April 5, 2022

The Downfall of Oscar Wilde

The Downfall of Oscar Wilde

April 5th, 1895. Oscar Wilde loses a libel case that leads to his arrest and imprisonment, instigating the downfall of one of Victorian England’s most celebrated writers.


Cold Open

It’s November 20th, 1895, in Reading, England.

A prison warden sits in his office, watching the drizzle slide down the window panes.

In the distance, the warden hears the sound of wheels on cobblestones. He stands and peers outside.

There, he spies a carriage arriving at the prison gates. The warden watches as a guard unlocks the carriage door. And moments later, a prisoner emerges. And even through the rain-streaked window, he is unmistakable. Tall, dark-haired, and flamboyantly dressed in a velvet jacket, with a silk necktie cavalierly slung around his neck. The warden experiences a flutter of excitement – he’s never seen a celebrity in the flesh before, and certainly not at the prison.

The warden grabs his hat and coat and heads for the door.

Moments later, he steps into the prisoner intake facility.

The warden looks on as the guards strip off the prisoner’s clothes, replacing them with a filthy uniform. Next, they cut his hair down to the scalp. The prisoner shuts his eyes as his dark locks tumble to the ground severed. When his head is properly shaved, the warden gestures for the guards to follow.

With the warden leading the way, the guards frogmarch the prisoner to his cell. But this prisoner holds his head high, doing his best to ignore the mocking taunts of his fellow inmates, who push their faces up against their bars to see if the rumors are true; that Oscar Wilde, the most famous writer in England, has indeed fallen this far. 

The warden stops outside a cell. He unlocks the door and pushes it open, revealing a tiny windowless room with a wooden plank for a bed.

One of the guards shoves Wilde inside. The famous playwright staggers forward and collapses onto the cold tiles, where he lies crumpled and shivering. But the warden feels little sympathy, not after the things he’s done.

To make his feelings known… the warden spits on the floor of the cell… and then slams the door shut.

At the time of his imprisonment, Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is the most famous writer in England. He is also a gay man, living at a time when homosexuality is a criminal offense. In 1895, Wilde was accused of homosexual practices. But he denied the claim and took his accuser to court for libel.

This proved a grave mistake. In a dramatic turnaround, Wilde lost the case and found himself facing prosecution for the very crime he originally went to court to deny. Oscar Wilde’s downfall will culminate in the playwright’s imprisonment and premature death, a tragic tale of a fall from grace that began when Oscar Wilde lost his libel case on April 5th, 1895.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 5th: The Downfall of Oscar Wilde.

Act One: Opening Night

It’s February 14th, 1895, nine months before Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment.

On a snowy winter’s evening, in the West of London, the theatrical event of the year is about to take place. It’s the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest – the latest play by Oscar Wilde. The crowded foyer of the St. James’s Theater is buzzing with anticipation.

Then a ripple of excitement passes through the room as a carriage pulls up outside the theater and the playwright steps out. People crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the famous raconteur as he swans gracefully into the gilded foyer.

At the age of forty-one, Oscar Wilde is the toast of literary London. His plays have enjoyed dizzying success across the country, delighting audiences with their farcical humor and witty dialogue. Their success has turned the author into a celebrity.

But not everybody loves Oscar Wilde. Many conservative critics consider his work vulgar and insincere. And these critics disapprove even more strongly of Wilde himself. They take Wilde’s wit for insolence; his nonchalance for superiority; and his flamboyant fashion sense as an indication of something illicit and perverse.

Oscar Wilde is married to a woman named Constance, with whom he has two sons – but rumors abound about his sexual proclivities. Since 1891, Oscar has been inseparable from a young poet named Lord Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie.”

Oscar is besotted by Bosie, a boyishly handsome twenty-five-year-old, and although the nature of their relationship remains a secret, the mere suggestion of something romantic is enough to scandalize Victorian sensibilities. 

And even here, in the foyer of the St. James’s Theatre, the threat of scandal looms large. When an audience member compliments the flower in Oscar’s lapel, Oscar winks and says: “it’s a souvenir of an absent friend.” Those in earshot know he is referring to Bosie, and not his wife, Constance.

Oscar’s genius for wordplay sometimes gets him into trouble – but it always gets him out of it. To some extent, he embraces controversy and enjoys the danger of scandal. In his 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde wrote: “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”  

The truth of that statement is about to be put to the test.

