The Black Book of 47,000 names

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Above: Maud Allan in The vision of Salome, a loose adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play.

Above: Maud Allan in The vision of Salome, a loose adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play.

Another sensational trial of the First World War, where politics, law and sexuality mixed in a combustible cocktail, concerned ‘the libel trial of the century’. In early 1918 the Imperialist, a right-wing journal owned by the independent MP Noel Pemberton-Billing and funded by the minister of information and press baron Max Aitken, reported the existence of a Black Book. This shadowy tome listed the names of 47,000 high-ranking individuals in British society (most of them either liberal or Jewish), among them cabinet ministers, privy councillors, judges, diplomats, newspaper editors and members of the royal household. According to this huge conspiracy theory, all of these names had been seduced by German agents into acts of ‘debauchery’ and ‘perversion’, including homosexuality and lesbianism.

As gossip about the Black Book spread, the Imperialist, now renamed the Vigilante, published information in an article provocatively titled ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ about an upcoming private production of a loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. It would be performed by the erotic performance artist Maud Allan. (In 1909 Allan had danced in Dublin in little more than a halter of beads. Her act had so outraged members of the audience that explicit letters of complaint had been sent to the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh.)

Allan sued Pemberton-Billing for defamation in an article that was unambiguously obscene. A libel trial was held over five days in late May 1918. The proceedings of the case had significant associations with Casement’s treason trial two years earlier. Travers Humphreys, part of Casement’s prosecution counsel, was Allan’s defence lawyer. Chief Justice Charles Darling presided, as he had done at Casement’s appeal in July 1916. The intelligence chiefs who masterminded Casement’s overthrow—CID chief Basil Thomson and Room 40’s Admiral Reginald Hall—were both implicated, along with some of their serving officers. Allan lost the case.

What the libel case reveals is the utter confusion in the public imagination of sympathy for Germany, homosexuality and political dissent. As Philip Hoare has noted: ‘The war brought into focus the threat of homosexuality … British intelligence was populated by men who imagined sexual perverts and German spies literally going hand in hand’. It is within this wartime context that the Black Diaries and their murky provenance, conjured from within the inner sanctum of an ultra-right-wing imperialist element in Britain’s dark state, must be ultimately evaluated.

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