A Saint With A Past


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 is an 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 provides one the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.


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.


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.


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 all the more opportunity of accepting the plaudits of his devotees while 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.


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 by fans at a jeweler’s store that he had 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.


Illustration: James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960).

Nobody ever alleged that my allegiance to alliteration was anything other than alluring, so allow me to allude to this little Oscar Wilde story about the Liberal, the Lord of Language, and the ladies Labouchère and Langtry.

Or perhaps it would be even more obscure, and thus more intriguing, to say it is about Henrietta Hodson, Hester & The Two Henrys, and The Home Depot.

Either way, we must first place the tale in context.

Continue reading Deepo

Destroyed By Fire

In my now completed itinerary of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of across North America in 1882, you will find logged more than one hundred hotels or houses where Oscar stayed while lecturing, along with illustrations of all the different lecture theatres, music halls, or opera houses where he spoke.

A commonality emerges among most of these venues, and it is exemplified in the phrase most often repeated in the chronicle: Destroyed by Fire—a common occurrence for many public buildings during an era of open hearths, gas lighting, indoor smoking, and a general lack of fire-resistant materials.

Some of the buildings Oscar visited suffered this fate more than once, but none were burned down more times than the Dafoe House in Belleville Ontario.

Continue reading Destroyed By Fire

One By One


In a recent post I highlighted the difference between an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose—the result being that the photograph was the more authentic.

But what happens when there are differences between two versions of the same photograph?

In this case the image is Sarony No. 1—the famous iconic headshot of Wilde. The one on the right is the more familiar, but they do not quite look the same.

Which one is a good egg, and which one is a Wilde goose chase? Let us take a gander.

Continue reading One By One

False Bottom

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 21, 1882. The caption to the full page reads: Oscar Wilde, the Apostle of Aestheticism—From a Photograph by Sarony, and Sketches by a Staff Artist.

Here we see an illustration from Frank Leslie’s newspaper showing Oscar Wilde in a pose reminiscent of those taken by Napoleon Sarony.

Scholars were never quite sure whether the caption to this sketch which says “From a Photograph by Sarony” meant that the illustration was from Sarony (in the sense of an artist’s impression of similar poses) or was a direct copy of an actual photograph of this particular pose.

One view favored was the former: i.e. that the whole illustration was an invention. One reason for this (apart from the fact that no photograph was known to exist) was that the bottom of the coat did not quite look right—it was too skirt-like. And further, the illustration shows Wilde wearing dress shoes, while in the photographs the only shoes we see are Oscar’s patent pumps. Indeed, all of the Sarony photographs of Wilde standing in an outer garment, are three-quarter length.

However, with the re-emergence of Sarony 3A, we now know the latter is the case, and the photograph has taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde. We can now see that the illustration and photograph are identical.

Identical, that is, apart from that lingering anomaly of the full-length sketch vs. the three-quarter length photograph. The question is: do these feet belong to Oscar or the illustrator? In other words, has the photograph been cropped or does the sketch have a false bottom?

A little more research can clear this up and it is almost certainly true that the lower portion of the illustration is an invention of the artist.

Take a look at Wilde’s coat in Sarony number 8, below: as you will see, it does not have a fur border at the hem as depicted in the sketch.

Mounted Sarony number 8 showing the coat without a fur hem.

Sarony 3A

New Sarony Photograph Identified

A rarely seen image of Oscar Wilde has recently been added to the series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882.

Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.

However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.

Let us see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.

Continue reading Sarony 3A

The Rest Is History

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, 1882

There is a pleasing symmetry in the idea of the flamboyant Napoleon Sarony photographing Oscar Wilde because they were both specialists in posing—albeit from opposing ends of the camera. So it is not surprising that they also had parallel views about it.

Continue reading The Rest Is History

Web Site Upgrade


Apologies for the hiatus from writing articles for this blog while I took time out to attend to two parallel projects.

First is my historical archive which was in need of an update to latest web standards and to address improvements to usability. Click on this link to Oscar Wilde In America to visit the new site.

Also the interim I contributed a major article to the latest edition of the academic journal The Wildean, the flagship publication of the Oscar Wilde Society.  The article featured for the time ever in print all known photographs of Oscar Wilde taken by Napoleon Sarony in 1882 and 1883, as well as correcting existing and supplemented much new information about them. You can obtain copies of the journal from the Oscar Wilde Society here.

‍The signature image of the web site has been W.B. Richmond’s ‍”Electra ‍at ‍the ‍Tomb ‍of ‍Agamemnon” ‍(1874) shown at the top of this page—a work ‍that ‍Wilde ‍had ‍described ‍in ‍detail ‍in ‍his ‍review ‍of ‍its ‍showing ‍at ‍the ‍Grosvenor ‍Gallery ‍in ‍London [1].

The painting was the inspiration for a cartoon ‍used as a centerpiece ‍to ‍a ‍fake ‍interview ‍with ‍Wilde in Punch magazine, ‍the ‍purpose ‍of ‍which ‍was ‍to ‍ridicule ‍the ‍Aesthetic ‍Movement ‍that ‍Wilde ‍went ‍to ‍America ‍to ‍espouse. ‍It depicts ‍the ‍Greek ‍goddess ‍Ariadne representing ‍the ‍grief ‍of ‍Aestheticism ‍as ‍she ‍watches ‍Wilde ‍depart ‍aboard ‍the ‍ship ‍Arizona.

More on the web site here about ARIADNE IN NAXOS.

The web site upgrade is timely as it comes at conclusion of a ten year project of verifying and documenting Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour, which  I shall feature in a separate blog article in the new year.

The web site also contains much ‍historical ‍information ‍relating ‍to ‍Wilde’s ‍time ‍in ‍America: ‍works, ‍features, ‍lecture subjects, ‍quotations, ‍interviews, ‍and more.

Please visit the site and let me know of any errata. There are bound to be many as I have only one pair of eyes.

© John Cooper, December 2019

[1] “The Grosvenor Gallery” Dublin University Magazine, 90, July 1877, 118-26.

Bridgeton, NJ


In verifying Oscar Wilde’s tour of America, one occasionally come across previously unrecorded lectures, such as the ones at the seaside resort of Narragansett Pier, RI, a second talk given by Wilde in Saratoga Springs, and another he gave for the YMCA in Yorkville, New York City [1].

This last lecture in New York redefined what biographers thought had been Wilde’s final lecture in North America at St. John, in New Brunswick, Canada.

Now another lecture has emerged which also post-dates Wilde final Canada visit.

Continue reading Bridgeton, NJ

I Can Wait (Revisited)

Lotos Club New York.jpg
Oscar Wilde’s After-Dinner Rebuke to his Press Critics

Originally published in 2015, now as rewritten for the Oscar Wilde Society newsletter. For membership go to: oscarwildesociety.co.uk/membership/

It is pleasing to see that recent Wilde studies continue to highlight the emergent nature of Oscar’s American experience, during which time he nurtured the art of public speaking, conducted his first press interviews, staged his first play, had his iconic photographs taken, and stockpiled—to use an American word—material for his future epigrams and works.

But there is a crucial American beginning for Oscar that has been under-appreciated: I refer to his first brush with literary society. It occurred during an event at 149 Fifth Avenue in New York City, the then home of an organisation of journalists known as the Lotos Club.

Continue reading I Can Wait (Revisited)