Lord Alfred Douglas is best known for his role in Oscar Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency.” But he was also a poet, virulent antisemite, and spent time in jail for libeling Winston Churchill.
If I were trying to psychoanalyze Douglas, I might begin with the fact that though he was her third son, he was his mother’s favorite. She called him “Bosie” (derived from “boysie” – a small boy), a name that stuck with him throughout his life.
Or I could look at his relationship with his father, John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry – which was strained, to say the least. The Marquess once wrote to his son, addressing him as, “You miserable creature.”
In the letter, he told Alfred that he had divorced his mother, in order not to “run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself” (the truth is that Douglas’s mother had sued for divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery). Queensberry also informed his son that when he was a baby, “”I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed, that I had brought such a creature into the world, and unwittingly committed such a crime.”
Notwithstanding his relationship with his parents, Douglas was not a particularly nice fellow. Richard Ellman described him as, “totally spoiled, reckless, insolent, and, when thwarted, fiercely vindictive,” (in his book “Oscar Wilde” p. 324).
The relationship between Douglas and Wilde has been well documented elsewhere. It was Douglas’s father who hired a private detective to investigate their behavior, which eventually led to Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency.”
One piece of evidence used against Wilde at his trial was a 1892 poem entitled “Two Loves” written by Douglas, which ends with the lines:
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’
In 1902, Douglas married Olive Eleanor Custance, an heiress and poet. Their only son suffered from severe schizophrenia. The couple soon separated but never divorced.
One of the reasons for the stress on their marriage was Douglas’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. In his newfound religious zeal, he rejected and condemned homosexuality, and particularly the lifestyle of his former lover, Wilde, who had died a decade earlier.
In 1920, Douglas founded a right-wing, Catholic weekly magazine called “Plain English.” One of the hallmarks of the magazine was its antisemitism. Douglas himself wrote:
Our policy on Plain English was also strongly antisemitic. No other paper, with the exception of The Morning Post, did so much as Plain English to open the eyes of the public to what the Jews were doing. It is, yet, the incredible fact that, some two or three years after the death of Plain English, The Morning Post deliberately published a libel on me, written by a Jew, to the effect that I had ‘made it a paying proposition to publish vile slanders about Jews’. I sued The Morning Post for libel and it pleaded justification.
For example, the title page of the January 1, 1921, issue begins with a list of publications in which “The Jew world menace is exposed.” The list includes “The Jews’ Who’s Who,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” “England Under the Heel of the Jew,” “Democracy or Shylocracy” and “The Hidden Hand; or Jewry Ueber Alles.”
Douglas’s extreme antisemitism led to the next infamous incident in his life. In the January 29, 1921, edition of “Plain English” Douglas wrote an article entitled, “Balfour , Churchill and Jutland” in which he invented a conspiracy theory involving these two politicians and an international plot funded by wealthy Jewish bankers.
The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of World War I between the British and the German fleets on May 31 and June 1, 1916. In the conflict, 14 British ships were sunk with the loss of 6,000 sailors. At the same time, 11 German ships went down, with the loss of 2,500 men. Based on those numbers, Germany declared victory and the press reported that the British had been defeated.
First Lord of the Admiralty, Arthur Balfour, needed to spin the story into a victory. So he asked Winston Churchill, who had formerly held Balfour’s position to write another version of the story. Churchill, who would go on to become Prime Minister during World War II, was then an MP but had recently resigned from the government to fight on the Western Front. He had only returned to the House of Commons in May, so was surprised at the request.
Churchill agreed to write an “Appreciation” in which he pointed out that the battle had clearly removed any lingering doubts that the Germans had any surprises up their sleeves, and left the British with their previous numerical superiority.
Churchill’s “Appreciation” restored British faith in its navy and reversed the slump of British stocks.
Douglas saw Churchill’s actions as part of an evil Jewish plot to gain wealth.
He wrote in “Plain English”
Last week we promised to deal with the financial plot which lies behind the Jutland Treachery. This plot was the outcome of certain international meetings of enormously wealthy Jews. Some of these meetings were held in England, and others on neutral territory and in New York. Probably never before had so gigantic a financial coup been arranged. The plot and the subsequent coup were the outcome of a growing conviction in the minds of the Jews that Germany must lose the war. The financial group behind the plot had immense holdings in German stock, and they realized that if Germany lost the war they would be seriously hit.
