Fake Histories #69  Was Oscar Wilde brought down by the man who codified the rules of boxing?

iu.jpeg  iu-1.jpeg

Oscar Wilde spent much of this week in 1895 trying, and failing, to stay out of jail.

The famous aesthete and dramatist once said, via one of his characters, that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ While it might have been judicious in Chapter 1 of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by April 1895 the epigram had a hollow ring, as its author was being spoken about widely, for all the wrong reasons.

In the same volume he had written that, ‘destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.’ That certainly proved to be the case for Wilde, whose life unravelled rapidly and unexpectedly after the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his petulant and reckless lover Lord Alfred Douglas—aka Bosie—left a calling card at Wilde’s London club addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite’. Queensberry, best known for having (supposedly) codified the rules of boxing, was removing his gloves in so doing. Because sodomy was a criminal offence, he was leaving himself open to a suit for criminal libel and a two-year jail sentence.

The note was the culmination of a series of confrontations between the Marquess, his son and the celebrated playwright. Most of Wilde’s friends urged him to let the matter lie and ignore the provocation. Bosie advised otherwise. He encouraged his lover to sue his father. Wilde decided to ignore wiser counsels and indulge the younger Douglas in an ongoing vendetta with his truculent parent. It would prove to be his undoing.

Queensberry played by his own rules in assembling his case against Wilde. These included the hiring of private detectives to delve into the playwright’s private life and the hiring of the distinguished barrister Edward Carson—like Wilde a Dubliner and a former Trinity College student,—to defend the Marquess against the defamation charge.


The cross-examination of Wilde was a Carsonian tour de force. He was pummelled, poked, prodded and provoked. Carson allowed Wilde to hang himself., with the witness coming across as arrogant and flippant in response to serious and potentially damaging questions.   Carson extracted an admission from the plaintiff that Wilde had lied about his age on oath, and a denial that he had kissed a particular servant boy. Wilde’s refutation did not help his cause one jot. He denied the allegation because, he declaimed glibly, ‘he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly.’

The defence case did not have to proceed any further than Carson’s opening statement, in which he revealed that Queensberry’s detectives had located a number of young men who were prepared to testify to having had sex with Wilde. The playwright dropped the prosecution, Queensberry was acquitted, Wilde was left to bear his antagonist’s costs, and went bankrupt.

On 26 April 1895, Wilde’s own prosecution for gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, began. It arose directly from the Queensberry case and would end with a conviction, and a sentence of two years hard labour.  As Wilde put it himself in Dorian Grey, ‘behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.’


But as to that other question, was Wilde brought down by the man who devised the rules of boxing? You might think so, given that they are called the Queensberry rules. But, in fact, they were devised by a Welsh sportsman named John Graham Chambers—an accomplished oarsman who had rowed alongside Matthew Webb when that swimmer made the first crossing of the Channel in 1875. Chambers, persuaded Queensberry to lend his name to the new regulations in order to hasten their acceptance. The Marquis did none of the donkey work himself – so although he floored Wilde with a haymaker, that’s fake history.




Fake History #68  The Catalpa rescue sprang all remaining Fenian prisoners from Freemantle prison in Western Australia?



Relations between Irish people and Australians tend, on the whole, to be excellent – even though our respective impenetrable accents and their occasional use of odd expressions like ‘strewth’ and ‘ripper’ make conversation virtually impossible. But we still manage to get on. in part, it must be recognised, this is because of our mutual antipathy to whinging poms. However, even though a goodly percentage of Aussie DNA originated in Ireland, good relations between the people of our two great republics … oops, sorry, Australia still has the monarch, doesn’t it? Let me rephrase that so … good relations between our two great nations was not necessarily a given. That’s because, for many years, Australia was little more than a massive prison camp for Irish persons who had a jaundiced attitude towards said monarch ie. Irish rebels.

This weekend, one hundred and twenty-four years ago, a rather unusual Irish emigrant ship arrived off the coast of Western Australia. It was a bit different because it wasn’t bringing any Irish emigrants to Australia, it was removing half a dozen of them. The ship, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was called the Catalpa and it was probably the most extraordinary sea-going vessel in Irish republican history, until the Asgard landed weapons in Howth in 1914.

The function of the Catalpa was to transport a number of former Irish rebels from Freemantle to New York. The difficulty was that these six gentlemen, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had not actually been formally released from prison. They had to be sprung first!

The Catalpa was a whaling ship that had been purchased by the great Irish-American Fenian John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, with the intention of bringing off this outrageous coup. Only the captain, George Anthony, had any idea that the ship wasn’t setting sail from New Bedford in April 1875, to kill defenceless whales.

