I hope you will enjoy this first interview on the topic of my new book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons. In it, I talk about the discovery of letters from Lord Alfred Douglas to his “Darling Pretty” Maurice Schwabe, Schwabe’s long-hidden role in Wilde’s downfall, Schwabe’s life of espionage and crime and the murder that was probably carried out by one of Schwabe’s closest associates, a man who frequently stayed in Schwabe’s flat and participated in some of the notorious sex parties that took place there.
A couple of things to mention, I am fairly certain based on misspellings and also consulting with a Schwabe family researcher that the correct pronunciation of my protagonist’s name was Morris Schwah-beh. Maurice is more commonly pronounced the French way as Mor-eec in America, and for a long time he was Mor-eec in my head. You’ll hear me slip up and use that pronunciation a few times. Also I said that there were three Schwabe sons, and then I name 4 people. What I meant was that Maurice had three brothers. Still getting the kinks worked out. Hopefully there will be so much demand that I become old hat at this. In the meantime, I hope you find this discussion of the life of Maurice Schwabe to be of interest.
In this clip Matt Baume delves into the history of the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope,” which was based on the real-life Leopold and Loeb muirders.
What particularly caught my interest was the description of the miscast Jimmy Stewart as “the Oscar Wilde character,” Rupert. The stage play, on which the film was based, was set in London. The film changed the setting to New York. Rupert was an aesthetic professor who introduces his protogees, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, to Nitetzsche’s philosophical notion of the Superman. Two of Rupert’s students were especially taken with the idea that some people are superior to others and that murder is, therefore, justified. For Rupert, the theory is a thought exercise, a bit of mental play. The students, however, decide to take the theory to what they believe is its logical conclusion. They kill a fellow student believing Rupert will be impressed by their work of art.
This led me to reflect on whether, and how much, art imitated life when it came to Oscar Wilde and his artistic fascination with criminality. Could Wilde’s theories have served as a justification for real world crimes, in particular crimes by one young member of the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe. Schwabe went on to be a major player (perhaps even ring leader) in a circle of international confidence tricksters who were suspected in at least one murder.
A number of young artists described encounters in which Wilde encouraged them to, at least imaginatively, throw off social convention and embrace a thrilling lawlessness. In 1891, Wilde met Adre Gide during a trip to Paris in which he wrote most of his play Salome. Gide described being almost overwhelmed by the “radiant” Wilde. Gide denied that Wilde tried to seduce him physically. (If he had, there would be no record as the pages for the months of November and December were torn out of Gide’s 1891 journal.)
Wilde, Gide wrote, was “always trying to instill in you a sanction for evil.” He preached the virtues of experiencing every form of vice. “I don’t like your lips,” he told Gide, “they are straight like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so that your lips may become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.”
Gide wrote to his friend Paul Valery, “Wilde is religiously contriving to kill what is left of my soul, because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it.”
After Wilde had gone he wrote in his journal, “I think that Wilde did me nothing but harm. In his company I had forgotten how to think. I had more varied emotions, but could no longer get them in order.”
Lord Alfred Douglas wrote in his Autobiography:
Even before I met Wilde I had persuaded myself that “sins of the flesh” were not wrong, and my opinion was of course vastly strengthened and confirmed by his brilliantly reasoned defence of them, which may be said almost to have been the gospel of his life. He went through life preaching the gospel which he puts into the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton in Dorian Gray. Wilde was, in fact, a most powerful and convincing heresiarch. He preached that it was the duty of every man to “live his own life to the utmost,” to “be always seeking for new sensations,” and to have what he called ” the courage ” to commit “what are called sins.”
I am trying to be fair to Wilde and not to make him responsible for “corrupting” me more than he did. All the same, I must say that it strikes me now that the difference between us was this: that I was at that time a frank and natural pagan, and that he was a man who believed in sin and yet deliberately committed it, thereby obtaining a doubly perverse pleasure. I was a boy and he was a blasé and very intellectual and brilliant man who had immense experience of life. Inevitably I assimilated his views to a great extent.
Of course, the crime that Gide and Douglas were discussing here was something that is no longer illegal in this part of the world– sexual expression between men. But Wilde’s fascination with crime went beyond “gross indecency.”
As a young man Wilde had kept a notebook with clippings on the poet Thomas Chatterton who had composed poems he claimed were the works of a 15th-century Bristol monk, but which were his own fictional creation. Wilde believed his forgery “came from the desire of artistic self-effacement.” Thus, it was a perfect example of art for art’s sake.
