The Chicago that Wilde saw was a traumatized city in recovery from a devastating fire that destroyed 18,000 buildings and killed 300 people. When he remarked to a reporter on the ugliness of the city's external fire escapes, he was reminded of the 1871 inferno and their necessity. A modern city was growing fast; two months before Wilde's arrival 300,000 people turned out to see the first cable car take its maiden voyage down the middle of State St. And not surprisingly for a man who loved to talk, he stated his approval of the large number of telephones installed since the Bell telephone company introduced them four years before.
A few days after his lecture, the Daily Inter-Ocean interviewed Wilde in his hotel room. Asked for his impressions of Chicago, the poet replied: "That is a difficult question to answer. I don't pretend to have seen the city yet. I have been here too short a time, but from what I've seen I like it much better than New York. The streets are wider, cleaner, and there are not all the railways overhead and in the middle of the street, and that dreadful noise is not here. It is wonderful to think how you have built a city, such a large city in so short a time, especially after such a great calamity as your great fire. But, of course, it is a little sad to think of all the millions of money spent on buildings and so little architecture. But that will come in time no doubt."
During his weeklong stay, Wilde visited John Donaghue, a local sculptor who gave him a bronze bas-relief of a young girl intended to illustrate his poem "Requiescat." He later wrote that he found the starving young artist working "in a bare little room at the top of a great building." When asked if he had seen any art in Chicago, Wilde bristled when a reporter from the Chicago Gazette seemed unfamiliar with the sculptor: "Do you tell me you don't know him?" said Wilde, sarcastically, "He is native to Chicago, studied in Paris, has come back to his own city, having done beautiful work for you if any of you care for it."
As in other U.S. cities, Wilde-mania swept Chicago. After his first lecture a grand masquerade ball was held at the Germania Mannerchor Club at the North Side Turner Hall. The program consisted of dancing, tableaux, a collation, promenades and music. One newspaper reported that 200 characters in costume were represented, but the show was stolen by a man dressed as the "latest sensation" Oscar Wilde. He wore brown velvet with short knee britches, and carried "the renaissant lily."
After Chicago, Wilde spoke in Springfield, Rockford, Aurora, Jacksonville, Decatur, Peoria, and Bloomington, before returning to the city March 11 to deliver his second lecture "The House Beautiful"; which was less well attended due to bad weather. This time he addressed the subject of those of moderate means who wished to build beautiful homes, and also the most elegant way for men and women to dress.
Rumors exist that Wilde toured Chicago's famous South Side Levee District, an area of prostitution and vice, where he would have had ample opportunity to indulge le vice anglais in the "boy houses." Another story suggests he lost thousands of dollars to a card shark named "Hungry Joe" Lewis, but this has never been confirmed.
After leaving the city to continue his tour, one newspaper took a parting shot with an unflattering poem titled "Farewell to Oscar" by the pseudonymous Burr Lesque. It contained the lines: "Midst Ireland's commotion. You seized on the notion. To cross the wide ocean. To teach a great nation. Its proper relation. And aesthetic station."
It ends with: "Dear Oscar, good bye. We're too busy to cry. And too hurried to buy us a collar. Shoo-fly."
Wilde never returned to Chicago, though he did make one more trip across the Atlantic to New York in 1883 for the opening of his play "Vera," which even in a mediocre season received unenthusiastic reviews. His final connection with the Windy City came after the Haymarket Riots on May 4, 1886, when U.S. labor unions were striking for a shorter working day. During a heated assembly in Chicago a bomb was thrown killing eight police officers. Even though the culprit was never identified, eight men were arrested and found guilty. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were sent to jail, only to be pardoned in 1893. In Britain, the writer George Bernard Shaw initiated a petition in support of the Haymarket anarchists, and Oscar Wilde was the most prominent figure to add his name; he had recently embraced socialism, and on at least one occasion had described himself as an anarchist, though he abhorred the bombs and violence associated with the movement.
Although homosexuality in Victorian Britain was illegal, the crime was largely ignored unless it became "too public." When Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and produced two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, rumors of his sexual proclivities were quieted. All that unraveled in 1895 when he attempted to sue Lord Queensberry for libel, only to end up in jail himself. The April 7, 1895 Tribune wrote: "The shocking disclosures in the libel suit of Oscar Wilde, the professional representative of so-called estheticism, against the Marquis of Queensberry have led to a sudden abandonment of the case and the arrest of Wilde upon charges which are too indecent for publication or comment.
" … While it is not in order to discuss the offense of Oscar Wilde it is proper to search for the causes of it. First, and perhaps foremost, he plunged into indecency because he belonged to a caste in society which is idle, useless, unproductive, and therefore profligate.
" … There is little doubt that his offense is a common one in the set with which he associated. More than once revelations of this kind have been made in the records of English aristocratic society, but the offenders have usually fled in time and concealed themselves rather than face the shame as Wilde has done and affect to make light of it."
Again, in the May 26, 1895 Tribune: "The jury in the Oscar Wilde case yesterday, after being out two hours, returned a verdict of guilty and a sentence of two years' imprisonment at hard labor. ( Alfred ) Taylor, his associate in the beastly business, was also sentenced to two years imprisonment.
"No one will dispute the justice of this sentence. The immoral practices of which he was proved guilty and which he attempted to gloss over were too flagrant to be condoned by the prominent social position which he occupied or by the literary fustian which he has published and which has been the fad in certain fashionable circles which run after every new thing, whether it be erotic or not. The defendant will now have the opportunity, for two years at least, to occupy himself at hard labor and be some useful service. Long before the two years are over the public will have forgotten him. It would not be a calamity if he never were heard of again. His bestial offenses can only be condoned by utter oblivion. That he was punished at all, in spite of his position, shows that an English jury is above any sympathy with his rottenness."
Soon after the trial, a case was reported in New York that made reference to the Wilde trial in London. The headline read: "Nothing For Him But Suicide: Dr. Alexander Tonner Confesses That Grave Charges are True."
The original charges against Tonner were for "exhibiting obscene pictures to a chance acquaintance in a public park," but it was soon discovered he entertained young men at orgies in his home. "The case threatened to develop a scandal on a par with that of Cleveland Street, London," said the paper. Cleveland Street was the location where Wilde frequented a male brothel for the company of young men. Tonner told prosecutor Anthony Comstock that there was nothing left for him now but suicide, echoing a statement made by Wilde after his imprisonment. Suicide was the gentleman's way out. After his release from prison, Wilde moved to France where he died penniless in a rundown hotel in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900, at the age of 46. Arthur Sullivan, who co-wrote the operetta "Patience" that inspired Wilde's lecture tour of the U.S., died eight days before him, and Richard D'Oyly Carte died four months later. Wilde's tomb is in Père Lachaise cemetery, not far from his friend Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who suggested the lecture tour to D'Oyly Carte in the first place.
An intriguing postscript to Wilde's connection with Chicago occurred over 20 years after his death and is documented in Richard Ellman's book "Oscar Wilde." Alfred Taylor, who procured young men for Wilde and was tried along with him, served two years in prison and then immigrated to America and disappeared. In the 1920s Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover and the son of Lord Queensbury, was staying at a hotel in Chicago. On ringing a bell for room service he was surprised by who answered the call … it was Alfred Taylor.