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,
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:
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:
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
One is not getting what one wants,
and the other is getting it.
- Oscar Wilde,
Fan (1892), Act III