Douglas, in 1895, told the French reporter George Ducquois that Wilde “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”
Wilde certainly discussed his artistic fascination with lying and forgery with Robert Ross, and those conversations inspired works by both Wilde and Ross. (Wilde’s The Decay of Lying and The Portrait of W.H. were more enduring than Ross’s efforts.) It is not hard to imagine that Wilde discussed crime and its aesthetic qualities with a young and impressionable Maurice Schwabe as well.
We know Schwabe was still friendly with Wilde after his release from prison because he was the recipient of a gift. Leonard Smithers published a special deluxe edition of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1899. This edition was limited to twelve copies, which were distributed to Wilde’s closest friends. Schwabe had an autographed copy. It is not clear when and where Schwabe connected with his friends, but he was a constant world traveler so little can be ruled out. Schwabe had family connections to Naples, where Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas briefly lived together.
There is an intriguing anecdote that hints at the idea that Maurice Schwabe, by then a master card sharp, could have used his skill to help his friend Lord Alfred Douglas out of some financial difficulties. When Masolino D’Amioco was researching Douglas and Wilde’s time together in Naples he came across an interview with the descendants of Villa del Giudice where they lived. It was later called Villa Douglas. The family claimed that the original owner had lost the property to Douglas in a game of cards “the five of diamonds being the instrument of Fate.” D’Amico, however, rejected this story as “fanciful” noting that we have every reason to believe Wilde and Douglas had a hard time paying the rent.
The Italian writer Aronoldo De Lisle who knew Wilde in this period said that he was drawn to “studies of the underworld, feeling attracted to it by an irresistible force.” Wilde suggested that De Lisle write a novel about someone who, finding himself in prison for a trifling offence found himself envying the prisoners who had much more colourful stories to tell. “…he feels humiliated having only a very small crime to his credit. So, such was the power of the seduction of crime upon him that, so that he would be able to talk about himself, he gets up one night and strangles the most feared member of the Camorra.” Perhaps Schwabe, too, condemned to be a criminal by his sexuality, was driven to become a more dangerous class of criminal. Gerald Hamilton embraced a life of crime with Schwabe and his associates and cultivated an image of himself as one of the wickedest men in the world, in part to cover for the embarrassment of being jailed for gross indecency.
One of Wilde’s most notorious associations in his post-prison years was with Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy who allowed Alfred Dreyfus take the blame for his treason in the scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy was thrillingly immoral, like Dorian Gray who killed to experience the sensation, or Salome, who asked for the head of John the Baptist on plate.
In one of their dinners together, Wilde told Esterhazy that he should not feel guilty about condemning an innocent man to the horrors of a prison colony because “the innocent always suffer…Besides, we are all innocent until we are found out. It is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”
The idea that criminals are those who have been caught is something Wilde had been pondering since he was at Oxford. Plato’s myth of the Ring of Gyes, which Oscar read in the Republic, asks whether a person would still be moral if there were no consequences to his actions. In the myth the shepherd Gyges is caught in an earthquake that opens a chasm in the field where he attends his flock. He descends into the chasm and finds a dead body with a gold ring on its hand. He takes the ring and discovers it has the power to render him invisible. Unseen, he seduces the king’s wife, murders him and takes posession of the kingdom. The moral of this tale is related by Plato’s character Glaucon, “those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice” and “every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.”
This view of human nature is echoed in Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol.
So with curious eyes and sick surmise We watched him day by day, And wondered if each one of us Would end the self-same way, For none can tell to what red Hell His sightless soul may stray.
Esterhazy was impressed by this argument and he stood up in the restaurant and said, “Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is is, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I put Dreyfus in prison and all France cannot get him out.”
The interactions with Esterhazy seemed to have rekindled something in Wilde’s imagination, although he did not live long enough to bring his new ideas to fruition. Wilde spent his later days attending the trial of a couple who had murdered a debt collector and his nights at The Kalasaya, “a bar with sodomist outcasts who were sometimes even dangerous in other ways.”
Meeting with the young writer Wilfred Chesson around this time, Wilde said that his “work was all in his head.” He told Chesson “I do not doubt that there are as wonderful things in my future as there are in my past.” He spoke about a drama about a murder staged in a theatre frequented by criminals, described an execution by guillotine he claimed to have witnessed, and contemplated the morgue. He asked, “Have you ever noticed a thief’s hands? How beautiful they are? How fine and delicate the tips? They must be fine and delicate to take the watch from your pocket without your knowing.”
