Why Stella and Fanny, the two ladies pictured, needed an escort of five policemen would have needed some explanation for readers of The Illustrated Police News, in which the image appeared in 1870. The incident shown also attracted the attention of the Times, which observed: “Whatever the results of the investigation, there is much in this matter which is very strange, and, indeed, almost unintelligible.”
What was unintelligible to the Times was the fact that Stella and Fanny were not women, but men who liked to dress up in women’s clothes. Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were the most famous cross-dressers of Victorian times. They were arrested after leaving a London theatre and charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy, a crime with a maximum sentence of life with hard labour.
It took a year for the case to come to court and the couple, who had maintained that they just liked to don drag in theatrical way, were acquitted on the main charge of sodomy. The prosecution produced an array of doctors, whose examinations proved that carnal relations had taken place, but the defence produced even more experts who, after similar physical examinations, declared that intercourse had not. Sounds like a lawyer’s paradise.
Boulton and Park were, however, found guilty of a lesser charge of dressing up as women, for which they received a suspended sentence. According to the Illustrated Police News, the defence argued that theatre and its “ontological status” as unmoored from truth or authenticity could explain away all the “dark features” of the case. So now you know. But the couple were bound over for two years for admitting to appearing in public dressed as women, which was deemed “an offence against public morals and common decency”.
The trial was more complicated than that, as two other defendants faced similar charges of conspiracy and incitement, including the United States consul in Leith, Edinburgh. Three others absconded. Another, Lord Arthur Clinton, whose love letters to Boulton had been uncovered during the investigation, died. It was reported at the time that natural causes were responsible, but some suspected suicide.
Such a case could not easily happen in today’s more enlightened times. It marks a milestone in gay history, which is commemorated by a small plaque on a wall in Wakefield Street, off Regent Square in Kings Cross, where Boulton and Park lived for a time.
Vic would like to thank E.D for bringing this story to his attention.