From the moment war was declared they were determined, as international liquidators, that whichever side won they would make certain of financial victory.
Douglas ranted on in similar fashion for several paragraphs. He claimed that a Jew named Ernest Cassel, who had been born in Cologne, but moved to Britain aged 17, had paid the politicians to ensure he and his unnamed Jewish co-conspirators made money on both the German and British stock markets.
Although he arrived in Liverpool as a penniless immigrant, by 1916, Cassel was one of the richest men in Britain. He was close friends not only with Churchill, but also with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and King Edward VII.Douglas wrote:
Cabinet Ministers may be clever folk, but they are not clever enough to see through the devices of their Jewish taskmasters. And we confidently believe that the Cabinet Minister in question acted believing that by the issue of a report which gave the impression that we had lost the fight it would be possible to buy back British stock in America at a low figure. He did not realize that he was simply a tool in the hands of his Jewish friends. He did not know that the Jewish plans had been carefully laid for months, and that immense credit was available by which the Jews would not only step in and buy up all the fallen British stock but would relieve themselves of German stock at a high price.
However, it is not for us to excuse him. Our business is to shed light on this amazing transaction whereby on one stock exchange the Jews cleared £36,000,000 by the rise of German stock and £18,000,000 by the fall of British stock.
The articles about the Jewish conspiracy involving Churchill, Cassel and the Jews continued for weeks and weeks. Eventually, The Morning Post, a Conservative newspaper which Douglas usually agreed with, called on him to stop his antisemitic slurs.
The paper’s editor wrote, “It must no longer be a paying proposition to invent vile insults against the Jews.”
Douglas was furious. He immediately sued the paper for defamation and libel. The trial was held on July 17, 1923. Douglas testified that he was not antisemitic, and that many of his friends were Jewish. He also said his articles were based on information he had received from a former British Secret Intelligence Service officer, Captain Harold Spencer. He also claimed under oath that Churchill had received an enormous payment of £40,000 from Cassel after the Battle of Jutland.
The lawyer for The Morning Post deposed Balfour, who said that it was he, not Churchill, who had written the first report about Jutland. Cassell had died two years previously, but his business secretary testified that Cassell had not bought or sold stocks for months before Jutland. Churchill declared that Douglas’s claim that he had received money for writing about Jutland was “an absolute lie.”
Douglas’s lawyer did not try to argue that his client’s claims were true. He only had to show that Douglas had acted honestly and in good faith. The judge instructed the jury to decide whether Douglas had published the accusations without knowing or caring whether they were true or false.
It took the jury only a few minutes to decide in favor of Douglas. But they only awarded him one farthing (1/4 of a penny) which is what they thought his reputation was worth. Normally, the victorious party would recover court costs from the other side, but in this case, the judge ruled that each side had to pay its own cost.
Although he had emerged victorious in his libel suit, the judge and jury had shown how contemptible they felt Douglas was.
But Douglas was proud of his victory and celebrated by giving a speech in which he challenged Churchill to sue him for libel if he had really not received a payoff from Cassell. Douglas had 30,000 copies of the speech printed. He even sent one of the pamphlets to Churchill.
As a result, on November 6, 1923, police arrested Douglas and charged him with criminal libel. The Attorney General, Sir Douglas Hogg, believed that even though Churchill was not an MP at the time, the libel was a direct result of Churchill’s work for the government.
When Churchill was on the witness stand, Hogg, who prosecuted the case himself, asked about his financial relationship with Cassell. Churchill admitted that Cassell had been a good friend of both him and his parents. In 1899, Churchill had asked Cassell to invest his earnings as a journalist for him. He also explained that Cassell had once given him furniture:
In 1905 I took a small house in South Bolton Street, and Sir Ernest asked Lady Randolph whether he could furnish a library for me. She consented.
He also said that Cassell had given him a wedding present of £500 in 1908.
Churchill’s honesty here, and the fact that he had not received any money from Cassell immediately before or after Jutland won over the jury. After Douglas’s source, Spencer, was cross-examined and it was revealed that the Army Medical Board had certified him as insane, there was no defense left.
