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Benjamin Tucker in Defense of Oscar Wilde

In 1895, libertarian Benjamin Tucker, editor of Liberty newspaper, published a short comment on the trial of Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency.” Tucker set off a debate among the various anarchists who read his publication and not all of them were favorably disposed toward homosexuality. Here is Tucker’s original essay. The footnotes we added to explain some of the context of Tucker’s article. Liberty writer E.B. Foote, Jr was outraged and sent a reply to Tucker, which we include, followed by Tucker’s reply to Foote.

The Criminal Jailers of Oscar Wilde

The Fabian Daily Chronicle of London­­(1), organ of a brutal political philosophy, has consistently outdone even the Philistine press in its brutal treatment of Oscar Wilde. But Rev. Stewart D. Headlam(2), editor of the London Church Reformer, whom economic error still holds in semi-bondage to the same brutal philosophy, has been led, by his natural love of liberty and his sympathy with the persecuted, into the magnificent inconsistency of becoming Oscar Wilde’s surety. Just as Mr. Headlam scored his consistent fellow-Socialist, John Burns(3), for his tyrannical treatment of the London music halls, so he befriends this later victim of a still more cruel tyranny. And even bolder and more admirable than Mr. Headlam is one of his contributors, Mr. Selwyn Image(4), or whose following words, reprinted from the Church Reformer, Liberty offers him heartiest thanks:

Stewart D. Headlam

The law of the land has found Mr. Wilde guilty of the charges laid against him, and has condemned him to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. Some of our papers have clapped their hands over that, and shouted: ‘Thank heaven, a scoundrel has got his due! “ Some of our papers, with greater delicacy and justice, have felt the tragedy of the situation, and exclaimed: “How terrible a fate! here closes forever the career of a man whose promise was so brilliant.”

For the former papers I have no expressions of scorn contemptuous enough; for the latter, I can understand their view and appreciate their spirit. But both those and these are wrong. During the past days of his overwhelming trouble I have come to know Mr. Wilde far better than I ever knew him before; and I have no hesitation in saying that, whatever in past days may have been his weaknesses, or follies, or sins, he has behaved in the hour of trial with a courage and generosity of spirit which I fear few of us under similar circumstances would have been virile and self-sacrificing enough to exhibit. As regards his future, so far from being in despair, I am full of hope. My acquaintance is not altogether a small one, nor an unrepresentative one: and I know that there are men and women amongst them, thank God, true enough to champion his name and memory during the months that he is undergoing his imprisonment, and ready, when that imprisonment is over, to welcome him as their friend, and to help him to recover his spirit and to do good work for the world. I do not believe for an instant that Mr. Wilde’s career is over: I rather believe that, if his health lasts out under the sentence imposed upon him, he has far better work to do than he has ever done, and a far better audience awaiting him to appeal to. And if in any way my friendship and services may be in some measure of use in helping him to this end, I shall esteem it as one of the privileges and honors of my life.

Good as this is, there is still something to be added, — namely, that the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde is an outrage that shows how thoroughly the doctrine of liberty is misconceived. A man who has done nothing in the least degree invasive of any one; a man whose entire life, so far as known or charged, has been one of strict conformity with the idea of equal liberty; a man whose sole offence is that he has done something which most of the rest of us (at least such is the presumption) prefer not to do, — is condemned to spend two years in cruel imprisonment at hard labor. And the judge who condemned him made the assertion in court that this was the most heinous crime that had ever come before him. I never expected to hear the statement of the senior Henry James, uttered half in jest, that “it is more justifiable to hang a man for spitting in a street-car than for committing murder” substantially repeated in earnest (or else in hypocrisy) from an English bench. Whatever Mr. Arthur Kitson may think of the need of standard of value in finance, he surely will admit, after this judicial utterance and sentence, that we are sadly in need of a standard of value (or its opposite) in crime. Men who imprison a man who has committed no crime are themselves criminals.


To the Editor of Liberty:

Your editorial on The Criminal Jailers of Oscar Wilde denounces his imprisonment as an outrage that shows how thoroughly the doctrine of liberty is misconstrued. Following this, you speak of his sole offence as a matter which concerned himself only. If so, I got a very wrong view of the case in court, and what he was tried for. As I understand it, he was not tried and convicted on any charge of committing an unnatural crime, but on the charge of seducing others to his evil ways. One who may deprecate any interference with the liberty of a woman to dispose of her person as she chooses, for love or money, might nevertheless advocate criminal prosecution of a procuress, especially one who sought new victims among the very young.

