Harold S. Spencer

Harold S. Spencer

Harold Spencer was born in the United States. He attended the United States Naval Academy. According to a reporter from the New York Times based in Annapolis: "While at the academy he was something of a poet and musician, and took a prominent part in the artistic and social life of the younger naval set here... Spencer was prominent at Annapolis and after leaving the academy was in the public eye from time to time. Some months after leaving here he sprang into the limelight by marrying a Countess nearly twice his age. After a stormy encounter in a New York hotel the couple separated."

Spencer then moved to England and during the First World War joined the British Army. He later claimed he worked for MI6 and had undertaken secret service work in the Middle East. This was not true as the records show he was dismissed from the army in September, 1917, because he was suffering from "paranoid delusional insanity".

Spencer now found work as the assistant editor of The Imperialist, a journal owned by Noel Pemberton Billing. As James Hayward has pointed out: "He was now labouring under a deep (and probably pathological) sense of injustice. He complained to Billing of having been badly treated by his superior officers and higher authorities, who had refused to take his outlandish conspiratorial theories seriously."

Relying on information supplied by Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute."

Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".

In February, 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing changed the name of The Imperialist to The Vigilante. Soon afterwards it published an article that argued that the Unseen Hand was involved in a plot to spread venereal disease: "The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting - even profit-making - army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers."

Later that month it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chancellor as being blasphemous. Billing and Spencer had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand.

On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."

As soon as Maud Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Noel Pemberton Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."

Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stewart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."

The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Noel Pemberton Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.

Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stuart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stewart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stewart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.

The next witness was Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.

The prosecuting counsel, Travers Humphreys, asked Spencer what he meant when he said during cross-examination that "Maud Allan was administering the cult.... Will you tell the court exactly what you meant by that?" He replied: "Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."

Spencer then went onto to explain what he meant by the "Cult of the Clitoris". In reply to Travers Humphreys: "In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl." Billing joined in the attack on Maud Allan: "Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."

On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."

Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Spencer and Eileen Villiers-Stuart had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."

In September 1918, Villiers-Stuart was convicted of bigamy, and sentenced to nine months' hard labour. In a sworn statement she admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious, and that she had rehearsed it with Spencer and Noel Pemberton Billing.

In July 1920, Alfred Douglas became the editor of the weekly magazine, Plain English. He appointed Spencer as his assistant editor. Michael Kettle, the author of Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977), has pointed out: "Bosie (Douglas) at this time was obsessed with the story then circulating in Fleet Street that the Jews had somehow engineered the death of Lord Kitchener, who went down in the Hampshire in 1916, when on his way out to Russia; and that Churchill had deliberately circulated a false account of the Battle of Jutland (which took place just before the Hampshire sank), which enabled his friend the Jewish financier Sir Ernest Cassel to make a killing on the New York Stock Exchange and give the Churchills some £40,000 worth of furniture."

Spencer and Douglas continued their campaign against Winston Churchill and he issued 30,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled The Murder of Lord Kitchener and the Truth about the Battle of Jutland and the Jews. As a result they were arrested and charged for criminal libel. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Spencer was sentenced to six months in gaol, and stripped of his army rank by the War Office. A few months after his release Spencer was convicted of unspecified 'disgusting behaviour' and fined 40 shillings."

Primary Sources

(1) The New York Times (31st May, 1918)

Captain Spencer described how he had been detained in a cabin in France, being told by the doctors that he was suffering from most unusual hallucinations and that he ought to be locked up. Eventually an air officer carried certain documents to Downing Street which procured his release.

(2) The New York Times (1st June, 1918)

While at the academy he (Harold Spencer) was something of a poet and musician, and took a prominent part in the artistic and social life of the younger naval set here... Spencer was prominent at Annapolis and after leaving the academy was in the public eye from time to time. Some months after leaving here he sprang into the limelight by marrying a Countess nearly twice his age. After a stormy encounter in a New York hotel the couple separated.

(3) Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985)

The next witness was a Captain Spencer who claimed to have been shown the Black Book by a German prince and gave some further details of its contents. During cross-examination Mr Hume-Williams KC enquired as to his mental stability. Captain Spencer retaliated by asking whether Mr Hume-Williams was working for the Germans. He was followed into the witness box by a doctor, a surgeon, a literary critic and a cleric who testified to the depravity of Salome. Then came Pemberton Billing's star witness, Oscar Wilde's disaffected former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who complained of being "bullied and brow-beaten" by both Darling and Hume-Williams.

(4) James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002)

Spencer returned to the courts in 1921, where he was convicted of libel following the publication of an anti-semitic article in the journal Plain English. He was sentenced to six months in gaol, and stripped of his army rank by the War Office. A few months after his release Spencer was convicted of unspecified "disgusting behaviour" and fined 40 shillings.