A Saint With A Past

A Sinner in Saint Louis

During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.

This idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time. 


The only difference between the saint and the sinner
is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

A Woman of No Importance (1893)


Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.

Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself [1]—his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882. 

The strain is worth the while, however, as it gives me the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.


Insect Repellant

In late-Victorian America, Oscar Wilde was stung by most U.S. newspapers, and oddly several dozens of them were called The Beethe most prestigious, perhaps, being the extant Sacramento Bee founded in 1857.

But by far the most repellant press treatment Wilde received was from the influential journalist Ambrose Bierce in the satirical journal The WaspIt took the form of a bitter excoriation (read it on this page) that Karl Beckson once described as “unparalleled as an example of creative vituperation”.

And it was also an edition of The Wasp that featured the famous cartoon depicting Oscar on his arrival in San Francisco as an impecunious modern messiah.

With the Victorian telegraph thus a-buzz with various bees and wasps it will be no surprise to learn that there was also a hornet. 

The Hornet was another satirical newspaper, this one published in St. Louis around the time of Oscar’s visit. Although it was short-lived (1880-1882), The Hornet lasted just long enough for its little-known staff artist, F. Welcker, to capture Oscar in a wonderfully camp piece of chromolithography.

The cartoon portrays two odd fellows being acclaimed with bouquets and laurels. Alongside the familiar form of Oscar is the local personality Berry Mitchell in renaissance costume. The two can be identified by judiciously placed labels: Berry’s name on his short trunk hose, and Oscar’s on his sunflower.

Queens: Berry and WILDE

Berry Mitchell was what you might call a character.

He had inherited the enormous sum of $125,000 when he was young, and he proceeded to devote his life to spending it. Berry was evidently a man of games for in later years he became a billiards instructor, and, after moving to Chicago, he held a concession at Riverview Park playing checkers, offering a dollar-watch to anyone who could beat him—apparently he never needed to hand over the watch.

But his first love was the acting game. I use the word ‘game’ advisedly in this context because he was not, as Shakespeare would have put it, to the manner born.

Indeed, there was something rotten in the state of Missouri and, based on his Hamlet, it was Berry Mitchell’s acting.

Turn of the Crank

Berry Mitchell did become a popular thespian—but it was not by fathoming the depths of theatre; it was rather by flaunting his talent for theatrics.

For in reality, his Hamlet was a burlesque.

This might have been a good idea had he conveyed the concept to someone before opening night. For instance, why wasn’t the Danish court, nor anyone else in Elsinore, on the same page—that is the question. The St. Louis Globe and Democrat described how Mr Mitchell’s decidedly amusing turn could have been a very comical piece had the impulsive Laertes, the earnest Horatio, and the poor demented Ophelia not mistakenly imagined they were playing in a tragedy.

Perhaps the cast should have suspected something was afoot at the start, when a representative emerged from backstage to say that the play would be delayed because the ghost had failed to appear on time—in fact, that they could not raise him. 

The packed audience, some sitting on stools squeezed into every available corner, were having none it. One gentleman in the gallery surmising that Mr Mitchell was actually still busy stuffing his calves.

All of this alerted the Globe reporter to an air of frivolity abroad, so when the spirit (and the curtain) were eventually raised he noted that the “ghost failed to inspire anything like the decent respect that should be awarded to the inhabitants of another world”. 

Not that mere mortals were received any better. Bernardo, Horatio, and Marcellus played out the opening scene from frosty ramparts to dumb benches. It was Berry Mitchell they had come to see, and the audience would only thaw and resolve itself when the pastiche Prince himself arrived. And, according to the the Globe, what an arrival! 

Subverting the philosophic Dane’s usual mode of entry in train of the King and Queen emerging solemnly upstage, Berry Mitchell announced himself with “utter disregard for the traditional mode of playing the character” with a “sudden, jerky appearance” into the footlights from the wings, affording himself the opportunity of accepting the plaudits of his devotees as the courtiers filed into place. This was not going to be a performance for the purist.

The press mused on how an unsuspecting stranger, who had been lured into a cozy little theatre on Fifth Street, would be astonished to see Hamlet in his “sable habiliments” provoking “such peals of laughter as would make Grimaldi envious”. 

The critics’ blank expressions must have competed with the blank verse; one hack saying that Mitchell’s reading bore as much resemblance to the original text as the actor himself did to Edwin Booth. 

However, our man from the Globe gave credit where it was due, saying that when Mr Mitchell’s memory failed he, “never hesitated to supply the deficiency with the first words he could invent”. Impartiality prevailed when the journalist pointed out that while this “is doubtless a happy faculty in an actor…it is rather hard on Shakespeare”. 

So in deference to the bard we should construe a rejoinder; some measure for measure for this calumny. We shall update Hamlet’s despairing conclusion “what a piece of work is a man!” by adding that Berry Mitchell was probably the piece of work he had in mind.

The Belles of St. Louis

Another entertainer capable of drawing an admiring St. Louis crowd, was Oscar Wilde, as we can see from the above cartoon that appeared at the time of his visit to the city. [2] 

Here is how the press described Oscar as he arrived at the recently re-built Southern Hotel at the corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets. The comparison clearly linking the two “too-too” cartoon counterparts in the public’s perception. [3]

Interest in Wilde was at fever pitch. Fully five columns of the daily paper were given over to various aspects of his visit. Crowds were anxious for a glimpse of the aesthete, not only upon arrival and departure, but all the while as people thronged the Southern Hotel parlors. 

He visited the (then Crow) Art Galley disappointed in the art; a disappointment  matched at a jeweler’s store that he thought better of visiting: not perhaps owing to the window-dressings draped with sunflowers, but because more than 200 ladies there awaited him.

Wilde’s lecture at the Mercantile Library Hall on Locust Street was sold out to the best of St. Louis society, “a large and fashionable audience”, except, that is, for a back row of young fellows who failed in their periodic attempts to disrupt the speaker with continued applause.

After the lecture Wilde was given receptions at the Press Club and the Elks Club, where he drank and met the presidents and signed his name in autograph books.

Aesthetic floral emblems were a story in themselves. The laws of supply and demand from the ladies of the city prompted one vendor on Olive Street into the confession that “the present value of the lily is slightly fictitious”.

While over in Missouri Park a somewhat clairvoyant florist produced the Oscar Wilde boutonniere: “a full blown double camellia and bud, shaded from light to dark pink, and fastened with a laurel leaf into a very soulful cluster”. 

Probably by now feeling quite greenery-yallery himself, Wilde spent the next day, February 26 (a Sunday) with a visit to the St. Louis botanical gardens, ensuring always, of course, that he remained never far away from a square meal—his menu in St. Louis being worthy of its own narrative.

So there we must leave Messrs. Wilde and Mitchell now both ghosts of St. Louis past: one a sadly comic tragedian and the other a sadly tragic comedian.

But to our eternal gratitude two fellows of infinite jest.

© John Cooper, 2020


[1] I shall now live as St. Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr.” Letter to Robert Ross, Complete Letters, p. 1041.

[2] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 1882, 5.

[3] St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri ) Feb 26, 1882, 3.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

5 thoughts on “A Saint With A Past”

    1. Hornet, no: just the year 1882, but presumably just before he lectured in St. Louis. Berry Mitchell quotes: St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri) · Sat, Aug 21, 1875 · Page 8. The ad: don’t know, sorry, can’t find again.

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  1. Most interesting. And now my curiosity begs for more on your curio box of characters, which now includes the likes of Berry Mitchell.

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