The Emperor Caligula, Gross Indecency, and the Killing of Oscar Wilde

Among the cruelest things the Emperor Caligula did when he ruled the Roman Empire was to have the laws he’d promulgated written at the very top of tall columns where no one could read them.  Caligula then happily called unwitting violators “criminals” and doled out sentences that amused him.

When it comes to punishing homosexuals for things they do in private, statutes were enacted that sometimes prohibited “the crime against nature,” with no explanation of what that meant.  In some jurisdictions there was an expansion: “detestable and abominable (or abominable and detestable, or, sometimes, infamous) crime against nature, committed with mankind or beast” or “the abominable crime against nature which no man may utter.”  Other statutes punished an unexplained conduct called “carnal knowledge.”  When these statutes were attacked in the United States as violating the Fourteen Amendment's requirement of “due process” because they were so vague, the courts typically upheld them under the theory that any exploration of legal history shows that oral and/or anal intercourse was the crime at issue.  Often the offense was labeled simply “sodomy,” but that word had the defect (historically) of being limited to anal penetration of man or beast, thus not including oral sex, nor—happily—lesbian sex at all.

In England, famed poet, playwright, bon vivant Oscar Wilde, made the mistake of wining and dining young men of the lower classes in posh restaurants such as Kettner’s (see photo below), and taking them into its private dining rooms (second photo), and wrote a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, hinting at scandalous relationships among men.  His open affair with the young and beautiful (and brainless) Lord Alfred Douglas so enraged the lad’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, that Queensbury published a libel against Wilde accusing him of posing as a “somdomite,” (a misspelling, but of course everyone knew what he meant).  Wilde sued Queensbury for criminal libel, a case he promptly lost because it was easy to prove that Wilde was indeed not only posing as a sodomite, but in fact reveled in being one.  

Kettner's Main Room

Kettner's Private Dining Room

Losing the first trial led to Wilde’s arrest for violating the following statute:

Any male person who, in public or in private, commits or is a party to the commission of, or procures the commission by any male person of any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, being convicted thereof, shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years with or without hard labour.
When Queen Victoria signed the bill creating this statute in 1885 it was pointed out to her that the statute was limited to male persons, but she pooh-poohed that objection with the dismissive statement that “Women don’t do such things.”

Ah, but what things?  What in the world does “gross indecency” mean?  This is no small matter, because two years’ hard labor frequently killed the prisoner, as discussed below.  Aren’t we back to the Emperor Caligula and his inaccessible columns? 

Until the early part of the nineteenth century, the penalty for sodomy in England had been death, but that statute was repealed when Victoria was a girl, a good thing for Oscar Wilde. 

The Pennsylvania Legislature had noticed a defect (mentioned above) in that its sodomy statute did not punish oral sex, so in 1879 it amended the statue to include all kinds of perverted acts in detail (and both sexes were equally forbidden to enjoy all sorts of intimacy).  In theory this encompassed even married heterosexual couples in their beds.  The Pennsylvania example led England to enact the “gross indecency” law just quoted, under the theory that it captured all kinds of sexual perversions, though it did not contain the lengthy Pennsylvania list. 

But think about the mysterious term “gross indecency” for a moment.  Consider that you’ve just moved to London in 1890 from, say, Denmark. Unless you know all this history, being told that you mustn’t commit any act of “gross indecency” or you’ll be arrested would give you pause.  What would be a “gross indecency”?  Saying the word “fuck” out loud?  The Can-Can?  “Spitting on the sidewalk?”  Notice the statute clearly applies to acts committed in the privacy of one’s bedroom.  If you swear there might you go to prison?

Well, as angry as it makes me, no one in Oscar’s day raised any objection to the cruelty of severe punishment for a vague offense, much less the fairness or wisdom of punishing private sexual conduct. 

Oscar Wilde’s first trial for violating the prohibition against “gross indecency” ended in a hung jury, but in the second he was found guilty.

Wilde and Douglas
It is sometimes argued that Wilde was not so much punished for his sexual behavior as for his radical theories about art.  I think that’s nonsense.  What Wilde did that really pissed off the Victorians was to behave as if homosexuality was normal and flaunt that belief in their faces by publicly carrying on with Lord Alfred Douglas, taking rent-boys into fancy London venues like Kettners or the Savoy Hotel, and writing “The Picture of Dorian Gray” which stopped just this side of saying that sexual love between men was beautiful.  If you read the transcripts of the trials there is almost nothing brought up about his art (other than works having to do with male sex), but gritty details about his love letters and dealings with rent boys—a large number of whom testified, as did maids who had to clean up hotel rooms after Wilde and his guests left.  Listen to what his final judge said as he sentenced him, and ask yourself whether the judge was upset at all by Wilde’s views on art:

Oscar Wilde, the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these terrible three trials.

It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.

This is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence allowed by the law. It is in my opinion, 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.

