With their heady brew of famous names, dirty secrets and Victorian moral outrage, it’s no wonder the court trials involving renowned playwright Oscar Wilde enthralled the general public during the final decade of the 19th century.

Wilde, an Anglo-Irish playwright and bon vivant, was known for his acerbic wit and celebrated works, including Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. In early 1895, the husband and father of two was at the height of his fame and success; his play, Earnest, had debuted to great acclaim in February that year, making him the toast of London.

By the end of May, Wilde’s life would be turned upside down. Convicted of gross indecency, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in jail. Three years following his release from prison, he would die, impoverished, in France.

His lover's father was disgusted by the liaison

Wilde (1854-1900) met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in the summer of 1891 and the two soon became lovers. It was an affair of the heart that would span years and continents, and would ultimately lead to Wilde’s very public downfall. Douglas, the third son of the Marquess of Queensberry, was 16 years Wilde’s junior. Reportedly a dissolute, extravagant dandy, he was practically inseparable from Wilde until the latter’s arrest four years later.

It was Douglas’ father’s reaction to the whole affair that prompted the fateful court proceedings. Queensberry (John Sholto Douglas) was a Scottish nobleman best known for promoting rules for amateur boxing, the “Queensberry Rules.” By early 1894, Queensberry was certain the flamboyant Wilde was a homosexual and demanded his son cut off contact with the writer. (The Victorian era was especially known for its culture of sexual repression, and carnal activity between men was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom until the late 1960s.)

“Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies,” Queensberry wrote to his son in April of 1894. Douglas ignored his father’s growing condemnation of Wilde, incensing Queensberry and fueling his hostility toward his son’s alleged lover.

First, Queensberry attempted to disrupt the debut of The Importance of Being Earnest, where he planned to present the playwright with a bouquet of rotten vegetables and inform theatergoers of Wilde’s alleged scandalous lifestyle. Thwarted, he then visited London’s Albemarle Club, of which Wilde and his wife, Constance, were members.

Queensberry left a card with the porter of the club, asking that it be handed to Wilde. Written on the card was, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Affronted and embarrassed, Wilde wrote to Douglas, saying he believed there was nothing left to do but criminally prosecute Queensberry for libel. “My whole life seems ruined by this man. The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing,” Wilde wrote.

Writer Oscar Wilde standing next to his seated lover 'Bosie' Douglas
Oscar Wilde with his lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, known as a spoilt dandy; Photo: Getty Images

Wilde went on the offensive

During preparations for his case against Queensberry, Wilde’s lawyers asked him directly whether there was any truth to the allegations of homosexuality. According to Wilde, the allegations were “absolutely false and groundless.” Ahead of the April 1895 trial date, Wilde and Douglas journeyed together to the south of France.

Wilde’s first trial (Wilde v. Queensberry) began April 3 at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, commonly known as Old Bailey. Attempting to get ahead of Queensberry’s accusations, Wilde’s attorney Sir Edward Clarke, included the reading of one of the playwright’s letters to Douglas that could suggest a homosexual relationship between the correspondents. While Clarke admitted the wording may seem “extravagant,” he reminded the court that Wilde was a poet, and the letter should be read as “the expression of true poetic feeling, and with no relation whatever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it in the plea in this case,” according to trial transcripts.

Wilde soon took the stand, telling the court of the harassment he had endured from Queensberry. Asked publicly if any of the allegations were true, Wilde replied: “There is no truth whatsoever in any of the allegations, no truth whatsoever.”

Cross-examined by Queensberry’s attorney Edward Carson, Wilde was called upon to defend his published works on the basis they contained immoral themes or had homosexual overtones. He was then questioned about past relationships he had had with young men.

The ever-eloquent Wilde displayed a dexterous command of the English language — and a penchant for witticisms that would eventually incriminate him in court. On the second day, Wilde was questioned about a 16-year-old male acquaintance named Walter Grainger and whether or not he had kissed the teen. “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately extremely ugly. I pitied him for it,” Wilde replied.

Pressing Wilde over his response, Carson continued to ask if that was the sole reason he didn’t kiss the boy, simply because he was ugly. “Why, why, why did you add that?” Carson demanded. Wilde’s reply? “You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.”

The same afternoon, the prosecution closed its arguments without calling Douglas to testify as planned. It was not looking good for Wilde.

One trial beget another

In defense of Queensberry, Carson announced in his opening speech that he intended to call to testify a number of young men with whom Wilde had had sexual encounters. Such accusations were more than just words in 1895 when it was a crime in England for any person to commit “gross indecency,” as the law had been interpreted to criminalize any type of sexual activity between members of the same sex. That evening, fearful of where the trial could lead, Clarke urged Wilde to drop the case. The following morning, Clarke announced the withdrawal of Wilde’s libel suit against Queensberry. A verdict of “not guilty” was the court’s final decision in the matter.

During the trial, Queensberry’s attorney had forwarded copies of statements by the young men scheduled to appear as witnesses to the director of public prosecutions, resulting in a warrant for Wilde’s arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency the same day Queensberry’s “not guilty’ verdict was handed down.

Wilde would very quickly be back in court—this time in the role of the accused.

The first criminal trial of Wilde (The Crown v. Wilde) began April 26. Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the man accused of procuring young men for the playwright, faced 25 counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies. Wilde pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. Numerous male witnesses testified for the prosecution, detailing their participation in sexual acts with Wilde. Most expressed shame over their actions.

Unlike his appearance at Queensberry’s trial, a more subdued Wilde took the stand on the fourth day. He continued to deny all charges against him. During his testimony, Prosecutor Charles Gill asked Wilde about the meaning of a line in a poem by Douglas: “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name’?”

“‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare,” Wilde answered. “It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older man and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamor of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Though Wilde’s answer appeared to reinforce the charges against him, the jury reportedly deliberated for three hours before deciding they could not reach a verdict. Wilde was released on bail.

A third trial sealed the writer's fate

Three weeks later, on May 20, Wilde was back in court to face the same charges. The government was pushing for a verdict.

The prosecution, spearheaded by solicitor general Frank Lockwood, had tightened its case against Wilde, reportedly dropping weaker witnesses from the first criminal trial. Summing up, Lockwood stated: “You cannot fail to put the interpretation on the conduct of the prisoner that he is a guilty man, and you ought to say so by your verdict.”

Hours of deliberation passed before the jury handed down their conclusion: guilty on the majority of counts. Reports of the time say Wilde’s face turned gray when the verdict was read.

Wilde and Taylor were convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor, the maximum allowable for the crime. When the sentence was handed down, shouts of “Shame!” erupted in the courtroom. “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” Wilde responded, but the court was adjourned.

After his conviction, Wilde’s wife Constance changed her and her sons’ last name to Holland, in an effort to distance themselves from the much-discussed scandal, and moved to Switzerland where she died in 1898. The couple never divorced.

Following his two years in prison, Wilde was physically reduced and bankrupt. He went into exile in France, residing with friends or staying in cheap accommodation, writing little. Wilde died of meningitis on November 30, 1900. He was 46.