For Wilde, examining the dark side of humanity was an artistic and intellectual exercise. In the same pleasant afternoon with Chesson, the writers discussed art and artists in literate depth. They talked about religion and Wilde’s attraction to Christianity. Chesson witnessed the writer’s warm relationship with local children and Oscar mesmerized him with stories and parables. Wilde was curious and playful with ideas, never holding on to one for long.
Did others take his ideas more seriously then he ever did himself? Was Wilde the Rupert to Maurice Schwabe’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan? Unfortunately, because Schwabe left few first-hand accounts, his motivations and how much Wilde influenced them will likely never be known. You can learn more about his actions, however, in the book Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, now available in paperback and Kindle format.
It is easy enough to get elected to the House if you can figure out what the voters in a district already want and become that. This seems to be the moral of the story of George Santos, the newly elected Republican House member who has recently been exposed for fabricating most of his biography.
Writing in The Atlantic, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel said that the voters in the district say they value integrity “But they weren’t on the lookout for a huckster politician.” The dirty little secret that hucksters of all stripes exploit is that no one is on the lookout for the huckster. There are not enough hours in the day for us to question and research every biographical claim made by everyone we meet. These days, with hollowed out newsrooms, there are also fewer professionals out there to do that work for us.
Generally, most people who adopt false identities work alone. What was unique about the team of swindlers I wrote about in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons is that they banded together in an organized syndicate. Not all of the card sharps in the group adopted false titles of nobility, a few already had them. But the members of the group encouraged and assisted people like professor’s son Bela Klimm to become Count Adalbert de la Ramee.
The rules of the game were that you did not swindle members of the organization. Loyalty to the group mattered, but when it came to the outside world, true and false, right and wrong were not valued. What mattered was whether the stories they told were effective or ineffective. Member Montague Noel Newton had developed his own philosophy inspired by Darwin’s concept of survival of the fittest. He divided the world into two camps, fools and adventurers. If you were not one, he believed, you were the other.
George Santos appears to have come up with his false biography on his own. Yet he had some reason to believe he would not be punished for it in the culture he inhabited. He was a member of a political party that had become used to making up excuses for a president that changed the path of a hurricane with a sharpie, was clearly not joking when he suggested drinking bleach to cure COVID and described his phone call with President Zalensky as “perfect.” By the time Santos was running in the midterms it had become a litmus test for many in his party to take it as an article of faith that the 2020 election was stolen. Santos was simply a better liar than Herschel Walker, whose clumsy, repeated claims of having worked with law enforcement were mostly laughed off as an odd quirk.
One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.
Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.
A member of the group of card sharps, Montague Noel Newton said, “I did not say I was an honest man. I wish to God I could. I said I was honest with my friends.” Honor, in his culture, was to be aligned with his group, to be loyal and committed to his tribe. The question in the Santos case is whether his professional community, his political party, decides that his falsehoods dishonor him enough to be expelled, or whether lying to advance the power of the tribe is the type of group loyalty that keeps him sufficiently “honorable” to stay.
Imagine two of the world’s most notorious swindlers in the middle of dry country in Kansas, singing Christian hymns accompanied by their author on an organ. Indeed, this happened. Rudolf Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig and Maurice Salis-Schwabe traveled across America as part of a group of potential railroad investors. Their plan was to use the rail journey to tempt their rich companions to drink, gamble and reveal the type of secrets that could be financially leveraged.
Unfortunately, they had not counted on America’s Puritan streak. Their host, A. E. Stilwell was a teetotaler and devout Christian Scientist who enjoyed writing hymns in his spare time. Once his investors were on the train, Stilwell handed out hymnals, and soon the rhythmic click and clack of the rails was joined by the soaring notes of the pipes. The visitors were invited to turn to the appropriate page and join in singing “Bethlehem Babe,” one of Stilwell’s creations.
And so two of Europe’s most notorious swindlers stood, hymnals in hand, rocking to the rhythm of the rails, intoning this reverent chorus:
This Bethlehem Babe, of humble birth, Became our saviour dear; Where’er He went upon the earth He banished pain and fear. He stilled the waves and walked the sea, The multitude was fed, Obedient to His high decree The grave gave up its dead.
Stallmann and Schwabe were not the only businessmen surprised by Stilwell’s religiosity. Author Henry Baerlein observed, “…it is delicious when those corpulent old gentlemen take from their mouths the fat cigars and warble. Sometimes one of them at the conclusion of a hymn, or even prematurely, a verse, will have financial doubts as to the railways.”
