The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries

Murders at Reading Gaol

Murders at Reading Gaol

Book 6:

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol (title in UK & USA)

Book Description | Excerpt | Reading Group Guide | Q & A with Gyles

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol

Drawn from the previously unpublished papers of Robert Sherard (1861 - 1943), Oscar Wilde’s first and most prolific biographer

My name is Robert Sherard and I was a friend of Oscar Wilde. I met him first in Paris in the spring of 1883. He was twenty-eight years old and already famous - as a poet, wit and raconteur, as the pre-eminent ’personality’ of his day. I was twenty-two, an aspiring poet, a would-be journalist, and quite unknown. Oscar and I met for the last time, again in Paris, in 1900, not long before his untimely death at the age of forty-six. During the intervening seventeen years I kept a journal of our friendship.

Oscar Wilde and I were not lovers, but I knew him well. Few, I believe, knew him better. In 1884, I was the first friend he entertained after his marriage to Constance Lloyd - the loveliest of women and the most cruelly used. In 1895, following his incarceration, I was the first to visit him in prison. It was in a letter from gaol that my friend did me the signal honour of describing me as ’the bravest and most chivalrous of all brilliant beings’. In 1897, on his release, I travelled to meet him in France. In 1902, I tried to do justice to his memory as his first biographer.

When I wrote my original account of Oscar’s life I told the truth - but not the whole truth. A short while before his death, I revealed to Oscar that I planned to tell his story after he was gone. He said: ’Don’t tell them everything - not yet! When you write of me, don’t speak of murder. Leave that a while.’ I have left it until now. I am writing this in September 1939. I am old and the world is on the brink of war once more. My time will soon be up, but before I go I have one last task remaining - to tell everything I know of Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, friend, detective . . . avenging angel.

The material that follows is based on Oscar’s own account of what occurred during the twenty-five months between 25 May 1895 and 25 June 1897. What you are about to read he told me in the late summer of 1897. For the most part I have been able to use his own words because I took them down at his dictation - directly onto my new Remington typewriter. It was to me that Oscar remarked, ’The typewriting machine, when played with expression, is no more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation.

September, 1939

Prologue: London, 25 May 1895

From the Star, final edition


Sentenced to 2 years hard labour

Jubilant scenes in street

At the end of a four-day trial at the Old Bailey, Oscar Wilde, the celebrated playwright, was tonight found guilty on seven counts of gross indecency and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour.

Addressing the court, the trial judge, Mr Justice Wills, 77, declared, ‘It is the worst case I have ever tried.’ The judge said it was impossible to doubt that Wilde, 40, had been at the centre of ‘a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men’. Passing the severest sentence allowed by law, he said, ‘In my judgement it is totally inadequate for such a case as this.’

In the dock, the guilty man was seen to sway as sentence was passed and called out to the judge, ‘And I? May I say nothing, my lord?’ Mr Justice Wills gestured to the warders standing at the side of the dock to take the prisoner away. Wilde, white-faced, appeared to stagger before being escorted to his cell beneath the court-room. He was then taken to Newgate Prison nearby, where the warrant authorising his detention was prepared, and later, by prison van, to Pentonville Prison in north London.

Outside the Old Bailey, the news of the guilty verdict was greeted with scenes of jubilation. There was loud applause and cheering from the crowd that had gathered and, when the detail of the sentence reached them, a small group of street women danced a jig in the gutter, one of them shouting, ‘Two years is too good for ‘im.’ Another provoked laughter saying, ‘E’ll ’ave ’is ’air cut regular now.’

It is understood that Wilde’s most recent comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, will continue to play at the St James’s Theatre, but that the author’s name will be removed immediately from the playbills and programmes in deference to the sensibilities of audience members.

Constance Wilde, 36, the unfortunate wife of the guilty man, was not in court to witness her husband’s ruin. It is believed that the authoress and her two sons, aged nine and eight, are now travelling on the continent.