In tandem with the covert sea voyage, two Fenian agents, John Breslin from New York and Thomas Desmond from San Francisco, were sent to Western Australia to pose as American businessmen and to do the groundwork that would allow the six Fenian prisoners to escape from a work detail and make it to the Catalpa. Breslin even  managed to befriend no less a personage than the governor of Western Australia. Not bad for an undercover Fenian. Desmond’s job was to organise transport and to make sure news of the escape did not emerge until the convicts were safely on board their rescue ship.

The Catalpa arrived off the coast of Western Australia in late March 1876, dropped anchor in international waters, and waited. Onshore the six Fenian prisoners, having managed to slipped away from their work detail,  were escorted by Breslin and Desmond to a small boat that would take them to the rescue ship. Desmond had organised that all telegraph communications were to be cut.  Captain Anthony was waiting with the boat, whose departure was delayed by appalling weather. Crew and convicts spent a number of tense hours waiting to be discovered before the rowing boat could be taken off the beach. By the time that happened word of the escape had got out and a British military vessel, the Georgette, had been sent to intercept the skiff and/or the Catalpa itself.

But the prisoners managed to reach the Catalpa before they could be intercepted. In doing so they played cat and mouse with a police cutter carrying thirty armed men on board. They barely managed to win the race to the whaling ship anchored just outside the three mile limit.

When the Georgette drew alongside the Catalpa it attempted to manoeuvre Anthony’s ship into Australian waters. Warning shots were fired. It was only when Captain Anthony raised a US flag that the Georgette backed off and allowed the Catalpa to begin its journey to New York with its six freed prisoners. It arrived there, to a tumultuous Irish-American welcome, on 19 August. A grateful Clan na Gael made a gift of the ship to George Anthony.

But there was a seventh prisoner who didn’t make it. A Fenian named John Kiely was left behind in Freemantle. Why? Because his compatriots had concluded that he was working as an informer for the prison authorities. So, although the Catalpa did rescue half a dozen IRB prisoners from Freemantle prison, it did not, technically,  carry off all the Fenians  left in captivity in  Western Australia.


Fake Histories #66  Eggs laid on Good Friday will never go bad? 



Let’s start with a quiz. Name as many Christmas movies as you can in ten seconds.

Easy. White Christmas, Home Alone, Love Actually, The Muppet Christmas Carrol, The Santa Clause, Elf, Trading Places, Arthur Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and the greatest of them all, Bad Santa, starring Billy Bob Thornton as someone you never want to see coming down your chimney.

And you just know I’ve left out about five hundred more.

Now, name as many Easter movies as you can in ten seconds! Eh ….. ![Pause]

Thought so!

If you racked your brain hard enough you might come up The Long Good Friday and Easter Parade, the quintessential Easter movie that starred Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, with music—including the title song and’ Steppin’ Out with my Baby’—by Irving Berlin. A piece of utter trivia, Gene Kelly was supposed to have taken the lead male part but he injured an ankle playing volleyball and persuaded Astaire to come out of retirement and star opposite Garland. It was, surprisingly, the biggest grossing film either of them ever made.

From a religious perspective Easter may be just as important as Christmas, but it’s a harder sell as far as the public is concerned when the only payoff is chocolate.

It probably doesn’t help that we can never be quite sure exactly when it’s going to happen. Good Friday, for example, can fall anytime between 20 March and 23 April. They don’t call it a moveable feast for nothing.  Easter Sunday is scheduled to fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. So, in Ireland it could be midwinter or high summer. For the record, two historians have worked out that the very first Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, fell on 3 April.

Given what we’re actually commemorating—a public execution—where does the day get its name? Exactly what was so good about Jesus Christ being nailed to a cross by the Romans? One theory has it that the name is a corruption of ‘God’s Friday’. The more commonly accepted notion, of course, is that the ‘good’ comes from its observation as a holy day in the western Christian calendar. Eastern orthodox Catholics go one better and call it ‘Great Friday’. Some Christian denominations refer to it as Black Friday—though that has subsequently been appropriated by Mammon as a shopping day of observation—or indeed Sorrowful Friday, which is current in Germany. Others, however, don’t hold much store by Good Friday and honour Good Wednesday instead, the day most Christians refer to as Spy Wednesday.

Now, although organised religions don’t exactly encourage superstition there are a number of piseogs related to today. It is said, for example, that an egg laid on Good Friday will never go bad,  Apparently a child born today, who is then baptised on Easter Sunday, has the gift of healing. So have a good think about that if you’ve just given birth, but don’t dally. Your window of opportunity to produce the next great faith healer closes in two days.

