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.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Parnell and the O’Shea Divorce Case

English: This picture is from the biography 'C...

English: This picture is from the biography ‘Charles Stewart Parnell: His Love Story and Political Life’ that she (Katharine O’Shea) authored (1914) under the name ‘Katharine O’Shea (Mrs Charles Stewart Parnell).’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Stewart Parnell, the "uncrowned K...

Charles Stewart Parnell, the “uncrowned King of Ireland” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another chapter in the collection of Historical Trials by the Folio Society is down.  This one is about Charles Stuart Parnell, an Irish politician working towards home rule.  Apparently this was not all he was working on, as apparently he was conducting an affair with the wife of Captain O’Shea for a number of years.  By some reports several of the younger children were Parnell’s.

Some reports say that O’Shea knew about this for some time, and got Parnell’s support for an election to Parliament as a consequence.  Also Mrs O’Shea was up for an inheritance that might be lost due to a divorce.  But when the inheritance came in and O’Shea couldn’t get at it, he sued for divorce to encourage Parnell and O’Shea to buy him off.  This fell through and the damaging facts came out in the trial.

William O'Shea (1840-1904)

William O’Shea (1840-1904) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tales of the clandestine meetings, the times Parnell had to escape out a window made for great newspaper stories but were fatal to his political career.  Everyone knew this kind of thing went on, but on the quiet.  After his death Parnell was rehabilitated as a  virtual saint of Home Rule, which might have been some consolation if he had been alive.

I suppose the lesson is that if you play these cozy games, make sure and pay off the husband enough that he doesn’t blab.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Mrs. Maybrick

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s set on Historical Trials continues in the descent into what seems like trivia.  At least in many previous chapters, a simple case had some social import or interesting quirk.  This one just seems like a confused murder case.

The Maybricks were not a happy couple.  It started when Mrs. Maybrick found out that her husband had five children with another woman, two after their marriage.  She had an affair herself just before he died.

There were some signs of arsenic poisoning, but this was complicated by the fact that Mr. Maybrick was in the habit of taking some himself as an aphrodisiac.  The doctors testifying couldn’t decide if the cause of death was poisoning or not.  Mrs, Maybrick had purchased some, but there were cosmetic reasons why she might have done so.  The judge seemed to unfairly ignore this in the summing up.

She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.  This was later commuted to life in prison.  Eventually after 15 years she was released.  As a result of this case, England did change its rules on murder trials to allow the defendant to give evidence and to allow an appeal of the result, so I suppose there was something notable about this trial after all.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Louis Riel

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s collection of Historical Trials moves to Canada.  As settlers moved into the Northwest, they came into contact with Indian tribes and a group of mixed race hunters.  Louis Riel, an unbalanced man who claimed to have a divine mission to lead the natives against the government, took the lead against the government.

The insurgents fought a few skirmishes and were defeated once the government brought its force to bear.  Riel and some of the Indian leaders were hanged.

English: Louis Riel, after a carte de visite f...

English: Louis Riel, after a carte de visite from 1884. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The main impact was political – Riel’s claims that the government was unrepresentative and not acting in the interest of the original residents of the Northwest was more or less true.  The fact that Riel was not allowed to have a Catholic juror in the trial because a rallying point for the French-Canadians in Quebec.

Not much of this helped the original residents of the Northwest – the settlers continued to arrive and the old ways were not able to survive for long.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Whistler vs. Ruskin

Another chapter in the final book in the Folio Society‘s book on historical trials.  It looks like the hugely meaningful ones are pretty much done, as there’s a murder, a divorce, and a libel case coming up.  Perhaps I will be surprised, though.

This trial is a simple one.  James McNeill Whistler was a popular painter, and a jerk.  John Ruskin was an influential art critic, and a jerk as well.   When Ruskin panned Whistler’s paintings in the jerkiest way possible, Whistler decided to go for broke in the jerk sweepstakes by filing suit against Ruskin for libel.

The blow-by-blow of the trial didn’t interest me.  Talk of what pictures ‘mean’ by the artists bores me.  The defense trying to make something of how long it took to dash off the paintings bores me even more.  It does tend to show a bitter edge that tends to support Whistler’s contention of malice over pure critique.

Instead of being laughed out of court, the farce had to proceed.  Eventually, Ruskin was found guilty, but damages were set at 1 farthing.

Neither man had an easy life after this trial, and it is hard to find any sympathy for that.

Notable Historical Trials IV – President Andrew Johnson

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s collection of historical trials was pretty interesting. It is about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.

This trial isn’t usually mentioned in histories of the war, and often glossed over when it is mentioned with the usual veneer of ‘Radicals’ acting extremely.

Johnson got into trouble initially due to his veto of the Reconstruction acts.  The issue of how to reintegrate the Southern states and assure that the Negro citizens kept their rights was a tough one, despite intellectuals afterwards asserting otherwise.  With the political class more or less all involved in the rebellion, and with the ex-slaves not being ready to take their place, the alternatives were to rule with the military until the whites acquiesced, or doom the blacks to generations of ‘neo-slavery’.  While in the end, this is what happened anyway, Congress should not be dismissed for making an effort.

So when Johnson began relieving the military governors, and the Secretary of War in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, which held that appointed persons must serve a full term, Congress was angry.  Johnson had already vetoed several Reconstruction bills that were overridden. and here he was trying to do the same through the back door.

