Book Review

Famous Trials 9: Roger Casement by H. Montgomery Hyde

some strange, unpalatable, vintage true crime

What a strange little book.

It turns out that for [possibly] over 70 years, Penguin used to regularly publish small books summarising the crimes, trials and – often – executions of real people.

“True Crime” has always been a big deal.

This one – from 1950 something – is about Roger Casement, an Irish Protestant who had a successful career in the British consular service at the turn of the 20th century until, following retirement (a couple of years before the start of the First World War), he got wildly into Irish Nationalism and ended up getting executed for treason in the Summer of 1916 due to his involvement in the events of the [failed] Easter Rising.

Roger Casement, unlike many of his compatriots, was not in the Post Office building with weapons in hand on Easter Sunday, because he had already been arrested.

Casement had spent most of the previous two years – after going to America to raise cash from the Irish diaspora – travelling around Germany (with permission from the authorities, obvs then at war with the UK) to all the prisoner of war camps in an attempt to recruit Irish soldiers to fight against Britain for a free Ireland. Casement was involved in organising the gift of guns that Germany sent in advance of Easter weekend, the one that was, alas, sunk by the British. After this sinking, with mere days to go before the planned – and now under-weaponised – Rising, Casement hitched a ride on a German submarine back to his homeland in the hope he could do something useful.

He couldn’t, though, because Casement was almost immediately picked up by local police. He never managed to reach any of his buddies in the independence movement. The only minor advantage this gave him was that, following the failure of the uprising, all of the leaders in Dublin received death sentences that were very very quickly carried out and he, alone, made it to the Summer.

Casement, in a heavily-guarded cell in London, gained a few extra months. Perhaps this was an attempt at improving public image, but perhaps it was in deference to his knighthood and former career exposing the abuses undertaken by rival colonial powers (including the infamous behaviour of Belgium in the Congo).

Casement had the “luxury” of a full, open, public trial-by-jury in London. Of course, they found him guilty and so he was hanged until he was dead.

But…

With the gift of not being a socially conservative juryman (they were all men) in 1916 London, it’s hard to disagree with the defence put by Casement’s lawyers: how can you execute for TREASON someone who is not of that nationality? How can you try someone by a jury of their peers when said person is Irish and the jury is not?

Casement committed no treason against Ireland, he was not being tried in an Irish court, even though the Irish legal system at that point was not integrated with the British, despite the entirety of Ireland still (until 1922 or as late as 1937 depending on your definition) being a colony. The six counties of Ireland’s north remain a colony now, where the legal system and the laws are distinct from both British and Irish legislature. The North of Ireland has draconian, repressive laws and-

I won’t get into this now.

“Moral panic” and repression are relevant to discussion of Casement, though, as during his trial many parts of his private diaries were released to the public and their effect – due to the frank discussion of his sex and romantic life (Casement was gay) – was to make the jury feel “moral” bound to find him guilty of something.

Montgomery writes about Casement’s lawyers trying and failing to distract from these revelations by reminding the jury that “this was a trial for treason, not for homosexuality” which – disgracefully, disgustingly and unforgivably – was then “a crime”, but the damage was done. Casement was an Irish bad egg, but an Irish bad egg still had to receive the punishment due for a British treasoner. Shameful.

This little book contains extracts from some of the diaries; they’re a bit saucy, but as the text of this Penguin book precedes the Lady Chatterley trial there’s nothing to raise more than an eyebrow. I particularly enjoyed the very brief extract from a day Casement spent in the tropics that ran (from memory, so maybe the numbers are the wrong way round): “Had three lovers. Wanted two more.”

Although during a decade-long stint as an MP, H. Montgomery Hyde (the author of this book) actually did good work towards the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality, he struggles to hide the disapproval and disgust from his prose, which – when writing about historic homophobia contributing to the death of a man – adds a nasty tone to the book.

It’s strange, muckraking prose and I suppose the reason why this feels somewhat less palatable than true crime about killers is because the people one usually encounters in those places (podcasts) are monsters: serial killers, mass murderers, awful awful people who are not deserving of privacy, nor a nuanced legacy.

But Roger Casement wasn’t a strangler, a poisoner or a terrorist, he was someone who believed in freeing a land from a colonial oppressor, which means he should be remembered as the “Good Guy” that he was: I don’t know anyone in my day-to-day life who – if they have an opinion on the six counties – isn’t staunchly pro-Irish unification. This is the standard, progressive opinion and reading about someone who shares this opinion being murdered by a hostile British state – alongside uncritical descriptions of the legal apparatus that allowed this – is unpleasant, particularly when partnered with descriptions of him suffering abuse for his sexuality.

As a historical curiosity, this book and the series it is from is intriguing, but treating men like Casement and Oscar Wilde with the same tone and analysis as people like Dr Crippen and other nasty killers is fucking scummy, in my opinion.

Not, I’m afraid, one I recommend.


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