This is the crime of Oscar Wilde, as I see it, and for which he is now serving his term of two years, unless I am much mistaken. He confesses to being greatly attracted to youth, though denying any such serious accusation as he was indicted for; but one who has any knowledge of men of his class knows well that one of their worst points is the disposition to seek out and make new victims of promising youth. This is made evident in their own confessions as quoted in Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. In it a long chapter is given to urnings (5), a study of their peculiarities and how they come to be. Some almost seem to be proud of their perversity, and as anxious to make converts as the advocates of the most innocent fads or fancies. In the story of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Wilde himself, the same propensity forms a large element of the story, and offers a valuable moral lesson as to the danger of evil associations that corrupt good manners, while it further shows that the hero becomes utterly lost to all propriety and morality, and suicides at last as a complete physical and moral wreck. One who reads that story since the fall of Wilde can hardly escape the belief that it is largely autobiographical and so thinking could even wish his sentence were twenty, instead of two, years.

Rev. Mr. Headlam hopes Wilde may yet recover his spirit and do good work for the world. To me this seems incredible — hopeless. If Wilde be not a victim of incurable insanity, his record must bar the way to any reform. One can no more reasonably hope for reform and useful life in him than in Dorian Grey after he had slain his friend and victim. The story carried him along to the only possible end of such a life, — self obliteration.

If the logic of equal liberty and personal freedom can sanction keeping hands off from such as Wilde and Taylor so long as they revel only in their own debasement, it can hardly justify the let-alone policy when they set up shop to increase the cult of this sort of æsthetic culture; for they are not at all satisfied to find each other out (among the perverts of the same taste), but they are hell bent on discovering fresh, virile, healthy, vigorous, and unsophisticated young men of whom to make victims for vampires. You may say that youth should be so instructed and trained as to be safe against the wily, seductive attractions of even such glittering geniuses as that of Wilde, and so say I; but, if State interference is permissible anywhere, it is against this vicious invasion of the family, which lures to destruction the finest specimens of manhood; and if the State have no function in this matter, it will also have to let alone the marquis who uses a gun against his son’s uncle. As to this particular son, very likely you can fairly retort that he was old enough to mind his own business, including his most private affairs, but men of the Taylor-Wilde type don’t recognize any youthful age limit, and boys are their constant prey.

Those who admit any sphere for the State will also find good reason for its laying a curbing and confining hand on urnings, as upon insane of any dangerous kind. Heredity is admittedly a large factor in their production, and, contrary to what might be expected of such perverts, they are prone to marry and beget. So one of Wilde’s greatest sins against his race was the fathering of some boys who look like him, paralleled only by his second crime against them of so conducting himself as to give them a public stamp of opprobrium. If such perverts would have sense and decency enough to avoid propagating their kind and abstain from attempting to drag down the children of other families to their own unfortunate level, the rest of mankind might well be content to keep hands off, let them live out their lives, and enjoy the equal liberty of the pursuit of happiness in their own way, — in short, let the dead bury their dead. But they can’t and won’t keep to themselves, and so a few — too few — get their deserts.

Benjamin Tucker animated by History Alive

Our own late example is simply another evidence of what I say. Dr. Tonner gets two and a half years, not for any vice peculiar to himself and his own individual liberty, but for being caught in the attempt to inveigle another, and to procure a fresh victim for his patrons, or patron for his bagnio. The judge who sentenced him said, if he had any friends in the medical profession, they should institute an examation as to his sanity. Whatever the decision of experts may be as to the sanity or insanity of such men, the best place for them, perhaps even for their own sake, and certainly for the rest of society, is either in prison or an insane asylum.

Should this letter draw your fire, I hope you will not stop short of instructing your class in liberty as to what would be done, under liberty, with the varied assortment of sexual perverts who make a nuisance of themselves to more decent folks, from the librarian, aged fifty-one, just caught in Prospect Park trying to seduce little girls to the ways of prostitutes, to Jack-the-Ripper, who no doubt found a similar satisfaction in his murderous acts.

A Reply to Foote by Benjamin Tucker

It is not agreeable to pass harsh judgment upon opinions uttered by a friend, especially so good a friend of Liberty and its editor as Dr. E.B. Foote, Jr., has been and is; but, since he forces upon my notice his view of the State’s attitude toward Oscar Wilde, I do not see that I can well avoid the necessity of saying that the letter from him which is printed in another column seems to me the most intolerant, fanatical, and altogether barbarous utterance that has come from a professed ultra-liberal since I have engaged in reformatory work. Even were the claim made out that Oscar Wilde has been guilty of invasive conduct, the mere expression of the wish that he spend twenty years, instead of two, at treadmill service or at oakum picking, would still betray such an inability to distinguish between the varying degrees of interference with liberty as is generally due to the fanatic’s hatred of sin rather than to the sane man’s desire to protect against crime. To exhibit ferocity in this degree a man must be ready to punish for indirectly and theoretically harmful consequences as was the Catholic Church when it burned men at the stake for what it considered the most pernicious of practices, — the teaching of heresy.