The trip was not an entire bust. Schwabe and Stallmann appeared to have pulled off some political intrigue in Mexico during their North American adventure. The whole story is told in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author. (When you buy directly from me, you get a signed copy and I get to keep more of the profits. Thanks for your support.)
Researching the confidence tricksters and spies in Maurice Schwabe’s orbit required extreme patience and a lot of record keeping. I had my own version of those boards in the crime films where the cops post photos of suspects and tie them together with pieces of yarn. I created dossiers in a program called Scrivener listing each character’s aliases, physical traits and a timeline of everything I knew about them. You never knew what detail would later become significant. (And which would turn out to be a lot of noise.) Even now, I am sure there are details in my files the significance of which have yet to be revealed.
One of the big mysteries that was never fully revealed what the question of Maurice’s brothers. Criminals and the police who investigated them spoke of the criminal “Schwabe brothers,” or “the homosexual Schwabe brothers.” Some of the detectives who studied the group suspected that the Schwabes were the center of the operation. The problem is, Maurice had three brothers. Which brother or brothers conspired with Maurice? I was never able to pin it down definitively, but there are quite a few clues.
In order to try to answer this question, I spent a lot of time trying to track the movements of the Schwabe brothers. One early source that seemed to offer little of value was the correspondence of Eleanor Pray, an American who lived in Vladivostok, Russia when Edgar Schwabe was the commercial agent there. Geoffrey Schwabe was also there working with his brother. The letters had a few mentions of Schwabe, a bit of color about the region, but nothing that jumped out at me.
Later some Japanese documents came to me. A few of the letters were in English but most of the file was in Japanese. Not only was it in Japanese, it was in an old formal script that most Japanese people can no longer read. It took some time to find someone who could tell me what the file said. It clearly showed, however, that Edgar Schwabe, with his brother’s assistance, offered the Japanese plans for the harbor and neighborhoods of Vladivostok with all the forts and their elevations, drawn to scale, a map of the route to be taken by the Russian army with a book giving all the details of the villages and rivers on the route, and a plan of all the of forts and barracks at Harrasbach. In the end, the Japanese did buy secrets from Schwabe.
On the evening of February 8, 1904, the Japanese launched one of the most successful surprise attacks in history against the Russian port of Port Arthur. It was not until I decided to go back to Pray’s correspondence that I realized the attack had been no surprise to Edgar. Pray recorded that she had been visited by Edgar on February 7 at noon. Edgar told Pray and her husband that war was about to be declared, either that night or the following day, “… so we should plan accordingly,” Eleanor Pray wrote home. “Servants are all leaving tomorrow morning and I shall send this letter on that boat.”
If you have an interest in pre-World War I espionage, you will find more in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author. (When you buy directly from me, you get a signed copy and I get to keep more of the profits. Thanks for your support.)
Researching Wilde Nights & Robber Barons gave me the opportunity to play historic detective. Now that the book is available, I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you.
This image of Fred Atkins
Fred Atkins was a young sex worker who had a close relationship with Maurice Schwabe. Rupert Croft-Cooke said that Schwabe and Atkins had been “practically living together” for some months in 1892 when Atkins became acquainted with Oscar Wilde. “Freddy does not seem to have regarded Schwabe as a prospect, but rather as a friend, even a collaborator,” Croft-Cooke wrote. Atkins and Schwabe met around the same time Schwabe became part of the Oscar Wilde circle. Before he met Schwabe, Atkins worked with a 50 year-old bookmaker named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Atkins would go to a pick-up spot and get someone to take him to a hotel. Burton would give them enough time to have sex, at which point Burton, claiming to be the boy’s uncle, would barge in and demand money for the victim’s silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.” Atkins and Burton are often described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had. Atkins was born in Otterbourne, Hampshire in 1874, the fifth of nine children of a railway guard. He had been sent to work for Burton fourteen years before the Wilde trials. This would have been in 1881 when Atkins was seven years old. Fred had a break with Burton just before he met Schwabe. Schwabe arranged for Oscar Wilde to travel to Paris with Fred, and joined his friends there. After Schwabe left for Australia, Atkins went back to blackmailing men with Burton. In 1895, Atkins signed with a new music hall agent, and Boxing World ran a small feature naming Fred Denny a vocalist “of considerable promise… he has appeared and secured engagements at the leading London halls for some years to come, and being merely a youth, he has every prospect of having an enviable career before him.” His promising career was cut short, however, when a police detective knocked on his door asking him questions about Oscar Wilde. Atkins was compelled to testify in Wilde’s first criminal trial. He lied about some of his criminal past on the stand. According to Montgomery Hyde, Fred Atkins was sent to jail for perjury after the Wilde case and the name Fred Denny disappeared from the music hall notices.
