The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England

Jennifer Conerly - April 5, 2018

On the morning of April 29, 1870, a crowd of over one thousand people gathered outside of the Bow Street Magistrate’s office to watch the spectacle. The police escorted Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, two men from upstanding families, out of the magistrate’s building. Emerging with their heads held high, the men carefully stepped into the van that would bring them to jail. As the onlookers gasped in shock, there was one fundamental difference between Boulton and Park and any other prisoners: the men were wearing women’s clothes.

Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, known as Fanny and Stella respectively, were two friends who bonded over their mutual love of cross-dressing, creating a successful stage show in London. In a sensational 1871 trial, the British government prosecuted Park and Boulton for sodomy, which was a capital offense. They were found not guilty, but the case shocked Victorian England because it forced the highly conservative society to acknowledge homosexuality for the first time publicly.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
A restored photograph of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, as Fanny and Stella. Photographed by Frederick Spalding, 1869. Essex Record Office, UK. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Victorian era, a strict moral code relating to sex and gender touched all corners of society. Any sexual orientation or activity outside the confines of heterosexual unions, such as homosexuality, was outlawed. Persecutions of members of the gay community increased, with ideas of homosexuality as an identity emerging by the end of the century. Underneath the surface of Victorian morality, London was the heart of the sexual underground where sex in all its forms was easy to find, and members of the gay community created a covert subculture.

Cross-dressing has particular roots in the theater: for hundreds of years, women were not able to perform onstage, so men would wear women’s clothes to play the female roles. Although women were eventually allowed to act onstage by the Restoration period of the end of the 17th century, this tradition of cross-dressing on stage experienced a resurgence in the nineteenth century in the form of burlesque. Victorian burlesque shows parodied traditional works of literature or theatre using erotic themes; both men and women engaged in cross-dressing on stage, with women dressed as men falling in love with other men, and men dressed as women falling in love with other women.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
Illustration of Fanny and Stella getting into a police van the morning after their arrest, April 29, 1870. A crowd of onlookers observed the men still dressed in their women’s clothes as they were taken to jail from Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. The Illustrated Police News/Mary Evans Picture Library. Wikimedia Commons.

Both Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton had their hearts set on a career on stage, but their families had other ambitions for them. Boulton’s father pressured him to work in a bank; Park, the son of a judge, went to law school and worked in a lawyer’s office. After Boulton and Park met, they quickly became friends, creating a stage show around their female personas. The Fanny and Stella stage show toured the London circuit, becoming wildly successful, but there were certain parts of London where their show met with opposition: the men were thrown out of theatres many times for appearing in women’s clothes.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
A photograph of the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, the late 1890s. When Fanny and Stella were arrested, they were brought before the local magistrate in the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court before being transported to prison. Wikimedia Commons.

Stella and Fanny’s public appearances drew the unwanted attention of the home secretary, who had been pushing the attorney-general to press charges against the men. Both Boulton and Park had already been in trouble with the law: Ernest Boulton had been arrested two times for dressing in women’s clothing, and Frederick Park had been accused of being a prostitute. The police had men under surveillance for one year: officers staked out their apartment and tracked their movements.

One night, on April 28, 1870, Boulton and Park, dressed as Fanny and Stella, joined a party of men at the Strand Theatre; according to witnesses, they shamelessly flirted with their party all night. Built in 1832, the Strand Theatre was a highly popular location for Victorian burlesque shows that was equally notorious as a scouting location for prostitutes. When Park and Boulton left the Strand Theatre with one of their party, Hugh Alexander Mundell, the three men were arrested and brought to the Bow Street Magistrate’s court.

When the officers questioned Mundell, he was convinced that Park and Boulton were women; when they admitted that they were men, he thought they were joking. The police allowed Mundell to make bail, but Boulton and Park remained in custody. The charge of ‘public mischief’ – very common for cross-dressers – was only a misdemeanor, so Park and Boulton fully expected the officers to give them a fine before releasing them. Instead, they were humiliated, subject to a physical examination that checked them for evidence of sodomy, in full view of other officers, who jeered and tormented them.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
A photograph of Fanny, Stella, and Lord Arthur Clinton. Photographed by Frederick Spalding, ca. the 1870s. Wikimedia Commons.

The British courts officially charged Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park “with conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offense”: the term ‘unnatural offense’ being the legal term for sodomy. Park and Boulton remained in jail for months before they were released to await their trial. The court also indicted other members of their party the night of their arrest as well as Boulton’s lover, Lord Arthur Clinton. The son of a duke and a member of Parliament, Clinton died the day after he received his indictment: although his official cause of death was scarlet fever, there is speculation that his wealth and power allowed him to fake his death to live the rest of his life in exile.

The case was a spectacle of Victorian England: coverage of the trial littered the London newspapers, and thousands of onlookers gathered at every court appearance. The defendants appeared in court on May 9, 1871, where a jury of the Court of the Queen’s Bench presided over the case: Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn was the judge in the case, and the attorney-general was the prosecutor. The prosecution attacked Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park’s lifestyle instead of presenting actual evidence, such as parading a trunk of the men’s dresses before the jury. As the trial progressed, testimony revealed that the other defendants barely knew each other.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
A photograph of Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster, London, UK. The Court of the Queen’s Bench, also known as the Court of the King’s Bench during the reign of a male monarch, was located in Westminster Hall until it was abolished in 1875. Illustration by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, November 1808. Wikimedia Commons.

Boulton’s mother’s testimony destroyed the prosecution’s case: she admitted that her son’s lifestyle was no secret, and her honesty made the whole situation surrounding the case seem exaggerated. In the end, the only evidence that the prosecution had was that the men were cross-dressers; without proof of sodomy, the court released Boulton and Park after the jury found them not guilty. At the end of the trial, Sir Alexander Cockburn issued a scathing statement on the case: he criticized the attorney-general for failing to bring substantial evidence, and he attacked the police’s behavior toward the defendants.

Boulton and Park returned to their anonymity after the trial: Park moved to the United States, where he died in 1881. Boulton went on tour as a female impersonator; he died of a brain tumor in 1904. The legacy of Fanny and Stella lives on in popular culture, with a recent resurgence in recent years. Over the past ten years, plays such as Martin Lewton’s Lord Arthur’s Bed and Neil Bartlett’s Stella have introduced Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park to new audiences. While it is mostly unfamiliar to us today, the trial was an open legal attack on homosexuality, becoming the first of several cases that would ostracize the gay community.

The Cross Dressing Trial that Scandalized Victorian England
Plaque commemorating where Fanny and Stella lived. In July 2013, the Marchmont Association erected the plaque in memory of Fanny and Stella and their sensational trial. Photographed February 2015. Wikimedia Commons.’Stella_%26_Fanny’_Victorian_cross-dressers_lodged_at_13_Wakefield_Street_on_this_site_1868-1870.jpg

In 1885, the British Parliament passed section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which criminalized “gross indecency,” which allowed the courts to prosecute homosexuals in cases where there was no proof of sodomy. Within the next ten years, the Cleveland Street scandal exposed an all-male brothel frequented by upper-class and elite patrons, and the playwright Oscar Wilde served a jail sentence of hard labor for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Although the first gay rights organization in England was formed in 1897, the British government did not legalize homosexuality until 1967.