But the claim of invasive conduct is not made out. In the first place, I believe Dr. Foote to be entirely mistaken in his conception or the crime or which Wilde was convicted. I have nowhere seen it stated that he was tried for “seducing others to his evil ways.” It is true that the absurdly squeamish public opinion which was forced upon a press that usually shrinks from filth only when it sees no money in it, a certain degree of circumspection in its accounts or this affair has left us all a good deal in the dark, not only as to the seduction, but as to the “evil ways” themselves. Still it is my understanding that Wilde was found guilty of illegal practices, not of inducing others to participate in them. This view is born out by the remark of the foreman of the jury, made in the court-room, that, if Wilde was guilty of the charge preferred against him, then Lord Alfred Douglas was guilt also.

Such a remark conveys the idea that the charge was not seduction, for the law does not consider mutual seduction a possibility in such a case. If any of my English comrades can inform me definitely what the charge was, I would be glad to have him do so. Meanwhile, unless Dr. Foote can show that the charge was seduction, I adhere to my view that seduction did not enter into the case, even legally; and, if this be so, then Dr. Foote’s entire argument falls to the ground. For he seems to admit, though with numerous “ifs” and “buts” an evident reluctance that is significant of the authoritarian spirit within him, that mature and responsible persons who simply “revel in their own debasement “ are entitled to be let alone.

In the second place, supposing the charge to have been seduction and the facts to have been as claimed by the prosecution, the indictment, in a court of equal liberty instead of ordinary law, would have been promptly dismissed on the ground that the alleged victims (not only Lord Douglas, but the others) were themselves mature and responsible persons and, as such, incapable of any seduction of which justice can properly take cognizance. Will Dr. Foote maintain that there is anything sacred and God-appointed about the age of twenty-one which certain men have undertaken to fix as the age of maturity and responsibility? In the eyes of an Anarchist every person is mature and responsible who can assert and maintain his self-sovereignty. Every such person has a right to do as he chooses, provided his conduct is non-invasive; and no one can rightfully be punished for persuading such a person to perform an act not in itself invasive and punishable. All of Oscar Wilde’s associates, so far as known, were in this sense mature and responsible, and therefore it is entirely unjust to charge him with seducing them. Dr. Foote, in treating these persons as irresponsible minors, is simply paralleling the absurd and outrageous agitation of the “Arena” people for a high-age-of-consent regime. He desires to force upon boys, as they desire to force upon girls, a condition of infancy unnaturally prolonged, — and with even less excuse, because under present conditions boys are able to assert and maintain their self-sovereignty at an earlier age than girls. This being the diagnosis of Dr. Foote’s case, I am not the proper party to attend to it. I commend him to the attention of Mrs. Lillian Harman.

Dr. Foote is not an Anarchist, and has never claimed to be one; though not adhering consistently to any political philosophy, for some years he has seemed to me State Socialistic in his tendencies. But I did suppose that he had arrived at a degree of understanding of what Anarchism means. I now see, however, that equal liberty is a complete mystery to him. This is shown conclusively by the following sentence:” If the State have no function in this matter, it will also have to let alone the marquis who uses a gun against his son’s ‘uncle.”’ It is obvious that Dr. Foote here uses the word State not in accordance with the Anarchistic definition, but as covering voluntary association for defence; and his declaration, then, is that, if associated citizens may not punish Oscar Wilde, then the Marquis of Queensberry may. Now, it directly follows from the doctrine of equal liberty that what one individual may rightfully do a number of individuals voluntarily associated may rightfully do, and, conversely, that whatever such associated individuals may not rightfully do, no one of them may rightfully do. Applying this to the case in point, we see that, if the Marquis of Queensberry is entitled to punish Oscar Wilde, then the community of which the marquis is a member is equally entitled so to do; and that, if the community has no such right, then neither has the marquis. Assuming that Oscar Wilde is not an invader, it would be incumbent upon the defensive association to punish any one, even the Marquis of Queensberry, who should assume to treat him as such. How absurd is Dr. Foote’s misconception of Anarchism when he declares that it must allow an individual to assault a non-invader.

The question of Oscar Wilde’s sanity I do not propose to discuss, though I will allow myself the remark that, comparing Wilde’s writings with Dr. Foote’s present letter, I find Dr. Foote the less sane of the two. But we have no occasion to consider the matter of sanity. All non-invasive persons are entitled to be let alone, whether sane or insane. The question of sanity arises only after invasion has been established, and it arises then only to determine the manner in which the invader shall be treated.