Montague Noel Newton, one of the members of Maurice Schwabe’s team of card sharps, came close to being cast in one of Wilde’s plays.
When asked about his family, Montague Noel Newton did not care to talk about his parents. The only family member he mentioned was a favorite aunt. His father’s sister, Henrietta was a wealthy patron of the arts, connected to almost everyone in the world of the London stage. Madame Gabrielli, her married name, was infatuated with OscarWilde’s brother, Willie Wilde. Two of Gabrielli’s closest theatrical friends were the actor-manager Charles Wyndham and his future wife, actress Mary Moore. Wyndham and Moore supported Gabrielli in her final illness, visiting her regularly. Newton was disappointed that when his aunt died in 1899, she left nothing to him. Instead, the bulk of her large estate went to the actors. Wyndham, Newton said, was good enough to give him the family portraits, but that was all he ever received. Beerbohm Tree thought Madame Gabrielli’s nephew n had charisma and invited him to take a non-speaking role as a guardsman for the Roman soldiers in “Hypatia,” which was to open the 1893 season at the Haymarket Theater. “It felt frightfully important just walking on,” Newton said. After “Hypatia” wrapped, Tree offered him an opportunity to take a speaking role in his next production, but Newton had too much stage fright to accept. Had Newton accepted a part in Tree’s next production, he would have acted in the new comedy by Oscar Wilde, “A Woman of No Importance.”
Gerald Hamilton’s True Past
One of Maurice Schwabe’s business partners was Gerald Hamilton, who would become the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris. Hamilton was a lifelong fabulist. Hamilton would claim that in 1913 he met Roger Casement who was in Berlin seeking support from Germany for the Irish cause. Gerald said he asked to become a member of Sin Fein, he became friends with Casement, and implied there might even have been more to the relationship. Hamilton would later attribute all of his problems with the law to his political activism with the revolutionary Irishman. This fact became a major part of Hamilton’s biography, but it was an elaborate lie. Hamilton did not know Casement. He probably never met Rasputin, another of his frequent tales. In reality, Hamilton, under his birth name, Souter, was hounded by a reporter for John Bull. The paper had learned of parties that combined alternative sexuality and occult practices inspired by Alesair Crowley (Hamilton would later share a flat in Berlin with Crowley). The publicity forced Hamilton and his friends to flee the country. Hamilton was later arrested for gross indecency with British soldiers. Brian Desmond Hurst, a film maker who knew Hamilton later in life, suspected that much of Hamilton’s bravado disguised the fact that he had “suffered terribly” and had been “greatly humiliated” in prison. In the company of confidence tricksters, Hamilton was able to reinvent himself whenever he liked.
A century before there was the Tinder Swindler, Ana Delvy or Elizabeth Holmes there was Baron von Koenig, and Count Adalbert de la Ramee and Maurice Schwabe. The period in which they operated was considered to be the golden age of the con. These figures, like their modern counterparts, made use of the fact that we are easily seduced by the trappings of success.
To the right is Rudolf Stallmann. Although he hailed from a respectable, upper middle-class family he wanted a life of glamor and adventure and decided that he would claim an aristocratic title. He became Baron von Koenig. He loved the excitement of posing. He was attracted to crime and espionage “like a drug.”
People like Stallmann realized that their marks would play along with the game because they enjoyed the status that came with being associated with gentlemen who were clearly powerful, rich and well-connected. Explanations were rarely needed, but when they were, a bit of confidence and bravado went a long way.
“An atmosphere is created by innuendo and suggestion,” said trickster Montague Noel Newton. “I never say I am a man of means, I just play the part.”
This was true when it came to getting a first class cabin on a ship on credit or when it came to seducing wealthy women– a specialty of Bela Klimm aka Count Adalbert de la Ramee, or selling a dubious business ventures, something at which Maurice Schwabe excelled.
Just as Elizabeth Holmes marketed herself more than the technology her company intended to make, men like Schwabe sold their own personalities and connections. Schwabe and Holmes both relied on “the social proof heuristic,” a fancy way of saying that when you see prominent people investing in something, you assume that it is a project you want to get involved in. Schwabe sought respected military men and people with aristocratic titles (even appropriated ones) to put their names down as investors.