Life sentence for attempted murder

At Reading Assizes today the man who claimed that he had attempted to murder his wife under the delusion that he was the Emperor Napoleon of France, and that she was the Empress Josephine and had been unfaithful to him, failed in his plea of not guilty on grounds of insanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Throughout his four-day trial, Sebastian Atitis-Snake, 37, an unemployed chef of Palmer Road, Reading, addressed the court in broken French and stood with his right hand tucked into his waistcoat in the manner of the late Emperor. Passing sentence, Mr Justice Crawford, 69, told the accused, ‘You have attempted to make a mockery of your own trial in the hope of confusing the jury. You have failed. The gentlemen of the jury are not fools and you are not insane. It is clear, from both the police evidence and from the expert medical witnesses we have heard, that you are, at best, what is termed in common parlance, a “ confidence trickster”, and, at worst, a cold-hearted and calculating would-be killer.’

The judge said that there was no evidence of any kind that Mrs Atitis-Snake had been guilty of adultery. ‘By all accounts your poor wife is an entirely blameless young woman. Her only misfortune was to meet you when she was just eighteen years of age and recently orphaned. She had a little fortune, amounting to £ 5,000, but no family and few friends. You were fifteen years her senior and, doubtless, by means of telling her a string of the fantastical falsehoods that appear to be your stock-in-trade, you persuaded her to marry you. Having secured her fortune, you quickly tired of her youth and beauty and decided to dispose of her. You attempted to murder this innocent creature by serving her a dish of poisonous mushrooms - disguised as what you termed an ‘omelette de campagne’. Had you killed her, you would have been charged with murder and would now be facing the death penalty. As it is, the poor woman lies in a coma in a nursing home. As I understand it, there is hope, at least, that one day she may recover. Her future is uncertain. Yours is not. The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned for the rest of your natural life and be kept to hard labour.’



Her Majesty honours Henry Irving

Her Majesty Queen Victoria has marked her seventy-sixth birthday by conferring a knighthood on the actor, Henry Irving, 57. Sir Henry, as he will now be known, is the nation’s most celebrated Shakespearean player and the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre. He is the first actor in the history of the theatre to receive such an honour and today professed himself ‘truly humbled’ by Her Majesty’s recognition. ‘This is a mighty day for actors everywhere,’ he said. ‘May it be long remembered.’

Introduction: Dieppe, France, 24 June 1897

It was six o’clock in the evening, but the bright summer sun still stood high in the sky.

On the pavement outside the Café Suisse, in the shade beneath the blue-and-white striped awning, at a round table covered with a red-and-white checked cloth, a large man sat on a small chair nursing an empty glass. He had been seated there for an hour - for two, perhaps. At five o’clock, with narrowed eyes - hooded but amused - he had scrutinised the passengers from the paddle-steamer - the Victoria from Newhaven - as, bags and baggage in hand, porters in tow, they had trooped by on their way from the quayside into the town. He had raised his straw boater to one of them. The man he had thought he recognised had not caught his eye.

Now the parade had passed and the hubbub had subsided. Apart from the retreating figure of the curé, a bustling black beetle in a biretta, the street was deserted. From the docks he could hear the faint rumble of barrow wheels on cobblestones and the occasional cry of a stevedore. Nearby, beneath the stone archway alongside the café, a stray dog yapped, rolling over and over in a pile of newspapers and cabbage leaves - the detritus of market day.

The large man had a large, long, well-fleshed face: a prominent nose; full lips; uneven, yellow teeth; a pasty, putty-like complexion; lank, thinning, auburn hair. He was smoking a Turkish cigarette and gazing vacantly ahead of him. He wore a cream-coloured linen suit, a white shirt and a loosely-tied bottle-green cravat. There was a button missing on his jacket and he had no money in his pocket, but he looked not uncontented. When the curé (whom he knew) had paused at his table to wish him a good afternoon, they had exchanged a few pleasantries (in French) and, with some ceremony, the large man had raised his glass to the priest - and drained it. Now he was ready for another drink.

As he turned round to look for the waiter, he saw instead a smiling stranger emerging from the café, coming directly towards him with outstretched arms. The beaming individual - a pale-faced man of middling years and middling height, slightly built and sandy-haired, bespectacled and smartly dressed - was carrying a pair of wine glasses in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other.