Johnson’s dismissal of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War that organized the victory in the Civil War, was designed to precipitate a crisis.  Remember, Stanton was overseeing an occupation of a dozen states at the time.  These states had been at war with the country just before that.  Congress had a very real interest in having someone competent and incorruptible overseeing this.  Stanton was many unpleasant things besides competent and incorruptible, but he had what was needed in the post.

The trial came down to a few Senators in the middle.  The Democrats would vote no for political reasons, many Republicans would vote yes for the same.  The middle found their verdict came down to the charge of violating the Tenure of Office Act in firing Stanton.  Ironically, it did not apply to Stanton, who had been confirmed under Lincoln in 1862.  Enough Senators found for Johnson that the impeachment failed.

Afterwards, things cooled down on both sides.  Johnson nominated men that Congress could accept in the posts, and Reconstruction went on.  It would finally end as a political deal with the Democrats in the disputed Hayes-Tilden election in 1876.  The troops were pulled out, and the white majority was free to enact Jim Crow legislation to eliminate the rights of the blacks living there.

Notable Historical Trials IV – The Assassination of Lincoln

This chapter in the Folio’s book on historical trials is a bit of a departure, as it really doesn’t concentrate nearly as much on the trial itself.

It does follow the conspiracy as it shifts from a kidnapping to murder in the last days of the Civil War, the partial breakup and execution of the plan.  It follows the escape of Booth and the chase and final killing in Virginia.  It is a nice overview.

But then the trial itself is dispatched in just a few pages that really don’t seem to delve very deeply.  Kind of disappointing.

Notable Historical Trials – John Brown

Salt print, three quarter length portrait of J...

Salt print, three quarter length portrait of John Brown. Reproduction of daguerreotype attributed to Martin M. Lawrence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another chapter down in the Folio Society‘s book on Historical Trials.  This time we are back in the USA in 1859. for the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry.I’ve never been a fan of John Brown, or comfortable with this adulation.  I tend to take the North’s view of matters of the time, but Brown isn’t ‘on my side’.  The Pottawatomie massacre, where he killed 5 settlers in reprisal for the pro-Slavery Border Ruffian‘s attack and sack of Lawrence, Kansas puts him outside the pale.  I won’t say he wasn’t provoked, as the other side’s crimes were severe, but that doesn’t excuse him.

At Harper’s, Brown wanted to raise a slave insurrection and have the slaves defend an area in the South.  While this was ‘better’ than the violence at Pottawatomie, it still was violence if more of a paramilitary than criminal kind.  And of course, it was also wildly irrational.  Most slaves were not willing to erupt into violence, and even those that might have been couldn’t see that fighting the forces that the Southern states and the US could have brought to bear made a lot of sense.

English: 'The Last Moments of John Brown', oil...

After a short siege and assault, Brown was wounded and captured, and after a short trial where most of Brown’s requests for delays because of his lack of counsel and his wounds were refused, sentenced to death. I understand the need for Virginia to get this over with to avoid any trouble with the slaves, but given their unresponsiveness to the original assault a delay of a few days could not hurt.  Look what Boston did for the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre.

Brown’s bearing at the trial and execution impressed many, and not only those in the North or abolitionists. The real effects of the raid were not on the slaves, but the masters.  Even the isolated and marginalized support for Brown in the north infuriated the slaveholders and boosted the political power of the secessionists.  In about a year, they would make their own move, which was only a bit more rational than Brown’s and precipitate the Civil War.

John Brown got his way in the end.

Notable Historical Trials IV – Dr. William Palmer

Another chapter down in the Folio Society‘s collection of historical trials.  This one took place in 1856.  Doctor William Palmer liked to live high and gamble, but his losses soon outpaced his earnings and savings.  His solution was to start killing people to win inheritances, or kill his creditors to wipe out the debt.

There were a few cases where he poisoned someone who had just won some money at the races, and would insert a forged promise to assume some of Palmer’s debt onto the corpse.

Why is this notable?  Probably just that in England in that day crime was thought to be class based.  The fact that a respected professional like Palmer could run wild was very surprising and disturbing.

Notable Historical Trials IV – The Duc de Praslin

This chapter in the Folio Society‘s collection of historical trials takes place in 1847.  The fe of the Duc, the Duchesse de Praslin was found dead, with more than forty wounds.

The obvious suspect was the Duc, and there was plenty of evidence.  He had blood on him, the cut bell pull rope was stuffed in his clothes, the weapon was in his rooms.  The two had not gotten on well in recent years, and this was made worse by the governess of their children, who she felt was behaving improperly with the Duc.

She had dismissed the woman, and the Duc was apparently due to intercede with the Duchesse to get her a recommendation for a new job that day.  I suppose the request did not go over well.

Before the trial was complete the Duc killed himself.

Why was this trial (or partial trial important?  The Duchesse was popular, and this gory murder was one of a number of incidents that discredited the monarchy of Louis Philippe and the Aristocracy.  The Ambassador to Naples cut his own throat, the Prince d’Eckmuhl stabbed his mistress to death, Comte Mortier tried to kill his children, and the Keeper of the Seal committed suicide.  It seemed to many that the ruling class was no longer fit to rule.  Within months unrest grew and the last King abdicated and fled.  The government set up a republic under Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who soon became the Emperor Napoleon III until his ouster in 1870 during the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War.