The claim that there is no possibility of useful life on the part of Wilde after he comes out of prison (putting aside, of course, the fact that the imprisonment itself may cripple him forever) is best met by the statement that, even if everything allegcd against Wilde be true, he has been from the beginning of his career one of the most useful of men. Not only are his writings a permanent addition to the world’s literature that cannot be offset by his personal vice, but even his enemies admit that he has been perhaps the most influential factor in the achievement of that immense advance in decorative art which England and America have witnessed in the last decade. Now, unless it be true, as some foolish persons think, that art is a matter of little or no importance, Wilde has here contributed to the world’s welfare a great, broad, far-reaching, and long-enduring force beside which the influence of his personal habits, however objectionable, must appear only as dust in the balance. If Wilde’s two sons, “who look like him,” turn out to be really like him, I think be will he forgiven for fathering them. The impertinence of authoritarianism reaches its climax in this proposition of the Foote family, father and son, that the State shall decide who may procreate. Moreover, it tende to verify my prophecy, in “State Socialism and Anarchism,” regarding the culmination of governmentalism.

Answering now the questions put to me in Dr. Foote’s concluding paragraph, I will say that, if the “little girls” seduced by the librarian in Prospect Park, were as big as those “boy “ victims(6) of Oscar Wilde, whose cases Dr. Foote finds so interesting, then the persons who “caught” the librarian ought to be deprived of their liberty for a period long enough to enable them to learn what equal liberty means; that, if, on the other hand, the girls had not reached an age of responsibility (as defined above), a similar deprivation of liberty should be inflicted upon the librarian; and that Jack-the-Ripper should be treated precisely as any other murderer. Upon the “varied assortment of sexual prevent” ranging between the librarian and Jack-the-Ripper I must decline to pass in a lump. Simple sexual perversion is not a crime, and I refuse to sentence any sexual pervert until I know precisely what he has done.

And now, if I may apply the argumentum ad hominem, let me ask Dr. Foote, Jr., if he is aware that his own father, Dr. Foote, Sr., by the unorthodox attitudes that he has taken in his public and medical career (and I refer to them for my part only to his credit), has “so conducted himself as to give his sons a public stamp of opprobrium”? If his sons are so sensible as to accept this stamp as an honor rather than a shame, the fact is accidental; perhaps, too, Oscar Wilde’s sons may not be ashamed of their father.(7) Of course, I must be misunderstood as instituting any intrinsic analogy between the course of Dr. Foote, Sr., and the acts of Oscar Wilde, but the necessities of the argument justify me in reminding Dr. Foote, Jr., that, in the eyes of the public, to be convicted by Comstock is scarcely a less disgrace than that which has fallen upon Oscar Wilde, and that, if to bring opprobrium on one’s family is in itself a crime, then Oscar Wilde and Dr. Foote, Sr., are alike criminals. It is within my knowledge that there are not a few people in this community (some of them radicals, too) who look upon Dr. Foote and his son as leading lives, if not villainy, or something bordering upon it. I hope it is needless to say that I do not agree with them, and that I hold, in fact, precisely the opposite opinion. In referring to this, my sole purpose is to warn Dr. Foote, Jr., of the tyrannical attitudes which he takes when he advocates the imprisonment of non-invasive persons who he happens to consider dangerous. The letter which he has just written might have been penned by Anthony Comstock himself; even its phraseology is Comstockian. It forces me to look upon its author, much to my regret, as another Comstock, not yet in power.


(1.) The Fabian Society, founded in 1884, is an organization founded to promote socialism, particularly from within the Labour Party in Britain. The Daily Chronicle, however, was not officially associated with the Fabians though it was a radical left newspaper, published from 1872 to 1930.

Alfred Havighurst (1860–1924), the biographer of the Chronicle’s editor H.W. Massingham describes a situation contrary to that stated by Tucker. He states: “The Daily Chronicle had reviewed unfavourably The Picture of Dorian Gray and in Wilde’s two trials in 1895 for homosexuality took no side, though it was credited with Reynold’s Newspaper with the most impartial reporting of the proceedings.” However, see footnote 2 for more information.

Alfred F. Havighurst, Radical Journalist, H.W. Massingham (1860–1924), Cambridge University Press, London, 1974, p. 67)

(2.) Stewart Headlam (1846–1924) was a Church of England priest and a socialist activist with the Guild of St. Matthew, a Christian socialist organization. Headlam’s willingness to help Wilde lost him, at least for a time, the friendship of Mr. Massingham, editor of The Daily Chronicle. The Church Reformer was the publication of the Guild, published from 1884 to 1895. Headlam was also active in the Fabian Society. Headlam put up half the £5,000 bail money required for Wilde, though the two did not know each other. Wilde did briefly visit him in 1897 after his release from prison for six hours, as he was traveling to leave the country permanently.