It took the jury only eight minutes to find Douglas guilty. In his statement, the presiding judge said:
Alfred Bruce Douglas…. In view of the fact that in the action tried in the High Court against The Morning Post you had full notice that these accusations were untrue, and in view of the fact that the only person upon whom you apparently sought to rely in support of this plea of justification was a person like Harold Spencer, whom you yourself had denounced in your own paper as unworthy of belief, I must act on the view that you have deliberately persisted in this plea of justification without the slightest excuse, or without the slightest ground for believing that you are now telling the truth in this plea.
Douglas was sentenced to six months in jail.
Interestingly, in 1941, Douglas had forgiven Churchill. He wrote a poem entitled, Winston Churchill, and his nephew sent a copy to the great man who by then had been prime minister for a year.
When all the world was one vast funeral pyre,
Like genie smoke you rose, a giant form
Clothed with the Addisonian attributes
Of God-directed angel. Like your sire
You the rode the whirlwind and out-stormed the storm.
Churchill replied magnanimously:
Thank you very much for the sonnet you sent me which I shall keep and value. Tell [Douglas] from me that ‘Time Ends All Things.’
Douglas died in 1945 aged 74 and was buried next to his mother.
One of the reasons Douglas’s antisemitic libel was so easily dismissed was because Churchill had been open and honest about his dealings with Cassell and had not accepted any gifts from him after his wedding.
In this week’s Torah reading, Lech Lecha, Abram (as Abraham was then known) won a huge victory over four powerful kings. He did this in order to save his nephew, Lot, who had been taken captive when his city, Sodom, was pillaged.
After the battle, the king of Sodom offered to let Abram keep all the wealth of Sodom which he had won back from the four kings. But Abram refused (Genesis 14:22-23).
Abram said to the king of Sodom: I raise my hand to God most high, Maker of heaven and earth. That I will not take even a thread or shoelace or anything that is yours. So that you will not say, ‘I made Abram wealthy.’
Abram did not want anyone to think he had acted improperly in any way. Even though he had in a sense earned that money, he rejected it so that nobody would think he was indebted to the king of Sodom or that he had acted for any ulterior motive.
And yet, just two chapters earlier, Abram and his wife Sarai had come to Egypt as refugees from a severe famine in the Land of Canaan. They pretended they were brother and sister, rather than husband and wife. As a result, Pharaoh took Sarai into his harem and in exchange gave Abram great wealth – sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants and camels (Genesis 12:16).
After God sent a plague on Pharaoh’s household, he freed Sarai and told Abram to take her away.
Why did Abram refuse the spoils of war offered him by the king of Sodom, yet gladly accepted payment from the Pharaoh of Egypt? What was the logic behind those decisions?
Tosefot (in Moshav Zekeinim) explains that Sodom was the seat of evil in Canaan. It was so bad, that shortly afterwards, God destroyed the entire city, saving only Lot and his family. Everything in Sodom was transactional. The city leaders banned charity and hospitality, because the recipient would give nothing in return. They rejected refugees, the poor and the downtrodden. They killed those who showed kindness to others. Because all they cared about was what was in it for them.
Abram did not want to be beholden to people who viewed his act of selfless kindness (rescuing his nephew) as a transaction. He did not want anyone to put a price on his generosity.
In contrast, Egypt was very hospitable. They welcomed Abram and Sarai. Pharaoh gave generously even though he ultimately gained nothing. The people of Egypt welcomed not only Abram, but several generations later, they hosted Jacob and his family who were escaping yet another famine. It is true that eventually the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, but at first Pharaoh welcomed them and gave them a place to live and employment.
Abram did not reject Pharaoh’s gifts because they came from a place of generosity. But Sodom only offered money because they felt it was owed, not because they wanted the patriarch to have it.
Douglas showed the lengths that antisemites can go with their conspiracy theories to malign the Jews, and anyone associated with them. Churchill demonstrated how honesty and working for a greater good can defeat that evil.
Abram knew that many of his neighbors were not his friends but only formed an uneasy alliance of necessity. He wanted nothing to do with them or their gifts. There is danger in false generosity.
I learned about Churchill and the Jews from Rabbi Aubrey Hirsh in his fantastic podcast History for the Curious.
I’m beginning a new series on WebYeshiva from November 1st. The series is entitled “20th Century Responsa” and will focus on how rabbis dealt with the social, political and technological changes and upheavals of the 20th century. The next class will be on women’s suffrage, on November 8th. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.