On 3 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of libel against the Marquess of Queensberry began. By the end of it, Wilde would be bankrupt and facing charges of sodomy and gross indecency, leading to his eventual imprisonment.
Wilde v. Queensberry (yes, Wilde was the prosecution in the case) essentially stemmed from the fact that his boyfriend’s dad didn’t like him. Wilde had taken up with Queensberry’s spoiled son, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas back in 1891, while Bosie was an undergraduate at Oxford. Queensberry was not at all happy with the relationship, and after confronting Wilde several times, he left his calling card at Wilde’s club with ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]’ written on it. Such a public accusation was difficult to overlook, and encouraged by Bosie (but discouraged by his friends), Wilde filed criminal libel charges against Queensberry.
Queensberry’s lawyers quickly got to work proving the peer’s accusation was true, dragging the net right through London’s seamiest underground. The press eagerly related as many details as it could at the time, so by the time the trial rolled around it was quite the cause celebre. Although Wilde showed his considerable wit on the stand, Queensberry’s lawyer was able to produce male prostitutes who claimed they’d had sex with Wilde, a criminal offense at the time. Wilde eventually dropped the prosecution, letting Queensberry off the hook but making Wilde responsible for Queensberry’s extensive legal fees. The cost wiped Wild out.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the court wasted no time arresting him on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde was encouraged by his friends to flee the country, but he’d fallen into a deep apathy and couldn’t be persuaded to leave. Regina v. Wilde began on 26 April with Wilde pleading not guilty. A month later, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He was sent first to Pentonville Prison, and then to Wandsworth Prison where the harsh living conditions wore on his health. Still, he was able to write a 50,000-word letter to Bosie (who had fled to France) which was partially published as De Profundis in 1905. The complete letter didn’t see the light of day until 1962.
Wilde was finally released in May 1897, but his health was broken. He spent the remainder of his life in exile in Europe, during which he wrote two letters to the Daily Chronicle detailing the brutal conditions in English prisons and calling for penal reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which further highlights the brutalisation the prisoners face.
By 25 November 1900, Wilde had developed cerebral meningitis. His friend Robbie Ross sent for a priest, who conditionally baptised Wilde into the Catholic Church. Wilde died five days later and he was eventually buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in a tomb designed by Sir Jacob Epstein. The epitaph is a verse from Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.