Headlam, according to biographer John Richard Orens, “was appalled by the abuse to which the press was subjecting Wilde. His sympathy was doubtless all the greater because others close to him had been caught in similar sexual tangles. His beloved Eton master, William Johnson, had been dismissed because of an indiscreet letter to a student. Headlam may have also heard rumors of C.J. Vaughan’s homosexuality.” A large number of members of the Guild of St. Matthew, however, were not tolerant of homosexuality and resigned the organization because of Headlam’s support for Wilde. Headlam, however, was not going to backdown and said, “I make no apology. I refuse to disavow my actions. I am not ashamed of anything I have done.” ( p144, Orens)

Bernard Markwell, author of The Anglican Left: Radical Social Reformers in the Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church, 1846–1954, wrote that the “Oscar Wilde case destroyed the Guild of St. Matthew” because so many socialists were the intolerant Puritans Tucker implied. Marwell said the group “limped along for another fifteen years of official life but never recovered from the events of 1895.” (Carlson Publishing, Brooklyn, NY 1991, p. 67)

(3.) John Burns (1858–1943), was an English trade unionist and socialist activist. He was a staunch advocate of government run monopolies but was also described as an advocate of “teetotal Puritanism” because of his social conservatism. Headlam considered himself an anti-Puritanism activist. Chris Waters, in British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture, 1884–1914, writes: “Socialists attacked music halls, then, only when they believed the desire for profit might be inimical to the provision of rational recreation — only when they remained unconvinced by the advertising strategy of music-hall proprietors. John Burns believe that ‘…the best interests of the profession are subordinated to dividends’, and that the quality of entertainment offered by the halls had declined because more and more of them were now operated by major syndicates. Burns, as a borough councilor for Battersea, member of the London County Council and self-proclaimed socialist, was noted for his opposition ot various forms of popular culture. Thus, it is not surprising to find him suggesting the music halls were not what they ought to be, namely ‘places of education and instruction with amusement and delight.”

Chris Waters, British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture, 1884–1914, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1990, p. 31.

(4.) Selwyn Image (1849–1930), A Church of England clergyman strongly influenced by the socialist ideas of John Ruskin, as well as a poet. Wilde had attended lectures by Image on art and corresponded with him. Image and Headlam, “spent many an evening at the Crown pub on Charing Cross Road, where [they] enjoyed the company of ballerinas and of the poets who were part of Wilde’s circle: Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson, the man who introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, whose relationship with Wilde had led to the trial.” It was Image who asked Headlam to provide half the bail money, the other half being provide by Lord Douglas of Harwick, the older brother of Alfred Douglas, and son of the Marquis of Queensberry, the man who started it all.

John Richards Orens, Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses and the Music Hall, (University of Illinois Press, 2003)

(5.) The term “urning” was coined by Karl Heinrich Ulrich (1825–1895), who saw homosexuals as some sort of “third sex” or female souls trapped in male bodies. Ulrich’s term did not catch on. The libertarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny (1824–1982) was dissatisfied with the term and wanted a word which he felt came with no moral judgements of any kind. He coined the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” which gained acceptance over the years supplanting Ulrich’s odd terminology.

(6.) The main witness against Wilde was Charles Parker. Parker was no child, but 21 years of age. In his testimony Parker said, prior to meeting Wilde, he told a friend of Wilde’s “if any old gentleman with money took a fancy to me, I was agreeable. I was agreeable. I was terribly hard up.” Parker then had dinner with Wilde a few days later and went with him to his hotel where they had sex.

(7.) Wilde had two sons: Vyvyan and Cyril Holland. Wilde’s wife took on the name Holland after her husband’s conviction and took her children to Europe to escape the scorn and ridicule found in England. Neither child was allowed to see their father again. Cyril was killed by a German sniper during World War I. Vyvyan (1886–1967), however, defended his father. In 1909 he accompanied Wilde’s friend and former lover, Robert Ross, to witness the reburial of his father’s remains in Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1954 he authored his memoirs Son of Oscar Wilde. His son, Merlin Holland (1946-), continues the tradition of defending Oscar and is an expert on Wilde’s life. He and his son, Oscar’s great-grandson, Lucian (1979-) attended the unveiling of a statue honoring Wilde in London. I believe, like Wilde, Lucian Holland is gay.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.