Rumors about Oscar’s relationship with Bosie have reached the ears of Bosie’s father – a blustering, ill-tempered aristocrat, known by his title, the Marquess of Queensbury. In April 1894, Queensbury wrote to his son telling him: “your intimacy with this man Wilde must cease, or I will disown you and stop all money supplies.”

But Bosie dismissed his father’s threats. And now, unbeknownst to Oscar, Queensbury is on his way to the St. James’s Theater, where the debut performance of Oscar’s new play is about to begin, and where Queensbury plans to make a dramatic entrance of his own, publicly exposing Wilde’s homosexual relationship with his son.

But when Queensbury arrives outside the theatre, he finds himself barred from entering. Prior to the show, Oscar spotted Queensbury’s name on the guest list and told the doorman to keep him out. Furious, Queensbury mounts his bicycle and pedals off down the snowy street, more determined than ever to destroy Oscar Wilde.

Four days later, on February 18th, 1895, Queensbury will get his chance.


In the stately lobby of the Albemarle Club in Mayfair, a porter stands guard at the door. But suddenly, it flies open and the Marquess of Queensbury barges inside. He marches up to the porter, and barks “Where’s that scoundrel Wilde?” The porter replies: “I’m sorry, sir. Mr. Wilde isn’t here. Can I convey a message?”

Queensbury glowers – his mutton-chop sideburns quivering with rage. He removes a pen and a calling card from his pocket and scribbles a note, muttering “Make sure he gets this”. The porter nods and takes the note. Queensbury storms off.

Two weeks later, Oscar Wilde drops by the Albemarle Club. When he receives the calling card left for him by Queensbury, the whimsical smile falls from the playwright’s lips. In barely legible scrawled letters, the note says: “for Oscar Wilde: posing the sodomite.”

Oscar’s hands tremble as he tucks the note inside his jacket pocket. It’s a dangerous accusation – one that could destroy Oscar’s career if it gets out. The safest course would be to ignore the note. After all, Queensbury has no evidence of a sexual relationship between Oscar and Bosie. But Oscar isn’t the type to back down. Instead, he will sue Queensbury for libel, confident that once again, he will be able to talk himself out of trouble.

Act Two: Queensbury Rules

It’s March 24th, 1895, in London, one month after the Marquess of Queensberry barged into the Albemarle Club.

During afternoon tea at the Café Royal, the sound of raised voices from a corner table attracts disapproving glances and raised eyebrows. One of the men seated at the table is instantly recognizable. Dressed in a velvet jacket with fur-lined lapels, is the famous writer, Oscar Wilde.

Sitting alongside Wilde is a younger man – a surly-looking twenty-something. This is Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie”, whose relationship with Wilde many understand to be more than merely friendly. But today, Wilde is arguing with a gray-haired gentleman, whom some in the Café Royal recognize as Frank Harris, the editor of the Saturday Review, a London magazine.

Wilde and Harris are arguing about what to do with the note Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, left for Wilde at the Albemarle Club.

Wilde was enraged by Queensbury’s note. Egged on by Bosie – who detests his father – Wilde decided to take revenge by charging Queensbury with libel. Queensberry was arrested, charged, and the court date was set. But now, with the trial looming, many of Wilde’s friends are urging him to drop the charges. They know the truth about Oscar’s sexuality – and they don’t like his chances of disproving Queensbury in court.

The editor, Frank Harris, leans across the table and whispers urgently, “they are going to prove sodomy against you!” But Wilde ignores Harris’ protestations. He gets up from the table and walks out of the Café Royal – with Bosie hurrying along at his heels. As he leaves, Wilde mutters to his young lover: “it’s moments like these that one sees who are one’s true friends.”

The following week, on April 3rd, the libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury begins at the Old Bailey – London’s main courthouse.

Ahead of the trial, Wilde hired one of England’s most renowned attorneys, Sir Edward Clarke. When Wilde asked Clarke to represent him, the venerable lawyer insisted that Wilde assure him “that there is not – and never has been – any foundation for the charges made against you.” In answer, Wilde lied, assuring Clarke that the allegations of sodomy were “absolutely false and groundless.”

In the courthouse, the statement for the prosecution opens the proceedings. Sir Edward Clarke delivers a powerful speech, insisting that Wilde has been the victim of slanderous libel. During the speech, Wilde seems relaxed, reclining in his chair behind the prosecution bench, a pink carnation dangling from his buttonhole.

