Wilde’s Prison Interview?

WILDE’S PRISON INTERVIEW?

by John Cooper 
With the kind assistance and guidance
of Rob Marland and Matthew Sturgis. *


The artist Banksy has recently demonstrated that deliverance from Reading Gaol remains a popular concept. But, as you might imagine, Oscar Wilde’s real life liberation from the prison was an even more newsworthy event back in 1897.

Oscar himself attested to the potential for a public invasion of his privacy. This is what he wrote to his dear friend, Reggie Turner, just prior to his release:

Already the American interviewer and the English journalist have arrived in Reading: the Governor of the Prison has just shown me a letter from an American interviewer stating that he will be here with a carriage on Wednesday morning for me, and offering any sum I like if I will breakfast with him! Is it not appalling?

(Complete Letters, 829).

The archive photograph of Reading Gaol (above) curiously portends such a carriage handover. But, of course, no interview took place outside Reading prison—appalling breakfast or otherwise—nor could it, because Wilde was not discharged from the prison system at Reading. He was spirited 43.8 miles away to be released from Pentonville Prison in London, his first place of incarceration.

This subterfuge, and others along the way, protected Wilde’s seclusion well enough, and so history has chronicled Wilde’s removal from Reading free from the Fourth Estate.

But now it is time to reconsider the event—particularly for those who might underestimate the doggedness of the Victorian press. Could it really be possible that, in fact, there exists a hitherto forgotten prison interview?

As remarkable as this sounds, it appears that a media dialogue of sorts could have taken place with Wilde at Reading Gaol.


—THE POWER THAT IS IN ME WILL RESUME ITS SWAY—



In anticipation of Wilde’s impending release from prison on May 19, 1897, journalists began to gather in the town of Reading in search of a story. But there was one scribe who had had his finger of the local penitentiary pulse for some time.

That man was the trusty American reporter Frank Marshall White, currently the London correspondent for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—and thus wireman to all of the other US-syndicated titles of the Hearst Corporation.

In May 1897, White was stationed in Reading with an evident a zeal for ‘inside’ knowledge of Wilde’s temporary abode. For at least a week before the ballyhoo really began, White had been reporting, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy, Oscar’s daily routine at Reading (and Wandsworth). He noted Wilde’s grueling diet, his prison chores, his current weight, the length of his hair, and his still clean-shaven state of appearance. He also revealed the name of Wilde’s prison chaplain (M. T. Friend) to whom, it can be inferred, he had spoken. [1]

But as Wilde’s release date approached, news was still thin on the ground.

We now know that in his last few days in his cell at Reading, Wilde was busy continuing his correspondence with Ernest Leverson about financial matters. He also wrote two long letters to Reggie Turner making arrangements for his post-prison life; another to More Adey; yet another to Robert Ross; and finally a note to his kindly warder, Thomas Martin, offering to pay to have some hungry children released from the horrors of prison remand.

Clearly, Wilde was preparing to leave Reading. The question was when? 

PRESS/RELEASE

The word on Fleet Street was that Wilde might be moved from Reading before his official release. Accordingly, Frank White connected the grapevine wires to his readers with the news that: “reporters were swarming in Reading today, as it is rumored that Wilde’s friends will obtain permission from the Home Office to remove him secretly from the prison before his term has entirely expired.” [And, of course, this is precisely what happened.]

So to Frank White in Reading, possibly charged with gaining a first-hand interview, it was becoming increasingly conspicuous that all he had offered his editor so far was second-hand gossip.

It was time for action. It was time for London journalist, Robert Batho.

Robert Batho, a freelance journalist in England (and later an editor and author in Canada), was a contributor to several newspapers including London’s Evening News. He was apparently possessed of a Zelig-like ability where Oscar Wilde was concerned, and claimed to have been the source behind verified interviews with Wilde on three earlier “epochs” (as he called them) in Wilde’s career. [2]

Just the man, therefore, to join forces with Frank White at Reading Gaol.

Consequently, White and Batho, formed a transatlantic alliance, and they are most likely “the American interviewer and the English journalist” whose letter the Governor had shown to Wilde requesting the post-prison interview—a request no doubt denied.

Denied, yes, but Batho was not to be rebuffed. Perhaps leveraging his track record with Wilde, or by simple ingenuity, the English journalist apparently sought to eke out an alternative form of access.

In the published “interview” White explained how it came about:

IN CARCERE, ET IN DIURNA?

