Editor's Published Articles

The Importance of Being Wilde

Part III: The "Booby Trap"

published in Queensland Bar News, May 2003

Links to other parts of this Article

Part I: Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas
Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part V: Carsonís cross-examination
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

     Oscar Wilde

I always pass on good advice. It's the only thing to do with it.
It is never any use to one's self.

- Oscar Wilde,
An Ideal Husband (1895), Act I

Four days later, on 18 February 1895, Queensberry called at the Albermarle Club, of which both Wilde and his wife were members. He left with the hall porter a card on which he had written "to Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite" - although, in fact, the last word was mis-spelt as "somdomite". Partly because of the mis-spelling, Queensberry's conduct has been widely portrayed, in books and movies of Wilde's life, as the frenzied actions of a man whose fury and malevolence had him teetering on the brink of raving lunacy. In fact, it was nothing of the sort; it was very much worse; it was a carefully constructed trap of extraordinary cleverness.

To induce Wilde to prosecute him for libel - which was undoubtedly Queensberry's intention - he had to defame Wilde publically and in writing. As Mr. Justice Wills remarked (perhaps a little naively) at the last of the subsequent trials:

    Lord Queensberry has drawn from these letters [Wilde's letters to Lord Alfred Douglas] the conclusions that most fathers would draw, although he seems to have taken a course of action in his method of interfering, which I think no gentleman would have taken, whatever motives he had, in leaving at the defendant's club a card containing a most offensive expression. This was a message which left the defendant no alternative but to prosecute, or else be branded publically as a man who could not deny a foul charge.

Had Queensberry baited his trap in any other way, there was a chance that a prosecution would not eventuate. Had the same words been sent in a private letter to a third party, there is the possibility that the third party would not have informed Wilde of the correspondence; and, even if it came to Wilde's attention, a private communication might have been ignored without exposing Wilde as one who had "no alternative but to prosecute, or else be branded publically as a man who could not deny a foul charge". In later correspondence with his son, Queensberry referred to the card as "the booby trap" - a perfectly accurate expression, in every sense.

Yet at the same time, Queensberry was careful to formulate that foul charge in language which he hoped to be able to justify, without undertaking the onerous burden of proving that Wilde had actually committed unnatural vices. The use of the word posing made it very much easier for Queensberry to advance a plea of justification, yet took none of the sting out of the defamation. As Sir Edward Clarke QC contended in opening the libel case to the jury:

    The words of the libel are not directly an accusation of the gravest of all offences - the suggestion is that there was no guilt of the actual offence, but that in some way or other the person of whom those words were written did appear - nay, desired to appear - and pose to be a person guilty of or inclined to the commission of the gravest of all offences.

The trap was baited, and Wilde took the bait. Wilde prosecuted Queensberry for criminal defamation. At the conclusion of Wilde's evidence, and even before Edward Carson QC (subsequently Sir Edward, and later Lord Carson) had completed his opening speech for the defence, the prosecution was withdrawn. Wilde, as prosecutor, submitted to a verdict of Not Guilty in favour of Queensberry, expressly on the basis that it was true in substance and in fact that he had posed as a sodomite, and that this statement was published in such a manner as to be for the public benefit. That very afternoon, Wilde was arrested; at his first trial in late April, the jury were unable to agree on a verdict; but at his second trial, in May, he was found guilty on eight counts of committing acts of gross indecency with another male person and given the severest sentence that the law allows, namely imprisonment with hard labour for two years.

These three trials together constitute an extraordinary chapter in England's literary, social and legal history. But to the modern lawyer, they are chiefly of interest for three reasons: first, as exemplifying the perils faced by a prosecutor or plaintiff in defamation proceedings; secondly, as containing one of the most celebrated cross-examinations in the history of advocacy; and thirdly, as raising very serious concerns regarding the severity with which Wilde was prosecuted.

In this world there are only two tragedies.
One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

- Oscar Wilde,
Lady Windermereís Fan (1892), Act III

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Links to other parts of this article

Part I: Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas
Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part V: Carsonís cross-examination
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

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