Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

 As I was catching up on the 1918 news over breakfast at a Cambridge, Massachusetts B&B during my recent vacation, I came across the following headline in the May 31 New York Times, right below a humongous banner headline about the German offensive:

I was confused.

I read the article, and I was still confused. British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, apparently, was on trial for defaming dancer Maud Allan, who had appeared in a private dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and the play’s producer, Jack Grien of the Independent Theatre. (Grien was also the drama critic for the Sunday Times, because no one cared about conflict of interest in 1918.) According to prosecutor Travers Humphreys, Pemberton-Billing had made an attack on Allan in his right-wing magazine The Vigilante that was “unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.” Humphreys said that

the coupling of the name of Miss Allan, or any woman, with the heading of the paragraph could only mean one thing—that the lady, either in her private or professional capacity, was associated with something that could not be regarded as otherwise than disreputable.

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

What heading? What paragraph? The Times isn’t telling. Humphreys goes on to say that, if Allan had failed to challenge this mysterious allegation,

some of those persons whose mental food was garbage might be able to say hereafter, ‘You have this said of you, and you took no steps to stop it, and therefore, there must be something in it.’

Have what said? This was getting frustrating.

Portrait of Maud Allan by Alexander Bassano, 1913

Oh, and there was a list. Which the Times does explain. (Well, the British Telegraph does—the Times, as was its habit, quotes large chunks of the Telegraph’s reporting verbatim.) In an earlier article, the Vigilante had reported that

there exists in the cabinet noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the secret service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive.*

Okay, so there’s an evil German plot to perversify English society. But what does it have to do with Maud Allan et al.? Humphreys explains that the other Vigilante article, the one with the mysterious headline, made

a cryptic suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre there was no doubt they would secure the names of several thousands of the first 47,000.

Captain Harold Spencer (date unknown)

No one had actually managed to produce a copy of this book. But a lot of people had seen it. Or said they had. Including the author of the article, former American navy captain Harold Spencer. Spencer was the aide-de-camp to Prince William of Wied**, who he said had shown him the book in Albania. Another witness, Mrs. Villiers Stewart, said that she had seen former Prime Minister Asquith’s name in the book.*** Spencer said he hadn’t, but he had seen Asquith’s wife’s name.

Guess who else Mrs. Villiers Stewart said she saw in the book? Justice Darling, who was presiding over the case! Sensation in the court. But it apparently didn’t occur to him to stop the trial and recuse himself, because, like I said, conflict of interest.

Noel Pemberton-Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

Spencer testified that the Vigilante had been tipped off about the Salome production by—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—Marie Corelli, the purple-prose novelist who was last seen here espousing forced sterilization in Good Housekeeping and hoarding sugar. (And who, by the way, was almost certainly a lesbian herself.)

Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover-turned-nemesis, also testified for the defense, although I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he had to do with anything, and was later kicked out of the courtroom for heckling.

And there was a camarilla! A word that, despite my superior-adult score on a 1918 vocabulary-based intelligence test, I had to look up. It turns out to mean a secret group of plotting courtiers. This particular camarilla, allegedly, was aimed at getting Asquith back into power and making peace with Germany. (Which was seen as a bad thing–right-thinking people wanted to beat them.)

Margot Asquith, date unknown

The pieces were starting to fall together, but I still wasn’t clear on the unspeakable vice. Oscar Wilde + vice, I figured, had to = something about homosexuality. But what exactly?

As I sipped my tea and reflected on the situation, I had an inspiration. “You know who will be all over this story?” I said to myself. “My fellow 100-years-ago blogger, Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” And I was right! As WIIIAI explains here and here, the crux of the matter is the title of the Vigilante article, which the Times was too delicate to reprint: “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Aha! The insinuation, then, was that Allan was at the heart of a giant pro-German lesbian cabal.****

Now I was up to speed on why the Times was skirting around the headline. Armed with this information, I was able to track down the full text of the Vigilante article:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome,’ one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9, Duke Street, Adelphi W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.

That’s it!

London’s Palace Theater, where Salome was performed, date unknown

Fast forward a few days, to a June 5 piece in the Times. As Humphreys was making his closing arguments, Pemberton-Billings interrupted him to say that he’d never accused Allan of engaging in vice herself, only of pandering to it. He was acquitted.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote that the good guys lost. And it’s true that I’ll root for scandalous lesbian dancers (Allan was in fact a lesbian, which was the only true allegation in the whole trial as far as I can tell) and cutting-edge theater producers over homophobic right-wing politicians and conspiracy-peddling ex-military officers any time. But, even by the standards of British defamation law, which is much stricter than its American equivalent, the penning of the Vigilante story doesn’t seem like a criminal act. It’s just a piece of vague, sloppy insinuation. Not something that people should go to jail for, however despicable they might be.

The real crime here—twenty-three years after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail for homosexual acts, and eighteen years after he died, impoverished and disgraced, in Paris—is that homophobia was still so deeply rooted in British society that it was fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theories (the book of 47,000, of course, never surfaced), scurrilous newspaper reporting, and farcical trials.

Not a very inspiring way to commemorate Pride Month. But there are positive LGBTQ stories as well. (Mostly L, actually.) I’ll get to them in an upcoming post.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

* Because everyone knows that Germans and hot-bloodedness are virtually synonymous.

**Arguably the best name in a story full of great ones.

***Mrs. Villiers Stewart was subsequently jailed for bigamy, but that’s another story.

****Because, you know, there’s nothing lesbians like so much as living under right-wing militaristic rule.

7 thoughts on “Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

  1. ianmoore3000

    Cripes, is that really the entire text of the Cult of the Clitoris article? I’ve seen those words before but never dreamed they were the whole thing and not an excerpt.

    I am also fascinated by how many people reported having seen the Black Book of the 47,000 blackmailed deviants.

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    1. My Year in 1918 Post author

      I wasn’t able to find a scanned copy of the article, but the secondary sources I consulted (i.e. Googled) say that it was just this short paragraph. One mentions that it was set off in a black box. There was also the earlier article about the German book, of course, which was presumably longer. I’m also fascinated by all the people who said they saw the book, and by their purported ability to remember who was and wasn’t on the list of 47,000.

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      1. WIIIAI

        Just the paragraph, but he had a whole crazy-pants newspaper called The Vigilante, so I assume that wasn’t the end of it.

        On this, see Jodie Medd, “‘The Cult of the Clitoris’: Anatomy of a National Scandal,” Modernism/Modernity, 9:1 (January 2002), 21–49 and Judith R. Walkowitz, “The ‘Vision of Salome’: Cosmopolitanism and Erotic Dancing in Central London, 1908-1918,” American Historical Review, 108:2 (April 2003), 337-76.

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  2. Charles

    Toni Bentley, in her book “Sisters of Salome,” has a whole chapter on Maud Adams, her life as a dancer, her interpretation of Salome on the stage, and a detailed account of her libel trial against Pemberton-Billings. Under the theme of some things never change, Maud seems to have an easy target by the British right-wing who needed a scapegoat to blame England’s failures in WWI. Apparently the spectre of lesbianism and the existence of women who knew of the clitoris’ existence were a threat to England’s national security.

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