The result was a short interview with Wilde which White sent via special cable to New York where it appeared in the morning edition of The New York Journal.

Later Hearst imprints, with the advantage of the time delay, such as the San Francisco Examiner, and the one below from the Buffalo Evening News of May 17, 1897, identify Batho as the person who conducted the interview and also expand on his history with Wilde.

Note about the text: This is the most common text of the interview in which some questions are implied by conflating answers, a style common in interviews and court reporting. In some other versions, however, for instance in The Chicago Tribune, the same interview is given as a more verbatim conversation.

THE INTERVIEW
THE VERDICT

What are we to make of the “prison interview”?

Whether Batho actually gained entry to the prison or, perhaps, merely handed in written questions at the gate and was given a written reply, does not seem to matter as much as the idea of using an intermediary—which does appeal as it might have allowed the Governor to bend the visitation rules without breaking them.

In evaluating the interview, these are the points to be considered, and on balance they generally favor plausibility:

—The unusual collaboration of White and Batho bears out “the American interviewer and the English journalist” in the letter shown to Wilde on the same day as the interview.

 —If the Governor, Major Nelson, had been inclined to deny all communication with his prisoner, why would he show the letter to Wilde at all, if there was nothing to be gained from it?

—Although copyrighting articles was a growing practice at the time, on this occasion the publisher himself, William Randolph Hearst, thought enough of the interview to append his own name to the claim to copyright. 

—Frank Marshall White was career journalist [3] with no record of anything other than solid journalism. It must be said, however, that Robert Batho has a history of operating somewhat under the radar of authorship, and was not averse to self-aggrandizement.

—If the interview is not genuine, it would have been an extremely clever and  elaborate hoax, because the claims in it are so reserved and abbreviated. And there is nothing in it that is obviously wrong; indeed the language and assertions have a ring of truth.

—For instance, Wilde is quoted as placing himself in the hands of his friends, which he did do. Further, Wilde is tentative about his plans, which was also the case: while arrangements were made for his immediate departure to France, Wilde was doubtful about it and considered seeking seclusion and solace in a Catholic retreat in London—which he actually attempted and was refused. (Sturgis p. 628). There seems to be no other way for Batho to have known any of these, and other, details before, or even after Wilde’s release.

—Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, Wilde was asked if he will write under his own name. “Most assuredly,” he says, “as presently disposed”. First, why would Wilde say “most assuredly” if he never intended, and never did,  write under his own name? Is it not the case that Wilde’s imperative is in what he goes on to say, that he would write “most assuredly as presently disposed“. It is difficult to see what else Wilde could have meant by this expression other than what came to pass. That he was presently disposed in prison where he was known by his prison cell number C.3.3., the name under which he published his first written work after prison: The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

© John Cooper, 2021


Illustrated Police News – Saturday 29 May 1897.


NOTES

[1] ‘Wilde Will Soon Be Free,’ Buffalo Evening News, May 10, 1897, p. 19.

[2] Robert Batho had a long career in journalism in England and Canada. For details of this “prison interview” and his previously attributed encounters with Wilde, see Robert Marland’s forthcoming Oscar Wilde, The Complete Interviews, (2021). 

[3] FRANK MARSHALL WHITE

Reporter Buffalo Evening News, 1881, New York Times, 1882-1885. Editorial writer New York Commercial Advertiser, 1885-1887. Literature editor Life, 1887-1889. London correspondent New York Sun, 1889-1893. Later divided his time between Europe and United States as editor or correspondent of New York newspapers. Editor Paris edition of New York Times during exposition of 1900. Author of many stories and sketches in American and English magazines and periodicals.

The sketch of Wilde in prison at the top is from The Illustrated Police Budget with the caption: Can you imagine what the mental and physical sufferings of a man of the Oscar Wilde temperament must be?’


ROB MARLAND 
Rob Marland’s work on Oscar Wilde includes graphic novels, audiobook recordings, and compilation and editorship of a forthcoming book Oscar Wilde, The Complete Interviews (2021).
https://marlandonwilde.blogspot.com

MATTHEW STURGIS
Matthew Sturgis is a historian, critic, and the acclaimed biographer of Oscar: A Life (2018).

Rediscovered

Restored by John Cooper © 2020
A Rediscovered Photograph of Oscar Wilde

In my last article I alluded to how that erstwhile sinner, Oscar Wilde, had achieved the exalted air of sainthood. Unfortunately, for collectors of Wildean memories, with that classification comes the saintly cliché that a good man is hard to find.