‘Is this a mirage or a miracle?’ murmured the large man, throwing the butt of his cigarette into the street.

‘It’s a Perrier-Jouët ’92,’ answered the stranger, turning the bottle in his hand to show off the label. He glanced back, over his shoulder, towards the café. ‘The boy is bringing out some ice.’ With a little flourish, the stranger placed the champagne and the glasses on the table, pulled down his shirt-cuffs, pushed his spectacles up his nose and inclined his head in a small bow. Abruptly, he brought his heels together so that they clicked. ‘May I join you, sir?’ he asked.

‘I should be utterly appalled if you did not.’

The stranger laughed and drew up a chair. He sat down. (He moved, the large man noticed, with a dancer’s grace.) The wine was already uncorked. With studied concentration, the stranger filled both glasses to the brim and handed one to the large man who gazed upon the pale gold bubbles with evident delight.

‘This is my favourite drink in all the world,’ he said.

‘I know,’ replied the stranger. ’A second bottle is being chilled. I thought we might enjoy it later with a little lobster mayonnaise.’

The large man closed his eyes and, with one hand, brought the champagne to his lips. The other hand he rested gently on the stranger’s arm. ’Thank you,’ he whispered, as he took a second draught.

‘The pleasure - and the honour - are both mine. I am glad to have found you. It has not been easy.’

The large man opened his eyes and looked directly at the stranger. The man wore a thin moustache and a tiny beard, he noticed. As a rule, the large man was mistrustful of those who covered their faces with hair - what did they have to hide? But these facial adornments were barely discernible - and the cold yellow wine was wonderful. ‘You have been looking for me?’ he enquired, pleasantly.

‘Yes, and now that I have found you I hope that you are behaving very well.’

‘I am feeling very well,’ replied the large man, narrowing his eyes.

‘That is not quite the same thing. In fact, the two things rarely go together.’

The stranger’s voice was soft. He had the accent of a gentleman, but there was something unnatural about his way of speaking - affected, almost effeminate. ‘Are you an actor?’ asked the large man. ‘Do I know you?’

‘I am an apothecary,’ replied the stranger. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a small visiting card. He passed it across the table.

The large man took the card and brought it close to his eyes. ‘Your name is Dr Quilp? And you are an apothecary?’

’And a writer - among other things.’

’I am a writer also,’ responded the large man, still studying the stranger’s card. ‘That’s all I am, alas. I have a friend who is a medical man as well as a writer - Arthur Conan Doyle. You know who I mean, of course?’

‘The creator of Sherlock Holmes.’

‘Exactly. Dr Conan Doyle and I have shared the odd adventure over the years and he has instructed me in the Holmesian Science of Deduction and Analysis. He has taught me some of the great man’s tricks. He has impressed on me the importance of observation and the significance of detail.’ Smiling, the large man returned the stranger’s visiting card. ‘I have to say, Dr Quilp, that your hands are rougher than those one would expect to find upon an apothecary.’

‘I have my father’s hands,’ replied the stranger, smoothly. He pocketed the card and then spread out his fingers on the table and gazed down at them. ‘My father was a blacksmith.’

‘And your mother?’

‘She was a lady,’ said Dr Quilp, simply.

The large man took another sip of champagne and contemplated his host. ‘You clearly know me, sir. But do I know you? You seem familiar to me, but I am not sure why. Have we met before?’

‘You have seen me, I think - watching you.’

‘Watching me?’

‘Observing you. I wanted to make sure that it really was you. I did not want to approach the wrong person.’

‘And cause embarrassment?’

‘Your appearance might have changed.’

‘It has changed.’

‘And photographs can be deceptive.’

‘Not only photographs . . .’ The large man tilted his head to one side as he considered his new-found friend. ‘For how long have you been “observing” me, Dr Quilp?’

‘I have been here in Dieppe since the beginning of the week. I arrived on the day of your children’s party.’

‘My little fête in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee? Fifteen children came, you know. I had only invited twelve - the garden at my lodgings is so small. And I hate crowds.’

‘It seemed a very jolly party.’

