Toward the end of the 19th Century, the traditional silence of the Canadian media on the subject of homosexuality began to crack. The media had previously maintained a constant state of denial around homosexuality – claiming that it did not exist in Canada, at least not among Europeans, when it was mentioned at all. Gradually, though, newspapers began to cover sodomy and gross indecency trials.
Trials for sodomy had been mentioned in passing as far back as 1841, but only in a few newspapers. Details other than names and sentences were rare, though, and buried in among long columns reporting other trials. Most newspapers did not report them at all.
The first sodomy trial I’ve found in-depth coverage for was that of Francis J. Widdows, a Franciscan monk whose sodomy trial helped fuel anti-Catholic sentiments in a religion-divided Canada. It’s one of two of what I call “celebrity trials” for homosexuality covered by Canadian papers of the period. The other one – that of Oscar Wilde – received very different coverage.
The Queen versus Francis J. Widdows
The first arrival of Widdows on the public stage was in the pages of a newspaper called The Irish Canadian, though he is never mentioned by name. The Irish Canadian was a staunchly Catholic newspaper, and was possibly hoping to avoid the wave of anti-Catholic feelings the coming trial was likely to provoke:
We deem it our duty to put all men and lads, especially of the Christian Associations, on their guard against a corrupt monster, who takes a diabolical pleasure in singling out, and destroying the modest instincts of youth. This scoundrel is 26 years of age, hails from England, has dark hair and beard, shaven, and very black eye-brows meeting heavily over his nose, wears half a clerical suit. His height is about 5 feet 6 inches; he haunts theatres and other places of amusement where he singles out his prey, and the pursues it. When he tries to smile a certain strange and fearful grin distorts his face. He is such a figure as one would be supposed to meet in a back lane of Sodom and Gomorrah.
We feel bound to protect our youth and pursue this incarnate demon of impurity. We beg of our contemporaries to pass around, that all may be warned against this wretch. He has been for some time around Perth, and has lately turned up in Toronto where his hypocrisy and iniquity have been discovered. He pretends the convert, now from Catholicity and again from Protestantism. There is a warrant out for his arrest.
Given the tone – this demon cloaked in human flesh, haunting theatres and devouring the young – one might expect the article to be discussing a paedophile who’d attacked a string of little boys. Actually, the warrant brought the monk up on charges of gay sex with another adult in the crypt of a church, and it was most likely not a case of rape.
The The Globe (now The Globe & Mail) has the only complete coverage I’ve been able to find of the trial. It is one of our few looks at gay life in Canada prior to the 1890s. Widdows was being charged with have had “sodomy” with a man named James Rodgers, who was also at the monastery.
Their relationship had begun with a conversation about England. At some point in the trial, Rodgers admitted that it was he who first propositioned Widdows, saying, “I would like to have you in my bedroom.” Widdows said he would like that, too. Under cross-examination – Widdows represented himself – Rodgers admitted that he’d had sex with men “on many occasions both in England and Canada.” Widdows, meanwhile, was probably younger, and this seemed to have been his first time.
They had sex in the crypt of the church. Rodgers clearly must have felt guilty immediately after, because Widdows told him he would be “a fool to confess anything of that kind to the priest, as it was no harm.”
Rodgers went to the priest anyway. Widdows suggested Rodgers had been threatened into coming forward, but Rodgers said, “I was told only that it ought to be done.” Widdows then claimed that his views on the Fenians made him unpopular in his church, and that the charges had been fabricated to get rid of him.
The judge didn’t buy it. Widdows was convicted of, as the judge put it, “an outrage on humanity so repulsive and abominable, that in the language of the indictment, it was not fit to be named by Christian people.” Rodgers got off with a warning – probably because he had come forward – but Widdows got “five months’ imprisonment in the common gaol, with hard labour.”
If Widdows was a victim in this first case, he becomes an increasingly less sympathetic figure as his story continues, even to modern eyes. His conviction began Widdows’ very public crusade against the Catholic Church. Still claiming that the charges had been fabricated, he launched a lecture tour, claiming to reveal the dark secrets of the church from an insider’s perspective. In Toronto in 1881, he called his speech “Monkish Impostures, Ancient and Modern.”
