The Wickedest Man Alive

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.

The Rites of Eleusis depicted in The Sketch, October 16, 1910. The pre-Nazi swastika depicted here was used by Crowley as a Hindu symbol of life and well-being.

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.

More Supernatural Adventures of the Wilde Circle

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.

In 1885, an account of a meeting of a Psychical Research group elicited the following response:

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.

There was also an 1890 account of Oscar Wilde attending a demonstration by a psychic.

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.

Lord Alfred Douglas: Modern Mystic

The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals archives its collection at the Internet Archive.

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.

Reproduction of Hester Traverse Smith’s automatic writing.

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.

The Mystic Nature of Places

Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I was walking in London. A stranger came up to me and he said he could see my aura. He said the spirits were talking to him and they had a message for me. They said I should be writing and I wasn’t. They said that “the mystic nature of places” was how I would connect.

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My first novel was all about the mystic nature of places. It was about mountains and cathedrals, spaces of such grandeur that they inspire awe. The grand cathedrals, like the mountains, are ancient enough to inspire temporal as well as spatial awe. In their presence you become small and for a moment you are reminded of your proper relationship to the forces of the universe– humility, reverence, wonder, gratitude. There is an interruption. A call to contemplation and silence.

Do you remember the first time you experienced that sense of displacement and image1wonder? I do. I was a 16 year old exchange student and my host family took me to Notre Dame. I had not toured Europe or seen great stone cathedrals. I was not Catholic. So the power of the space surprised me.

I lived outside Paris in 1985 and 86, before the days of ubiquitous photography. This fading snapshot is the only picture I got. Looking at this picture, I see that there must have been crowds, but I don’t remember them. I remember the negative space, the silence, the sunlight streaming through the rose window, the candles lit for memory. I wondered, “How didn’t I know this? That a building could do this?”

I tried to look back on my old diaries from the period and realized quickly that at 16 I would not have had the language for what I remember feeling. But perhaps I had to be that age to experience the fullness of that moment and to remember it as transformative.

There are utilitarian places–places created to be filled by people who are busy doing things. Then there are places that are created for people to experience. The architecture itself defines the mood and the spirit you are supposed to have inside. The spirit is waiting for you before you enter.

A grand cathedral is different from a mountain. It is the embodiment of history, culture and values. As you stand in your smallness, you realize that you only hold this splendid torch of life for a moment and you have a responsibility to pass the torch, to breathe in all that the walls contain, the years of art and culture, all we have said and painted and sung; our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You are small, but the weight of all of these fleeting moments is huge.

No one knows who first built Notre Dame de Paris. But whoever they are, they are there centuries later.

I must have carried that moment with me when I traveled to Mount Rainier and found myself wondering what a mountain and a church have in common. I must have carried it with me over the years that I made that my main writing exercise.

Paul knew that there was a value in architecture, in arts, in beautiful things. Why do those things matter? Because they do. The only way to make a convincing argument for architecture is with poetry, and people who don’t care for art are immune to poetic language as well. You either understand it in your soul or you don’t.”

I heard someone today say that he was not feeling emotional about the fire at Notre Dame. He said that he was sure the French would rebuild. I believe that is true. But there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to rebuild and rise from the ashes and there is a time to mourn what is lost. At this moment it is a time to mourn.

Psychics, Angels and Writing Novels

On Uplifting Reads today is an interview I gave about the novel Angel.  It includes, among other things, a recounting of a couple of strange experiences with psychics.  You can read the whole thing via the link above.  Here is an excerpt:

What message are you trying to send to readers?

I’m not trying to send a message. The questions I’m exploring have to do with how our private and public lives intersect, what is the nature and meaning of love, how do you find meaning in a world of impermanence? I don’t know the answers to those questions. So what I’m doing is painting a picture of someone going through an episode in his life and confronting these questions. What I’m saying is, “Here’s what happened to Paul. What do you think?”

Have you ever had your own sort of angel and/or spiritual awakening?

Writing Angel was probably my greatest spiritual experience. In some ways Ian can be taken as a metaphor for the creative process, for the muse, the spark of inspiration that leads you in a whole new direction.

But while we’re on the whole angel/spirit world kind of subject, I did recently remember a couple of interesting things. The first happened when I had just graduated from college with a degree in theater. At that time, I went to England with a six-month work visa. During my orientation for the program, I was walking around London when a man came up to me. He stopped me and said, “I can see your aura. You’re supposed to be writing.” Being totally taken aback, I responded with something like, “Uh…okay…” “You’re supposed to be writing,” he said again, in a serious tone. Then he just walked off. I recorded this odd encounter in my diary, and went on with my life and into a career in radio. I had not remembered this until I went back and read the old diary.

A few years later, I had burned out on my radio career and fallen into writing as if by default. I was working part-time as a newspaper reporter and had just gotten a contract for my first non-fiction book. I decided to stop at a local New Age shop that offered tarot readings. I remember the reader’s face and his name: Rene. I took some sketchy notes of what he said that day. I think at the time I might have been most interested in an unrequited love affair I was trying to have. In retrospect, one thing in particular stands out. He said that “the angels said” I was supposed to be writing, and I was not. He said, “the mystic nature of places is how you’re going to really connect.”

This must have happened before I went to Washington, so maybe this primed me and the mystic nature of mountains theme became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any case, it is interesting.