And nowhere is that maxim manifested more in Oscar Wilde’s case than in the promised land of lost pictures. On the artifact scale of hardness-to-find, the rarest commodities are gold dust, hen’s teeth, and, hardest of all, previously unseen photographs of Oscar Wilde.

At least that was the case until earlier this year when this late in Wilde’s long posthumous existence (what the Native American appropriately dubbed the happy hunting ground), unearthed a little-known, and even less seen, image of Oscar. That photo has now ascended to the canonical next life as Sarony 3A. For Wildeans, this one discovery would normally be rapture enough. However, now another rare photograph has appeared from the digital clouds.

It is worthy of investigation.

Continue reading Rediscovered

Deepo

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

One By One

Oscar-1

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

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

Bridgeton, NJ


—ANOTHER DISCOVERED LECTURE—

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)

Oscar’s Oyster Supper

An Oyster Supper, 1852-1853. Hand-colored lithograph by Elijah Chapman Kellogg . Oysters were a popular food in Connecticut during the 19th century..jpg

Eating oysters in Connecticut is a big thing; and when in Hartford, CT, there was only one place to go: Honiss’ Oyster House. In 1981 the New York Times ran an article about the famous old place, now long since gone:

It isn’t every restaurant in Connecticut that can claim – as the Honiss Oyster House Company does – to have served Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Andre Previn and Steve Martin, or to have the very booth where Buffalo Bill Cody ate regularly when he was in town with his Wild West Show.

Honiss’s dimly-lit basement walls are crammed with photographs of customers past. There are more than a thousand pictures in all, dating to the 1880’s, when Thomas Honiss and Fred Atchinson purchased the then-40-year-old restaurant downstairs in the United States Hotel.

What the newspaper did not mention, and possibly because the restaurant also failed to realize it, is that Oscar Wilde also partook of Honiss’ famous oysters while residing at the United States Hotel in 1882.

Continue reading Oscar’s Oyster Supper

Making (Up) Oscar Wilde

MAKING OSCAR WILDE by Michèle Mendelssohn
Oxford University Press (2018)

REVIEWED BY: John Cooper


One of the most noteworthy contributions to the recent surge in Wildean material has been Michèle Mendelssohn’s treatise Making Oscar Wilde (2018).

As the title suggests, it is an attempt to establish a premise for the shaping of Wilde’s persona—the latest in a history of such perspectives which has included disquisitions via his Irish roots, his American experience, his men, his women, his friends, his enemies, his wit, his letters, his published works, his unpublished works, his recorded life, his unrecorded life, and, for good measure, his afterlife.

Now Making Oscar Wilde takes a potentially useful and probably unique view through the prism of Wilde’s racial profile. On surface reading the work has much to commend it—but to discover whether it works as a construction we will have to disassemble it.

Continue reading Making (Up) Oscar Wilde

Mountain Lion

“Storm King at Cornwall,” by Hudson River artist Thomas Benjamin Pope. Wilde stayed at the Cornwall Mountain House located at an elevation of 1200 feet on the Western slope of the famous Storm King Mountain.
Oscar Wilde in the Catskills

After traveling across the vast expanses of the American south for more than a month, lecturing in 18 cities, Wilde returned to New York for some rest and relaxation with friends at the exclusive Summer resorts of the north-east.

On July 15, 1882. Oscar gave a courtesy lecture at the Casino during a week’s stay with Julia Ward Howe and friends at Newport, RI, (revisited here) and he did not lecture again for two and a half weeks.

During that time he:

— visited Long Beach with Sam Ward where he was to be found creating interest on the beach;
—cruised around Long Island for three days with Robert Roosevelt aboard his yacht, occasionally swimming, fishing and calling in at popular hotels;
—visited the actress Clara Morris at her retreat in Riverdale, NY;
—stayed with statesman John Bigelow at his summer home at Highland Falls, near West Point;
—vacationed at Long Branch spending a night as guest of former President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant, which must have provided a interesting counterpoint to his recent stay with Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America, at his home at Beauvoir;
—traveled to Peekskill to stay with clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher with whom he attended a church service and a military band concert.

After all that urbane socializing it was time to head for the hills for more urbane socializing—and a return to lecturing.

The social lion was about to become a mountain lion in The Catskills.

Continue reading Mountain Lion