In the Edwardian era, businesses were increasingly impersonal, complex and national– even international– in scope. Without personal relationships, investors relied on cues like persuasive advertisements, or aristocratic names on a slate of investors to assess the trustworthiness of an enterprise. It was hard for the public to even recognize a white-collar criminal. In the cultural imagination a “criminal” came from the “dangerous classes.” A man with a walking stick and a valet was given the benefit of the doubt, even when his financial scheme lost money for its investors. It was easy enough to chalk it up to bad luck.
In the 1937 book The Criminals We Deserve, criminologist Henry Rhodes reflected on the relationship between crime and society. “The criminal and his crimes are social phenomena,” he said. He argued that the “kind of crime committed at any particular stage of social development is an index of the social phase… Show me your crimes, and I will show you the nature of your society.”
Rhodes argued that this sort of crime appears when “The capacity to appreciate and desire better conditions is instilled without there being adequate machinery to satisfy those desires.”
The age in which Schwabe and his conspirators operated was a golden age of the confidence trickster. Perhaps rising inequality has brought us to another age of the imposter. In the Victorian era only a lucky few possessed titles of nobility. Today, when the top 1% of earners own more than the entire middle class, there is a similar temptation to use lies and cunning to claim a place among the elect.
This explains their existence, but not our fascination with them. Why do false barons traveling on ocean liners, scamming heirs to fortunes, seem glamorous to us? What, besides Matt Bomer’s insane good looks, drove audiences to follow the adventures of Neal Caffrey for six seasons? The series Suits, about a college drop out who brazened his way into a job at a top law firm ran for 9. Why did Catch Me if You Can make $352.1 million at the box office?
Incidentally, a recent podcast, Pretend, provides evidence that Frank Abagnale, the man portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film, made up the adventures that his autobiography and the film dramatize. Abagnale could not have posed as a lawyer, doctor and college professor because he was in jail when these events supposedly happened.
Similarly, Maurice Schwabe’s business partner Gerald Hamilton became an anti-hero in his later years. Author Christopher Isherwood based the character of Mr. Norris from his Berlin Stories on Hamilton. Hamilton crafted his own back story. Supposedly he had spent time with Rasputin in Russia and went to prison because of political intrigue with Roger Casement. Hamilton even seemed to suggest there might have been something more between him and Casement. In fact, he never met him. The records show that Hamilton invented a romantic past to cover for his great embarrassment, being sent to jail for “gross indecency” with British soldiers.
The aforementioned Montague Noel Newton also turned his criminality into a relatively lucrative career as a writer and speaker for a time. He published his “Confessions,” which were a mixture of fact and fiction. Many of the stories in it were daring crimes that people in his orbit, but not himself, had carried out.
Hamilton and Newton were not apologetic about their crimes. Modern main-stream entertainment cleanses the story of the criminals it glamorizes by one of two methods. In the biographical films on Anna Delvy and Elizabeth Holmes, the story focuses on how they were ultimately brought to justice. In Suits, White Collar and Catch Me If You Can, the frauds are reformed and using their talents for the good guys or they are using their position to do good in the world.
Dr Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University told the BBC, “There’s still the idea that they’re a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal,” he says, adding that many films, like the Ocean’s Eleven adaptations, portray the con artist as “a rogue stealing from someone who deserves it.”
There are many theories as to why we are fascinated by confidence tricksters. The Conversation posits the con “fills us with a mix of surprise at their audacity –and glee and relief that it didn’t happen to us.” I believe it is something else. Confidence tricksters’ refusal to accept normal societal limitations shines a light on how flimsy are the signifiers that separate the rich from the poor, the glamorous from the plain, the envied from the ordinary. By following the stories of those who break the rules, we have an opportunity to imagine revolting against those boundaries ourselves, inventing our own high-status identities, and through cunning, getting away with it.
In writing Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, however, whenever I found myself falling into the trap of admiring the con artists’ audacity, something would come up to remind me of the cost, people whose lives were shattered by their encounters with these criminals. Rudolf Stallmann, for example, was physically abusive to his girlfriend, whose small savings he had taken. After forcing her to support them both by selling sex, Stallmann took on the identity of a baron and abandoned the lady with the statement that it was ridiculous that someone of her lowly station would be engaged to an aristocrat like him. Successful cons have not only cleverness but a lack of conscience.
If you are fascinated by those who put on poses and commit crimes, I invite you to read about where it all began with the confidence tricksters of the last century. Available now. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author.
In 2011, a pair of letters was discovered in a previously uncatalogued archive in Sydney, Australia. They were passionate and uncensored declarations of love from one young man to another. The writer referred to the recipient as his “darling pretty.” He talked about how much he missed him and imagined sending “millions of kisses all over your beautiful body.” He signed off “from your loving boy-wife.”