‘It was the happiest party of my life. We had strawberries and cream, apricots, chocolates, cakes and sirop de grenadine. I promised every child a present and they all wanted musical instruments - tin trumpets and accordions. We sang songs and played games - and they danced for me.’

‘I know. I was watching from the roadway.’

‘It was you, was it?’ said the large man, emptying his glass. ‘I saw you. I thought it was a policeman in plain clothes. I am glad it was only you.’

‘It was a happy gathering.’

‘It was perfect. At seven o’clock, as the children departed, I gave each one a little basket with bonbons in it and a little cake, frosted pink and specially inscribed: ”Jubilé de la Reine Victoria”. As they went on their way, they all cried out: “Vive la Reine d’Angleterre! Vive Monsieur Melmoth!”’

‘I know,’ said Dr Quilp. ‘That’s how I learnt your new name.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said the large man, ‘My name.’ He sat forward and felt in his coat pocket. ‘I have a card also. It is very like yours. Almost identical, in fact.’ After a moment’s rummaging, he produced his calling card and handed it across the table. He inclined his head. ‘Sebastian Melmoth, at your service.’

Dr Quilp smiled. ‘It is a fine name.’

‘Inspired by a fine novel - Melmoth the Wanderer. The novel was written by my great-uncle by marriage on my mother’s side, so it’s a family name in a way. I know Melmoth’s a mouthful, but it feels appropriate - don’t you agree?’

‘I meant that Sebastian is a fine name.’

‘Sebastian is a beautiful name. It is my favourite Christian name - for saints and sinners.’

The boy from the café had arrived at the table bearing an ice- bucket and a fresh bottle of champagne. Dr Quilp refilled their glasses. ‘I collect Sebastians,’ continued Monsieur Melmoth, ‘- of all kinds. I knew a murderer called Sebastian once.’

‘Tell me about him,’ said Dr Quilp, raising his glass to his companion. ‘I love tales of murder.’

‘Don’t we all?’ replied Melmoth, raising his glass, also. ’There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it . . . according to my friend, Conan Doyle.’

‘Tell me about this murderer named Sebastian,’ insisted Dr Quilp.

‘He was but one of the murderers I’ve known. I have been in prison, you know, for the past two years. I take it that you knew that, Dr Quilp?’

‘Yes,’ replied Quilp, lowering his eyes. ’I did know that.’

‘In politics one meets charlatans. In prison one meets murderers. I met several. Sebastian Atitis-Snake was one. I liked his name - every element of it. Charles Woolridge was another. I am writing a poem about Woolridge.’

‘About the murder he committed?’

‘About the day he died. He was hanged in Reading Gaol - a year ago, when I was there.’

‘Tell me your story, Mr Melmoth.’

‘You appear to know my story, Dr Quilp.’

‘I know what I have read.’

‘And what you have researched? I sense you have been assiduous in your researches.’

‘I want to know about your time in prison. The world wants to know about your time in prison.’

‘The world’s a huge thing.’

‘Yes, and would pay handsomely to read your story, Mr Melmoth.’

‘The world can read my poem.’

‘I think you’ll find that prose is better paid.’

‘Ah, so it’s about money?’ The large man sat back and laughed. He lit a cigarette and gestured with it towards the champagne bottles. ’This is all about money. Finding me, tracking me down, plying me with Perier-Jouët . . .’

‘It’s about telling your story, Mr Melmoth - in your own words, in your own way.’

‘And sharing the proceeds with you, Dr Quilp?’

‘I’ll be your scribe, if you’ll allow me.’

‘I can put pen to paper myself, you know.’

‘But will you?’

Melmoth drew slowly on his cigarette and smiled. ’You are right, Dr Quilp. Left to my own devices, I might not. I never put off until tomorrow what I can put off until the day after.’

‘And if you do, you’ll do it in the form of a ”prose poem” or a verse drama or - ’

‘- Some such over-written nonsense.’ Melmoth completed Quilp’s sentence, laughing. ’You appear familiar with my work, dear doctor. Did you not enjoy The Duchess of Padua?’

