In November 1912, a reporter for John Bull arrived at a flat on 18 Pelham Street in London. He had received a tip that a party of a scandalous character was to take place there. The motives of John Bull‘s publisher, Horatio Bottomley, went beyond journalistic curiosity. Like many publishers of the day, Bottomley leveraged the power of his publication, charging the well-to-do a fee to insert favorable stories and pressuring others to pay to keep ruinous revelations under wraps.
At the time, the poet and occultist Alesiter Crowley was starting to get attention for staging mystic ceremonies called the “Rites of Eleusis,” which a number of popular newspapers sent journalists to review. A magazine called The Bystander printed photos of one of Crowley’s ceremonies. Another magazine, The Sketch, described a room transformed into an incense-scented temple to the Greek gods, where participants in black robes performed rituals with swords. The Sketch found it “weird and impressive.” They printed a full-page illustration of a ritual ceremony.
John Bull found the Rites of Eleusis troubling and they had received a tip that something even more perverse was happening on Pelham Street. The Rites of Eleusis involved ladies and gentlemen, these parties involved only men, men who worshiped Oscar Wilde as a fallen martyr and who combined occult practices with eroticism of an unmentionable kind. Many of the young men who attended were part of the circle of Bohemian artists who revolved around Robert Ross including the son of a wealthy international merchant. Gerald Souter had just come of age and inherited a fortune and was quickly befriended by Maurice Schwabe. It is highly unlikely that these two events, and Souter falling into a blackmail trap were entirely unrelated.
The reporter described what he saw. Guests would enter on the ground floor to a room decorated entirely in mauve. All of the curtains, the wallpaper and the decorations were mauve. There was a hanging incense burner, suspended from a figure of Christ with outstretched arms. A photograph of Oscar Wilde, which one observer described as “life sized” stood on a desk near a bookcase. There were also nude figures, both male and female. Up a narrow flight of stairs was the centerpiece of the flat, two adjoining rooms decorated entirely in black from the wallpaper, to the curtains to the lampshades. The furniture also was upholstered entirely in black. There was another hanging incense burner, also suspended from a statue of Christ. On the black-draped mantelpiece there was another photo of Oscar Wilde, this one encircled by plaster angels posed as if in supplication. In front of this was a low settee in black velvet. There were several mirrors, which reached from the floor to the ceiling, supported on each side by female figures in flowing muslin. Another “striking object” in the center of the room was a statue of a nude Black man. More striking still was the black coffin, lined in velvet, in which were laid a human skull and a figure of Christ.
The reporter was, to put it in modern terms, freaked out. “I hastily made my way into the street, nearly knocking over two effeminate young men who were at the door.”
The resulting article named one of the guests at the party, a baronet named Sir Frederick Williams. The article concluded that it was not necessary to comment on Sir Frederick Williams’ abnormal tastes. “Nor do we to-day say anything about the character of his associates.” The word “to-day” would not have gone unnoticed by any of the guests at the ball, suggesting, as it did, that further articles on the associates would be forthcoming. It is highly probable that someone with ties back to Maurice Schwabe was offering to help young Gerald from being named for a sizeable fee. He must not have paid, for John Bull went on to name him and continued to harass him and Williams even after they fled to the continent.
Gerald Souter would try to escape scrutiny by changing his name to Gerald Hamilton. Following the exposure of the goings-on at the Pelham Street Flat, Hamilton started to do business with Maurice Schwabe and his criminal associate Rudolf Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig.Having been thus roped in, Hamilton became a valuable member of the criminal organization.
Hamilton’s sexuality had made him vulnerable to bullying in school, to disapproval from his father, and then to blackmail and abuse. He was arrested twice, first for gross indecency after being caught in a compromising position with some soldiers on leave, and then held again under the Defense of the Realm Act. Film maker Brian Desmond Hurst, 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.
Hamilton re-invented himself as a wicked and dangerous criminal. He created a fictional backstory that was romantic and glamorous and covered up his shame. Christopher Isherwood would one day describe him as “so polished and gross and charming and hideous”, and the way he rolled his eyes like something in a horror film: “it’s almost as terrific as the picture of Dorian Gray.” He became notorious, known as the wickedest man alive. The Spectator summed him up as Britain’s pre-eminent bounder.
In the 1930s he would lodge with Aleister Crowley in Berlin and would become the wicked model for a character by Isherwood. It is generally believed that this was when Crowley and Gerald Hamilton first met. It is possible, however, that they met years earlier. If Hamilton did not actually meet Crowley in this decade, he would certainly have known of him as Crowley knew Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas and was moving through the same Wilde-connected circles.
More detail on all of this, including the story of Gerald Souter’s transformation and his life of crime can be found in Wilde Nights & Robber Barons. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited you can read the book for free as part of your subscription.