure. And the distress of the father was damaging as well.  And I imagine the quips Wilde made during questioning went over less well then than they appeared to later writers.  Courts don’t like being treated with contempt.

Wilde lost the case.  Worse yet, the name of prominent government men had come up,  making it impossible to ignore the evidence of crimes exposed in the first trial.  For while the upper strata might wink at this kind of thing if done with discretion, it still was against the law and the voters wanted the laws enforced.  Foolishly again, Wilde tried to outwit the prosecution rather than to take off for Europe as was traditional.  He was convicted and spent a few years in prison.

Notable Historical Trials — Overall

I got this series of books as a toss-in when I was a member of the Folio Society.  I wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.  While the last half of the last volume seems to descend into some pretty trivial cases, the rest are first-rate.  And the write-ups for all the cases are interesting and illuminating.

An example I still remember is Joan of Arc. The description really seemed to deviate from the standard ‘Good French Bad English’ meme to explain how both the prosecutors and Joan were vitally concerned that the ‘voices’ really might be a sending of the devil.


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