This was the same period that had produced the memoires of Maria Monk, full of lurid (and false) accusations of seminaries linked to convents by secret tunnels, and of graveyards full of nuns’ babies. It was also a time in which men died in riots between Catholics and Orangemen. Not surprisingly, Widdows’ lectures were as popular then as the Da Vinci Code has been in more recent years. In Ingersoll, Ontario, alone in 1878, he packed the town hall to its capacity at 150 people.
In 1877 – in a Protestant church Dundas, Ontario – Widdows had not yet begun his lecture when a group of young men hurled rocks through the windows. One nearly hit Widdows, but he went on with his speech anyway, in spite of heckling and shouted reminders of his time in prison from his attackers. The Dundas Banner, one of the three papers to carry this story, seemed more upset that his fans might encourage “his endeavour to stir up religious strife and discord,” than that his enemies had assaulted him.
By 1885, Widdows had fled the country for New Orleans, prompting The Toronto World to say “Widdows is of many nationalities.”
In 1888, Widdows was charged again, this time in Scotland. The papers are vague about the specifics of the crime, but Widdows seems to have played a secondary role and was only convicted of a misdemeanour. His friend received a life sentence for something non-consensual he’d done with a young man, but Widdows only got ten years in prison. He turns up in 1898 in Cardiff, Wales, again preaching on the anti-Catholic circuit, prompting a paper named The Victoria Nation to say “there is enough vileness in Widdows’ corrupt composition to pervert the morals of the whole British Empire and provoke the Lord to rain brimstone and fire on the offending city of Cardiff.”
Oscar Wilde appeared in Canadian newspapers before his trial quite frequently. He was considered a trendsetter of the British Empire, and newspapers reported his wardrobe around the globe.
When Wilde went up on trial for gross indecency in London, however, it wasn’t mentioned in most Canadian papers. A notable exception was The Globe, which devoted a great number of front-page columns in the trial – beginning on April 24, 1895, when Wilde was called before the court. The paper mentioned that the writer was expected to “plead guilty to one offence.” On May 2, it announced that the jury was hung. On May 20, it announced a new trial. Two years later, as Wilde’s sentence was coming to a close, it published an interview with him, and an open letter by Wilde decrying abuse of children in the prison where he’d been confined.
The reporting in these articles is meticulous for the most part. However there is one small detail missing — The Globe never once mentioned what Oscar Wilde was charged with. Not is only is the phrase “gross indecency” absent, but so are the usual euphemisms like “unnatural offence” and “abominable crime.” To anyone outside of the reach of London gossip, it would be impossible to determine what Wilde was convicted of.
Only once did The Globe come close to admitting the nature of the trial. Reviewing five published poems by Wilde’s boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas (whom the paper describes as “his friend”), it notes that in the poems “Lord Alfred Douglas calls for ‘his love’ to return to him.” It then publishes a poem by Douglas wishing death upon his father (the man who got Wilde charged).
Though Wilde’s trial was only covered by one English-language paper, the phrase “the Oscar Wilde type” – meaning homosexual – would begin to make its appearance in newspapers and other media. These began to report local cases with increasing frequency. With the trials of Widdows and Wilde, the silence had ended in Canadian media, and a public moral crusade had begun.
In our next instalment, we’ll look at the instigators at that moral moral crusade, the Social Purity movement.
Sources: All my sources this month are newspapers. My best source for both trials is The Globe. The Widdows trial is covered in July 24 1875, while information on Wilde can be found on a number of dates in 1895 (April 24, May 2, May 20, and June 26) and 1897 (March 8, march 18, May 21, May 31, and December 6). Lord Alfred Douglas is mentioned on June 9 1896 and December 1 1899 as chief mourner at Wilde’s funeral. For the Widdows trial, I also used The Irish Canadian June 9 1875, The Perth Courier May 4 1877, April 20 1888, May 18 1888, and April 15 1898; Toronto World March 10 1885 and December 8 1881, and The Woodstock Review March 15 1878. Some of these stories were reprints from other papers – I have mentioned the names of the original paper in the body of this article, but I’ve sourced them by the name of the paper where I found them.