In February of 1895, Oscar Wilde was dining at the Albermarle Club when the Marquess of Queensberry left a calling card with the porter. It read, “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite.” The misspelling may have been the product of Queensberry’s rage over the relationship between his son Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas and Wilde. Bosie refused to end it despite Queensberry’s arguments and threats, including the threat to publicly expose Wilde, which he accomplished with that calling card. Friends urged Wilde to ignore it, but Wilde felt that such an insult required a vigorous response, namely a lawsuit against Queensberry for criminal libel. No response, he reasoned, it would be tantamount to admitting the truth, something that Wilde knew would be disastrous not only to his reputation and career, but also to his very freedom. Homosexuality was a criminal offense.
Wilde’s libel case collapsed on the second day of the sensational trial, when Wilde took the stand and Queensberry’s lawyer asked whether he had ever kissed a young man named Walter Grainger. Wilde replied, “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.” Queesnberry’s lawyer pounced on Wilde’s reason for not kissing Grainger: it wasn’t that Wilde didn’t like kissing men, but that he didn’t want to kiss this particular man. That was on April 4. The next morning, Queensberry’s lawyer announced that he planned to call several male prostitutes to testify against Wilde. Wilde’s lawyer, after conferring with Wilde, addressed the court. He said that since Queensberry’s letter only accused Wilde of “posing as” a sodomite rather than actually being one, he asked the court to drop the charges and return a verdict of “not guilty” against Queensberry.
Libel law hinged on two findings: to be not guilty of libel, it had to have been found to be true and it had to have been made for the “public benefit.” And that’s what the judge found, that the statement “is true in fact and substance, and that the publication is for the public benefit.
An arrest warrant was filed that afternoon. Wilde was arrested at 6:30 that evening and charged with gross indecency. Queensberry denied that he pressed officials to bring criminal charges against Wilde, but acknowledged sending Wilde a message which read, “If the country allows you to leave all the better for the country; but if you take my son with you, I will follow you wherever you go and shoot you.” That very day, Wilde’s name was removed was removed from the play-bills at the Haymarket and St. James Theatres, where his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were being performed. Both plays were cancelled soon after.
Wilde’s first criminal trial ended in a hung jury but the second one resulted in Wilde’s conviction and sentence to two years at hard labor.