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  • Oscar Wilde, Sodomy, and Mental Illness in Late Victorian England
  • Dominic Janes (bio)

Since his Death in 1900 Oscar Wilde has been many things to many people, from a pariah to a postmodern saint. Frederick Roden, in Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, presents Oscar Wilde as a “queer theologian” by arguing that if “his early Catholicism may be denigrated as ‘aesthetic,’ his later soul-searching is decidedly not.”1 The case for Wilde as being spiritually as well as stylistically inspired by the Gospels relies most powerfully on the letter, styled by Robert Ross as “De Profundis,” that Wilde wrote to his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in the early months of 1897. In this work Wilde struggled to make positive sense of his recent experience of humiliation. He sought, through the Christian discourse of martyrdom, to elide the inscription of criminality that had been placed on him by worldly authority just as it had similarly been placed on Jesus Christ. The most substantial piece of prose that Wilde wrote in prison in the preceding months, however, was a petition for release, sent on 2 July 1896, in which he attempted to use the conceptual realm of mental illness, rather than spiritual illumination, to escape from the constraints of legal classification as a criminal.

This choice might be seen as purely opportunistic, since an appeal via the conception of lunacy did provide a recognized legal route out of prison, but it can also be regarded as an act of desperation. After all, those found not guilty by virtue of insanity might be released to the care of a private doctor, as Wilde requested, but they were more likely to be detained in an asylum for the rest of their lives.2 Reports were obtained—from the prison doctor, from a board of four visitors, and from the superintendent of the [End Page 79] Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane—that failed to endorse Wilde’s self-diagnosis. The failure of this petition and of a second attempt sent on 10 November 1896 seems to have impelled the prisoner to search for religious meaning in order to cope with his situation, but the resulting appeal to Douglas did not enable Wilde to shed the fear that illness had led him into criminality and that he was, in the language of the time, a “criminal lunatic,” since in that letter he came to conclude that “desire at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both.”3

In this article I will seek to contextualize Wilde’s understanding of his mental state in 1896 and its relationship to his sexual history by exploring the surviving medical records of men who were found not guilty of sodomy by reason of insanity and, therefore, sent not to prison but to Broadmoor and to its predecessor, Bethlem Hospital. The history and workings of the system for the care of criminal lunatics will first be examined. Wilde’s testimony and the official reaction to it will then be considered in relation to cases of those certified as insane after the commission of “unnatural acts.” Finally, the case notes of John Gocher, an inmate of Broadmoor, will be explored in detail. These cases provide unusual and striking evidence of personal affect that enables us to assess not only the actions of the legal and medical systems of control and classification but also the personal self-constructions and emotional responses of someone understood to have committed what then was widely seen as abhorrent sexual behavior.

Wilde had been convicted of “gross indecency,” but the legal assumption was that any homosexual act was an attempt to commit “sodomy.” All such crimes were categorized as “unnatural offences.”4 The law, therefore, did not recognize “homosexuals” but only particular acts. The defense of lunacy was formalized by the Criminal Lunatics Act (1800), and the key test on the question of responsibility was established in McNaughton’s case (1843): “It must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act...