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.
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