Gaul Post

Oscar Wilde Visits Two U.S. Prisons

Ever on the lookout for notable incidents from Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of 1882, I bring to your attention to the hitherto unnoticed occurrence of Oscar’s visits to TWO American state prisons within the space of three days.

Can Opener

As I noted on this page, Oscar Wilde visited the State Penitentiary near Lincoln, Nebraska on the day of his lecture there on April 24, 1882. This event was picked up by the Paris Review in a recent article in which they said it was “the first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison”. I can now correct that assertion by two days.

If we interpolate the chronology of Wilde’s lecture tour, the above report means that Wilde visited the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing (now the Lansing Correctional Facility) on April 22, two days before his visit to the corresponding establishment in Lincoln, Nebraska, thus providing a curious twist on Wilde’s accepted social activity in 1882.

Stir Way To Heaven

What was he up to? Prisons are not generally considered tourist destinations, yet Oscar took the opportunity of visiting two of them in quick succession: one during a train stop while traveling, and another on the afternoon before an evening lecture. Did he have a special interest in prisons? Or, given his vow to gain notoriety, was he prefiguring life on the inside as a pathway to immortality?

All this brings us forward to Oscar’s eventual alma mater Reading Gaol, without mention of which no article about Wilde and prison would be complete.

Vowel Movement

But not wishing to retread the road to ruin, I thought I would take a lighter tone with Reading Gaol and confess to being a confirmed orthoepist. In fact, I am one of the most advanced orthoepists I know, something I realized shortly after looking it up in the dictionary.

An orthoepist is someone who is interested in the pronunciation of words, which is cute because I can’t pronounce orthoepist.

This is probably owing to the presence of adjacent vowels that are so prominent in Reading Gaol. Not only that. Reading Gaol is a name that should evoke Wilde’s remark that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language, because nowhere in Wildespeak is cross-pond compliance more pronounced than when the words Reading and Gaol are pronounced.

Otis Redding

Wilde first made the remark about transatlantic language in The Canterville Ghost, so it is appropriate that one American with the necessary locution to Anglicize the prison’s name would have been the resident of Canterville Chase Mr. Hiram B. Otis. This is because Oscar located Otis in his English pile at Ascot, less than 20 miles from the town of Reading, thus making it likely our American Minister would know that the neighboring place is not reading as in reeding, it is Reading as in Redding.

In this vein, I should mention that Ascot and Reading are both in the English county of Berkshire, which I was afraid I might also have to translate as being pronounced Berks as in barques, not barks as in Burke’s; just as it’s clerks as in Clark’s, and not clarks as in clurks. Fortunately, there’s also a homophonic Reading in Pennsylvania, so I don’t have to bother.


The Balance of Reading Gaol

Getting the balance of Reading Gaol correct, however, does not only mean achieving the right reading when you write Reading; we also need to ensure when writing Gaol that people are reading jail.

The problem with the word GAOL is that it looks like goal owing to those tricky vowels AO seemingly transposed in the variant spelling of jail—a Francophone curiosity that dates back to when the Normans first uttered the archaic Latin for cave that gave us gaole. Fortunately, this usage is now virtually obsolete so people can be utterly forgiven for the goal/gaol chaos, although I am still apt to misspell the word Pharaoh. I never did trust French letters.

Gaul Mouth

All I know, having studied notoriously exiled Parisian bi-lingualists, is that the G tends to be soft in gaol (as in jail) but hard in goal (and in Gaul). ‘Twas ever so I should imagine. However, I shouldn’t speculate, not being qualified to offer oral guidance on French diction particularly the practice of getting one’s tongue around Gallic diphthongs.


Clipping: The Leavenworth Weekly Times, April 27, 1882.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

4 thoughts on “Gaul Post”

  1. Making my way through the terrible puns, I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s castigation of English spelling and his suggestion that the word “fish” could just as easily be spelled “ghoti” (gh as in rough, o as in women, ti as in motion).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good John and commentators. I have recently published four different articles on Mr. Wilde and was told my fifth – in the Berkeley, Ca. Earth Island environmental mag would be published and paid for as soon as they cleared up some disarray they were going through. A couple of months passed. My article pointed out for them how WIlde was the Total Environmentalist, not only advising on dress, education, city-building, and so on but warning about the industrial pollution he was seeing in England and America.
    The editor of Earth Island (corny name) now responded that Wilde did not really do anything about industrial pollution except point to it and “we all do that.” So they are not going to publish #5; I will seek elsewhere as it’s a good article that makes an important point about Wilde.
    This know-it-all editor however offered me a kill fee of $50 for having submitted an article specifically for their environmental mag. I told her to keep the money and “Long live Oscar Wilde, the Total Environmentalist!”
    Thanks for giving me a chance to share that.

    Peter And have a good day! Look at our Golden State Warriors – the best show in town!


  3. Nebraska (prisons lacking any aesthetics, but chock-full of mortality) perhaps yet another puzzling prelude to Reading Gaol. I also appreciate your “Ortho” instincts to “straighten it all out” for some of us more novice followers. Thanks so much!


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