And throughout cross-examination, Wilde remains aloof. Queensbury’s lawyer is Sir Edward Carson – an old rival of Wilde from his time in school. The animosity between the two men is palpable as Carson questions the morality of Wilde’s literary works. When asked if Wilde considers his controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Grey to be “perverted”, Wilde replies: “only to brutes and illiterates.” Such flippant answers produce titters of amusement from the crowd. And as expected, Wilde’s eloquence and wit are sharper than Carson’s questions – and the case seems to be going Wilde's way.

But then Carson, Queensbury’s lawyer, changes his line of attack.

Carson starts naming individuals – young men with whom Wilde is known to have associated with in the past. These men aren’t socialites or aristocrats, but lowly valets, busboys, and newspaper sellers. Carson produces gifts and letters exchanged between Wilde and these young men. When asked to explain himself, Wilde grows flustered. He cries defensively: “The mere fact of youth is so wonderful that I would sooner talk to a young man for half an hour than be cross-examined in court!”

Murmurs of disapproval issue from the gallery. Yet Wilde continues to make light of the questions. When Carson asks if Wilde once kissed a man named Walter Grainger, Wilde replies: “good heavens no, [Walter] was a very plain boy.” Carson’s eyes narrow. The skilled lawyer asks Wilde why he mentioned Walter’s ugliness; and wonders aloud if that’s the reason he didn’t kiss him. Soon, the murmurs of disapproval turn into gasps. 

Before long, the atmosphere in the courthouse has grown actively hostile against Wilde. Eventually, the lawyer, Carson, plays his trump card. He calls to the witness box a procession of young men who all testify that they have had sexual liaisons with Oscar Wilde.

Hisses and jeers fill the Old Bailey Courthouse. It’s now clear that Queensbury will avoid prosecution. And furthermore, as the trial nears its end, Wilde realizes he is in danger of being prosecuted himself. Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, homosexual activity is deemed “grossly indecent” and punishable by prison time.

Wilde’s attorney turns to his client and urges him to drop the libel charges. Reluctantly, Wilde agrees. Two days later, on April 5th, 1895, Wilde's attorney announces that his client has decided to withdraw the case. Wilde leaves the Old Bailey in disgrace, humiliated, and destroyed. But not humiliated enough for Sir Edward Carson.

The libel trial is over. But almost immediately, Carson will forward the witness testimonies from the trial to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will, in turn, issue an arrest warrant for Oscar Wilde.

Act Three: Exile

It’s early evening, on April 6th, 1895; the day after Oscar Wilde dropped all charges against the Marquess of Queensbury.

Wilde sits in his room at the Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea. A dull ache throbs around his head – the vestige of a sleepless night filled with drink and worry. After leaving court yesterday, Wilde came to this hotel with Bosie. He wavered between fleeing the country and staying behind. In the end, paralyzed by indecision – Wilde remained.

Then just before 7:00 PM, there’s a hammering on his door – it’s the police with a warrant for Wilde’s arrest. From there, they escort Wilde to Holloway Prison, where he’s remanded under charges of “gross indecency”.

Word of the arrest and scandal spreads. At the St. James’s Theater, where The Importance of Being Earnest is currently running, Wilde’s name is removed from the advertisements. Newspapers cannot bring themselves to print the sordid details of the case. So instead, they refer to the charges against Wilde as “odious” and “unnatural.”

On April 26th, Wilde returns to the Old Bailey courthouse. Once again, Sir Edward Clarke represents the disgraced writer. During his impassioned opening statement, Clarke urges the jurors to acquit Wilde, so that he might “live among us in honor and repute, and give, in the maturity of his genius, gifts to our literature.”

But Clarke’s words fall on deaf ears. At the end of May, the jury returns a unanimous guilty verdict. Cries of “shame!” go up in the courtroom crowd, and the color drains from Wilde’s face as he realizes he's going to prison.

Oscar Wilde is sentenced to two years confinement – a dehumanizing ordeal, which robs him of his health and vitality. Upon his release from Reading Jail in 1897, Wilde goes into exile. And three years later, at the age of forty-six, Wilde dies alone in a Paris hotel room.

Oscar Wilde was Victorian England’s most popular playwright until he was driven from society by forces of prejudice and intolerance. Today, he is remembered, not only as one of the greatest writers of all time but as a martyr for gay rights – an enduring legacy that was set in stone following Oscar Wilde’s defeat in court, on April 5th, 1895.


Next onHistory Daily.April 6th, 1994. A plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana is shot down, sparking the Rwandan Genocide.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.