Bread or cakes, or indeed hot cross buns, baked on this day are said not go mouldy. And, by the way, if you let hot cross buns go hard they are supposed to protect your house against fire. So, if you’re listening in California or Australia, start baking.  The planting of crops, however, is not advisable, as an old saw has it that no iron should enter the ground on Good Friday. So, please step away from that spade or garden fork, and don’t drop any iron supplement tablets either.

The one I like best of all the superstitions is the idea that having your hair cut on Good Friday is a sure fire way of avoiding toothaches for the rest of the year! Trying teasing out the logic there. A barber with a grudge against a dentist probably came up with that one.

But, to return to our first mentioned Good Friday superstition, that an egg laid today will never go bad. Why don’t we engage in some interactive radio? Let’s try an experiment. If you have hens, when you collect the eggs today, leave one in the coop. Don’t touch it for, say, twelve months, then get back to me in about a year after you’ve cracked it open and we’ll see whether that’s fake history or not.


FH #66  Was Abraham Lincoln inducted into the Wrestling Hall of fame?



In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a US election year. You could be forgiven for some confusion as the incumbent has been running a vigorous re-election campaign for more than three years.

Let’s face it, the choice on offer to the American electorate is less than inspiring. It doesn’t quite compare with Kennedy v Nixon, or even Reagan v Carter. US voters are currently being asked to choose between three septuagenarian white men. They might just as well be voting for Pope.

You may recall one of the great election put downs of recent years when, in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate the Republican contender, Dan Quayle, made a dubious comparison between himself and John F. Kennedy. This drew the stinging rebuke from his opponent Lloyd Bentsen, ‘ Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’ You could hear the intake of breath in the room and the communal ‘Ouch’ all over the world. Sadly, it can safely be said of all the continuing candidates in the 2020 US Presidential election, ‘You’re no James Buchanan Jr.’

Never heard of James Buchanan Jr.? Precisely. But he was the fifteenth President of the United States and reckoned to have been by far the worst. At least until 2016.

All of which should make us think more fondly of Abraham Lincoln, probably the greatest US President, and ask what they did with the mould after they buried him. Maybe they didn’t break it and it’s still around somewhere.

If it can be said in support of the current incumbent of the White House, that at least he isn’t bland, the same was true of Lincoln. He had, for example, a number of unusual, or even bizarre, hobbies and accomplishments. One of his many occupations, before he entered politics, was rail splitting. In case you’re unfamiliar with this profession, that’s probably because it’s died out a bit. There’s not much call these days for men with axes who split logs to create wooden sleepers on which metal rails can be placed. When he entered politics he gave up rail splitting for hair splitting.

His youthful party piece, already discussed on this programme, was to recite, from memory, Robert Emmet’s 1803 speech from the dock. Lincoln, however, was under far less pressure than the Irish patriot whenever he intoned the address. He knew he wasn’t going to be hanged and beheaded the following day.

But one of the of the sixteenth President’s most unusual pursuits was wrestling. He is reputed to have fought over three hundred bouts and to have suffered only one defeat. There is no doubt that his height and reach would have given him a tremendous advantage in that sport. He stood six foot four inches tall, at a time when the average American male would have been nearly a foot shorter. He used both height and reach to great effect in 1842 in a duel with an Irish-born Illinois politician James Shields. Lincoln had been challenged by Shields and so had choice of weapons. Because he was a large and easy target for a bullet it was a no-brainer to opt for broadswords. As the two men squared up to each other Lincoln casually reached over the head of Shields and chopped the branch of tree far above them. Shields, conscious of what his opponent could do to him, was persuaded to abandon his challenge.

But let’s get back to the wrestling. The activity, as practised in rural America was more ‘wrastling’ than the elegant, rules-based Greco-Roman variety. Neither was it an organised sport, although it was far more real and dangerous than anything dreamed up by the pumped up faux belligerents of the WWE. And there’s no doubt that Lincoln was a proficient wrestler who liked to show off his prowess. That fact is mentioned in a number of biographies.

But as to the question of whether he was ever inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, it would be a fun fact, if it was true. And, believe it or not it almost is. In 1992 he was given that organisation’s ‘Outstanding American’ award and a mural of one of his legendary bouts appears on a wall in the Wrestling Hall of Fame museum.

But, technically, he is not an inductee – we’re not talking about The Rock here. Dwayne Johnson has nothing to worry about. That’s fake history.