The letters were addressed to a young man named Maurice Salis-Schwabe. Of much greater interest was who they came from– Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known to his intimates as Bosie.
Until the discovery of the letters, Schwabe had been an obscure figure in the Oscar Wilde story. Although he introduced Wilde to his co-defendant Alfred Taylor, and was, himself, accused of having sexual relations with Wilde, his name was initially concealed, written on a piece of paper instead of being spoken in open court. The testimony made clear, however, that the mysterious “gentleman on the paper” was a catalyst for much of what followed. After Wilde’s first criminal trial ended in a hung jury, the decision of whether or not to re-try him fell on one man, Maurice Schwabe’s uncle, Solicitor General Frank Lockwood. Douglas wrote an article suggesting that this pointed to a cover up, and yet he and Schwabe remained close until Schwabe’s death.
But this is just the beginning of Schwabe’s story. In the early 20th Century, Schwabe hosted all-male sex parties for an aristocratic clientele, all the while collecting scandalous secrets that insulated him from prosecution. He spied and cheated on several continents as part of an organized crime syndicate of well-dressed, elegant men. The gang made their living traveling around the world on luxury ships, cheating at cards, selling shares in dubious business enterprises, seducing for profit and collecting secrets to be used for blackmail and espionage. They were even suspected of at least one murder. The colorful characters in Schwabe’s orbit were so grand that they seem to have been ripped from the pages of fiction, but it is all true. Hidden for a century in police files, business documents, letters and and articles in many languages scattered in archives in multiple continents, Maurice Schwabe’s story can finally be told.
Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. So I thought I would share a few snippets found in the archive.
Maurice Salis-Schwabe’s mother, Mary, was an associate of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and wrote articles on fire walking and the psychic visions of her maid. The visions were usually of Mary’s children and her reports, along with confirmation from the children of their accuracy at times provided insight in my research as to where the Schwabe siblings were and what they were doing. Maurice’s grandparents Salis and Julia Schwabe appear in the journals in a description of a hypnotism party they held with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.
A correspondent of Truth—‘‘ Whats in a name?” asks Juliet—writes that the ladies at a Psychical Research meeting “seemed to be in that semi-dazed state which is half-way between hysteria and lunacy,” and the men ‘‘ more or less in tho same condition as the weaker vessels.” Then, why weaker? ‘‘ The only celebrity present was Oscar Wilde ”—-as if that would account for the condition alike of the men and women. If there are men capable of writing such stuff to newspapers, we must still wonder that there are editors stupid enough to print it.
The archives reveal a seemingly endless desire for conversations with the dead poet. Tales of Wilde speaking through seances and Ouija boards abound. There were even tales of Oscar’s ghost wandering among us, like this one published in The Light in 1935.
And finally, as promised, O.L. Holland sent this letter to The Light in 1938 describing a spiritual encounter with his sister just before her death.
One of the surprising discoveries is a 1937 article by Catholic convert Lord Alfred Douglas in a publication called Modern Mystic.
“Lord Alfred Douglas, who contributes an article to this issue,” wrote the editor, “is perhaps the finest living poet in the sonnet form. Some of his work is being set to music by Havergal Brian, a composer whose real stature is by no means fully appraised. The work is being scored on Brian’s usual massive lines; an orchestra of Berliozian proportions and full chorus. The same composers Gothic symphony, the last movement of which is a magnificent setting of the Te Deum, has not yet been heard. The cost of the unusually large orchestra and chorus would be prohibitive, although many attempts by America’s leading conductors to secure a performance of the work have been made.”
The story that Douglas relates in his article “A Daniel Come to Judgment” is familiar. He recounted an episode of what he considered divine intervention in his feud with Robert Ross in his Autobiography. Douglas, searching for evidence to back him his claim that Ross was “a sodomite” had gone to meet a man who claimed something had happened between Ross and his son. As I summed up the episode in Oscar’s Ghost:
The account in Douglas’s Autobiography embellishes a rather ordinary episode of showing up at the wrong door with prayers to St. Anthony of Padua and an angelic child appearing to guide him to the right address. He believed it to be “a supernatural experience…mysterious and wonderful.” The boy “had an angelic face and smile. And how did he disappear inn the space of time, a few seconds, between when I let go of his hand and when I looked round again?”
In retrospect this is, perhaps, a bit of a flip way to describe what seems to have been a meaningful experience for him, one he sincerely believed was mystical even if its effect was the ability to gather ammunition in an ongoing feud that was not a stellar example of Christian forgiveness.
