May 25

This Day in History

Crime

May 25, 1895:

Oscar Wilde is sent to prison for indecency

Playwright Oscar Wilde is taken to Reading Gaol in London after being convicted of sodomy. The famed writer of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest brought attention to his private life in a feud with Sir John Sholto Douglas, whose son was intimately involved with Wilde.

Homosexuality was a criminal offense and serious societal taboo at this time in Britain. Wilde had gone back and forth between hiding his sexual orientation and attempting to gain some measure of public acceptance. After Douglas, a furious homophobe, began spouting his objections to Wilde's behavior to the public, Wilde felt compelled to sue him for libel.

In his defense, Douglas argued that Wilde had solicited 12 boys to commit sodomy between 1892 and 1894. On the third day of the proceedings, Wilde's lawyer withdrew the suit, since there was abundant evidence of his client's guilt. After that, the Crown issued a warrant for Wilde's arrest on indecency charges. Rather than flee to France, Wilde decided to remain and stand trial. At a preliminary bail hearing, chambermaids testified that they had seen young men in Wilde's bed and a hotel housekeeper stated that there were fecal stains on his bed sheets. Wilde was denied bail.

At Wilde's first criminal trial, he was cross-examined extensively on the "love that dare not speak its name." Wilde managed to secure a mistrial when a lone juror refused to vote to convict. The second trial began on May 21. Although many of the potential witnesses refused to betray Wilde by testifying, he was convicted. The judge remarked at his sentencing, "It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years."

Wilde served his two years and then spent the last three years of his life in exile. He died at the age of 45 and was buried in Paris.

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