Amazingly, this late in my life, I have finally become a professional actor, being recently cast by CATCO, a professional theater company in Columbus, Ohio, in the Moisés Kaufman play “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.”  The play itself has no fiction in it; every word is taken from trial transcripts, news reports, or biographies of those involved in this great travesty.  Most of the nine actors play multiple roles, and I get to portray the judge in all three trials plus—get ready for it—Queen Victoria as she reads the “gross indecency” statute out loud.  Given that I am one of the people who founded Stonewall Columbus, our leading gay rights organization in this city, it is ironic that I have homophobic line after homophobic line to say on stage, but I do it with the conviction of a shocked Victorian.  If interested in our production, which also includes my very talented husband David Vargo in one of the larger roles, come see if this depiction of what happened to Oscar Wilde doesn’t make you as mad as it makes me.  Here are some photos from the rehearsal process:

[Click to enlarge]

                                         Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
                                         Nov.2-20 at Studio Two, Riffe Center

The judge’s sentence mandated that Oscar Wilde be kept at “hard labour” for two years.  What did that entail?  The answer is that hard labor was manufactured cruelty designed by the Victorians to teach the prisoner how much his crime upset society.  

One favorite type of labor was the giant treadmill, a contraption on which the prisoners walked, side by side, divided by vertical separators, for a typical term of eight hours.  The treadmill was originally used as a power source, but eventually had no utilitarian purpose other than to torture the prisoners.  Inevitably as the hours passed in this tedious misery, legs would give out and the prisoners would fall horribly, leading to more punishment for abandoning their task.

Or there was the “crank.”  It consisted of nothing more than a large handle in the prisoner’s cell that had to be laboriously turned (churning the contents of a bucket of sand on the other end).  It could be calibrated by the warder to require greater and greater strength to rotate, with the usual punishments for faltering.

And then there was picking apart old ropes to extract oakum from the tangled innards.  What?  Oakum (a fiber used in shipbuilding) can be made from hemp, but it can also be laboriously separated by hand from huge used ropes, staining the fingers permanently and making them bleed profusely, as well as causing tendonitis, bursitis, and nerve damage.

[Click to enlarge]

All of these tasks had to be performed in silence.  No communication of any kind was allowed between prisoners—not at meals, not during exercise (in which they walked in circles wearing large masks), not after lights went out.  Prisoners were allowed visitors, and during his two years, Oscar Wilde managed to write his famous denunciation of Lord Alfred Douglas and what the British had done to him: De Profundis (“Out of the Depths”).  On exiting from prison he also wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol, saying things like this:

We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns
  And sweated on the mill,
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.

With midnight always in one's heart,
  And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
  Each in his separate Hell.

Actually, it’s amazing that Oscar Wilde made it through two years of imprisonment at hard labor.  During his trials his advisors informed him that gentlemen of his station normally dropped dead after nine months.  One day Wilde, exhausted by the tortures he was enduring, fell in his cell, injuring his ear. This injury, which was not properly treated, caused his death three years after leaving prison.  When he succumbed, dying in a Paris hotel, he supposedly looked one last time at the wallpaper and muttered, “One of us has to go.”  One of my friends did an Oscar Wilde tour of Europe this past year, and when he visited the hotel where Wilde died he noticed a sign announcing “We have changed the wallpaper.”

When Wilde died he was only 46 years old.  This great man—dead at 46.

I want you to think about what the British attitude to homosexuality did to poor Oscar and, by extension, to the world.  Oscar Wilde was the author of a number of much-admired plays, the most famous of which is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” still listed as one of the top five comedies ever written.  It had just opened in 1895 as the trials began, and was forced to close almost immediately when the scandal started (though the producers tried to distance themselves from the author by taking his name off both the playbill and the banner outside the theater).  How many more plays, novels, poems, children’s stories, might he have written if he’d lived thirty or so more years? Or if he’s been born at a time when science and society understood that sexual orientation is not a chosen trait; it’s fixed by genetics. 

The poet A. E. Houseman understood what was going on.  During the trials he wrote the poem below, but it wasn’t published until after Houseman’s death.

The Colour of His Hair

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after, that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet,
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)

Alan Turing
The “gross indecency” statute used to punish Wilde for being gay also ensnared Alan Turing (the computer genius) in the 1950’s, causing him to commit suicide by eating an apple he’d laced with cyanide.  The statute wasn’t repealed until 1967.  In 2013 Turing was granted a royal pardon (as if the government was being generous when what it should have done was apologize for the nightmare it made of Turing’s life), and on October 19, 2016, the government announced that it would soon enact “Alan Turning’s Law,” pardoning all those who had ever been convicted of gross indecency.  For the New York Times article on point see

So, 121 years after England sent Oscar Wilde to prison for loving another man—leading to Wilde’s death at a young age—it has finally decided to pardon him (and thousands of others) for the offense of being homosexuals. 

One wonders if Oscar would have pardoned his country in return.

Related Posts:

A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“What Should You Know About Gay History?” July 4, 2015;

“Alan Turing: Torturing a Gay Genius to Death,” November 26, 2014;

“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010; 

“The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio,” June 4, 2012;

How To Cure Homophobia,” July 30, 2015;


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