The Modern Mystic article was written eight years after the Autobiography. The tone it takes towards the feud with Ross, who at this point had been dead for nearly 20 years, is relatively subdued. This may have been an editorial decision on the part of the publication rather than a reflection of Douglas’s own attitudes towards Ross.
“I will not mention the name of the man whom I libelled (he has been dead for more than fifteen years),” he wrote, “nor will I give any details as to the nature of the accusations I had made against him, in self-defence, and in the last desperate resort, to protect myself against a cruel enemy in a life-and-death struggle in which he was the aggressor and the chooser of the weapons employed.”
Douglas alludes to an argument he was having in print regarding Oscar Wilde’s work, although he refrains from naming the playwright.
I have recently been engaged in a newspaper controversy with a certain dramatic critic who differed with me over the merits or demerits of a play. I admired the play and he did not admire it, and in fact scoffed at it, although it had stood the test of triumphant production and several revivals, and was written by a man whose name is celebrated all over the world as a dramatist and a poet, and who, if he were alive to-day (he has been dead for nearly forty years), would only have to write a new play to find a dozen London managers or producers anxious and eager to compete for the privilege of producing it and paying the highest price for that privilege.
The dramatic critic in question complained that the play (a comedy) which I admired was “melodramatic.” Well, I have found in my own experience, and to my cost sometimes, that Life, of which a play is, or ought to be, the mirror, is melodramatic. The history of my own life is quite as fantastic and melodramatic as any novel by Balzac, and if it had been turned into a novel or a play it would no doubt have been condemned as wildly absurd and improbable by the type of critic who judges the worth of a work of art in literature (poem, play, or novel) by its relation to his own workaday experiences and limited imagination.
In this period the medium Hester Traverse Smith’s supposed conversations with Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave were a constant subject of discussion, and the spiritualist journals were full of accounts from her and others who claimed to be in communication with the dead poet. (The first thing Oscar supposedly said to Traverse Smith was “Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.”) The same issue of Modern Mystic contained an article by Robert Sherard debunking these communications and at the same time revealing many of his impressions of his friend and of the crime for which he was convicted.
But who that knew anything about Wilde could imagine him asking for pity ? The most extreme superbia, bordering almost on arrogance, was one of his strongest characteristics. Dr. Fodor, I see, quotes from the first script the words “Pity Oscar Wilde” as having been said by the man himself…
I was very glad to see that Dr. Nandor Fodor nowhere quotes from the Psychic Messages the passages in which Oscar Wilde speaks of himself as a criminal. He had never any sense of doing wrong in what he did, and for which he was punished. This is one of the characteristics of the dementia from which many homosexualists suffer. Sir (later Mr.) Roger Casement is a case in point, as also that unfortunate Stuart Mason, one of the most scholarly of men and a worker if ever there was one. Neither of these two men had any idea that they were criminals as the world sees them. They kept careful diaries of their horrible performances. Roger Casement’s diary helped to send him to the gallows, and Stuart Mason’s to prison on more than one occasion. Wilde certainly had no idea he was doing wrong or had done wrong. This is why I have always represented him as irresponsible and therefore free from criminality. On the first night of his third trial I was with him in Oakley Street and he was telling me that what was most painful to him during that painful day was seeing the gang of witnesses whom the prosecution had collected against him. He said: “And they jeered at me when they saw me, but I never did them any harm. I never tried to be anything but kind to them.” And really at that moment his eyes were dimmed with tears. He imagined that his extraordinary love for these boys was nothing but a sisterly or motherly affection, It was the most complete case of biological introversion. The apologetic and whining admissions of criminality which stud the pages of Psychic Messages are as obviously inauthentic as the alleged “ confessions” which Frank Harris professes to have received from Oscar’s own lips on earth…
Sherard did not entirely discount the idea of psychic communication. In fact, what seemed to bother him most about Traverse Smith’s book was plagiarism. Sherard had published his own account of posthumous communication with Wilde’s spirit, an episode involving Andre Gide, in his own book.
“This account, which I gave in my book, The Real Oscar Wilde, seems vaguely to have inspired the automatist or the ouija board in some of the remarks passed through them by Wilde to the world at Mrs. Travers Smith’s séances, though the lady declares that although she knew the book she had not read the passages which I fancy have inspired her subconsciousness.”
Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Sherard were not the only members of Oscar Wilde’s circle to be featured in the pages of spiritualist publications. Next time I’ll report on a few more gems from the occult publications, including a report from O.L. Holland of a vision he had of his sister, Mrs. Oscar Wilde, just before her death.