‘If we’re to reach the widest audience, Mr Melmoth, we need something that the widest audience can readily comprehend. We need a human story simply told. That is where I hope to be able to assist you.’

‘A human story!’ The large man quivered with amusement. He reached for the second bottle of champagne and replenished his glass. ’So, Dr Quilp, it turns out that you are not so much an apothecary as a journalist.’

‘I am a writer, Mr Melmoth. If you will tell it to me, I will record your story in plain English - that is all.’

‘I am an artist, Dr Quilp. Art should always remain mysterious. Artists, like gods, must never leave their pedestals.’

‘Two years ago, Mr Melmoth, you fell from yours.’

A lone seagull screeched in the sky. Melmoth, smiling, contemplated his glass and, suddenly, his eyes were filled with tears. ’Yes, passing strange, was it not? How did I let that happen?’ He turned away from the table and looked towards the archway where the mongrel was still playing among the old newspapers and cabbage leaves. ’The gods had given me almost everything, Dr Quilp - as I think you know. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring. I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colour of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I awoke the imagination of my country so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existence in an epigram.’

‘And then you were brought to the Old Bailey,’ replied Quilp. ’And put on trial. And found guilty of gross indecency. And imprisoned. We don’t need high-flown phrases for any of that, Mr Melmoth.’

‘Is that what you are after?’ asked Melmoth, turning back sharply. ’The story of my foul crimes and misdemeanours - the lurid details of my lewd offences recounted in language that’s anything but high-flown?’

Quilp laughed awkwardly. ’No. The details of your offences would be far too scandalous. No publisher - outside the backstreets of Paris - would be able to print any of that.’

‘But you want the story of my downfall, don’t you? The story of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. You must have Oscar Wilde in the title!’

Dr Quilp widened his eyes, but said nothing.

‘There,’ continued the large man, drawing slowly on his cigarette, ’I have dared to speak the name . . . I am allowed to do so. It was once mine. No longer. I am Sebastian Melmoth now.’

Quilp felt inside his jacket pocket. He produced a pen and a cheque book. Carefully, he laid them on the table, one upon the other. ’Mr Melmoth, I want the story of your time in prison - nothing more and nothing less. I want the story of what it was like, of those you met there. I want it told chronologically, simply, unadorned.’

Melmoth gazed upon the pen and cheque book and smiled. ’An unvarnished tale - in the tradition of Bunyan and Defoe?’

‘If we’re to make a proper fortune from it,’ said Dr Quilp, ’more in the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Readers look for a touch of murder nowadays.’

Melmoth extinguished his cigarette. ’I’m no murderer, Dr Quilp.’ He looked carefully at his interlocutor. ’At least, not yet.’

‘But you’ve considered murder, I imagine?’

‘Who has not?’

‘And you have known murderers - men like Sebastian Atitis-Snake. Men who have killed - and hanged for it. Atitis-Snake was found guilty on the same day that you were, I believe.’

‘So he told me.’

‘He was the man who claimed to be the Emperor Napoleon?’

‘He was.’

‘Tell us his story, as well as your own.’ Quilp poured out more wine. ’Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Goal - by Sebastian Melmoth. There’s a book we can sell around the world. Readers want murder.’

Melmoth put out his hand and with his forefinger lightly touched Quilp’s pen. ’And I want money. I admit it. I need money. I have none of my own - none at all. I am dependent on the generosity of friends - and the kindness of strangers. And on a small allowance from my dear wife - which she threatens to withdraw if she does not approve of the company I keep. I am in urgent need of funds. And I take it, Dr Quilp, that you are, too. The suit that you are wearing is new, I notice - and from an excellent tailor. The fragrance that you are wearing is a particular favourite of mine - and costly.’

‘Tell me your story - tell me of the murderers you have known -and we shall be as rich as Croesus.’

‘I only wish to be as rich as Conan Doyle.’

‘He is paid a pound a word - and his murderers are creatures of fancy. Yours are real. Tell me your story, Mr Melmoth. Begin at the beginning. Tell it all - spare me no detail - and we shall have Perrier-Jouët night after night.’

What follows is the story that he told . . .

Copyright © 2012 by Gyles Brandreth