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| Jun 9, 2008
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Michelle Moore brings you TG HistoryThis month TG History looks at The Boulton and Park Case. The two lads had so much fun dressed as ladies, gadding about London in the company of gentleman companions. The young lovelies had it all, simply scads of dresses, jewelry, all a popular young woman — or young man dressing as a woman — could want. But, The Law was onto them and trouble was coming for Fanny and Stella. What will they say when the minion’s of the law ask, “What’s all this then?”

Fury said to a mouse that he met in the house, “Let us both go to law: I will prosecute YOU. — Come, I’ll take no denial; We must have a trial: For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.” Said the mouse to the cur, “Such a trial, dear Sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.” “I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,” Said cunning old Fury: “I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.”
— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Crossdressing has been around since, well… forever actually, but it experienced a definite upsurge during the 19th Century and for that we can thank the Industrial Revolution. An emerging middle class now had unprecedented access to vast quantities of mass produced women’s clothing, the discretionary income to buy it, and more leisure time on its hands than ever to wear it. This was also a heyday for unabashedly feminine clothing, lingerie, shoes, and stockings. Combine all that with living in a time of rigid, inflexible gender roles and it’s no wonder that crossdressing began to spread through mainstream society. But then came the inevitable backlash. Anti-crossdressing laws began sprouting up in the latter half of the 19th Century and an aggressive law enforcement mentality bent on enforcing public morality began to take root. It was only a matter of time before somebody got caught and a big scandal ensued.

Lady Stella Clinton, a.k.a. Ernest BoultonThat happened on April 28, 1870 with the arrest of the Lady Stella Clinton — otherwise known as Ernest Boulton, the 22 year old son of a stockbroker — and her companion Miss Fanny Winifred Park, also known as Frederick William Park, a 23 year-old law student. Park also went by the name of Miss Fanny Graham, among others. The police, it seems, had been keeping a close eye on this pair for quite some time now. Boulton and Park were both involved in the shocking new profession known as Female Impersonation at various theaters, country houses and elsewhere. Boulton particularly was described as “very good looking, effeminate, and musical, with a wonderful soprano voice.” But it now seemed that their dressing had wandered off stage as well. They had been in the habit of attending fancy dress balls in fashionable hotels and walking the West End in female attire under the ever-watchful gaze of the police since at least 1867. Fanny and Stella as “sisters” had even attended the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race while dressed as women. It was reported that even when dressed as men they wore makeup and were known to “wink at respectable gentlemen.” The police, obviously not wanting to rush into anything, continued to “observe” them for several years before finally deciding to make their move in 1870. Boulton and Park had been attending a performance at London’s famous Strand Theatre dressed in full evening frocks while in the company of several male acquaintances. They were both arrested although their nimbler, less encumbered male escorts managed to flee the scene (and later from the country as well).

An artist’s rendering…However, two other men were also subsequently arrested — one being none other than the American Consul in Edinburgh, John Safford Fiske, plus a postal clerk named Louis Hurt. Not troubling themselves with obtaining warrants the police searched their apartments and found what appeared to be sets of incriminating “love letters” to both Fanny and Stella. Police also found a book of photographs behind Fiske’s fireplace containing “some very beautiful photographs of Boulton, especially one in an attitude of prayer which is extremely beautiful.” It was discovered that while all lived at separate addresses, Boulton and Park also kept a safe house on Wakefield Street just off Regent Square. There they would dress up before going out for the evening or stay with friends, so careful examination of their Wakefield Street hideaway was also undertaken. The police inventory duly noted a wealth of incriminating evidence: sixteen dresses in satin or silk with suitable lace trimmings, a dozen petticoats, ten cloaks and jackets, half a dozen bodices, several bonnets and hats, twenty chignons (a roll or knot of hair worn back of the head), plus a variety of stays, corsets, lacy knickers, stockings, gloves, boots, and curling irons. Their scandalized landlady described their dresses as “very extreme.”

Stella and Fanny in a tender moment.But the scandal did not stop there, for soon it was revealed that Boulton had been living and presumably carrying on an affair with a well conducted politician named Lord Clinton (kindly supply your joke here, gentle reader). While living as Lady Stella Clinton, Boulton had reportedly presented herself as Lord Clinton’s wife, complete with wedding ring. It was discovered that Lord Clinton, who was conveniently lodged near Stella, had ordered visiting cards printed for “Lady Arthur Clinton” and had even paid for Stella’s hairdresser who came faithfully every morning. Lord Clinton issued blistering denials emphatically stating that he did not have sex with that woman… err, person. But this did not prevent the authorities from charging Boulton and Park with “conspiracy to commit sodomy,” a serious felony offense under British Law carrying a mandatory prison sentence.

When Boulton and Park were first arraigned to face these charges their appearance astonished even veteran court officials. Stella, clad in a wig with a braided chignon, wore a cherry colored silk evening dress trimmed with white lace and bracelets on her bare arms. Fanny, her flaxen hair in curls, wore a very low necked dark green satin dress trimmed in black lace and accented this with a black lace shawl and white kid gloves. And so began the celebrated case known as “The Queen v. Boulton & Others” (that just sounds wrong somehow). The trial would last for the rest of 1870 and continue into May of the following year. Held before the Lord Chief Justice himself at Westminster Hall, it produced intensive media coverage rivaling anything seen today as all the major newspapers and tabloids fired off daily reports. The Times headlined its coverage “Men in Petticoats.” But by the time the trial finally began Boulton and Park now stood in the dock dressed in the manner of respectable gentlemen about town – Park had somehow even managed to grow himself a mustache. They also had by their side a renowned legal “dream team” partially financed by parties unknown. The task of presiding over the trial and determining the charge of sodomy fell to a distinguished Chief Justice named – wait for it – Sir Alexander Cockburn (you just can’t make this stuff up).

Anyway, faced with absolutely no concrete evidence that a felony (sodomy) had been committed, the prosecution focused instead on the more vague “conspiracy to commit a felony” charge. The Attorney General began by conceding that Boulton and Park had frequently acted the part of women on stage and that assuming women’s dress was not an offense. “Nay, if they had gone even further than this – if being possessed of women’s dresses for the purpose of acting they had indulged in an occasional frolic or escapade and had masqueraded in the streets in female attire – if that had been all they would not have been amenable to such a charge as this.” Yet the prosecution would then spend the rest of the trial trying to prove that their crossdressing represented proof of intent to commit a felony. “The adoption of women’s dress was not a brief folly, but… appears to have been made in a great degree the occupation and business of their lives.” Boulton and Park, the Prosecutor charged, had been in the habit of “adopting this style of costume…in such a manner as so to disguise themselves, as to be taken by most people for women…with low necked shirt collars, very widely opened fronts, their necks powdered, and their cheeks painted, and adopting the air and gestures of prostitutes, making noises with their mouths and looking over their shoulders and glancing at men…They exhibited themselves in this way…very frequently indeed for the last 2 or 3 years at different places.” The prosecution also stated that Boulton had been temporarily detained in 1867 because the local prostitutes had complained they were “interfering with their profession.”

The defense countered by pointing out there was no evidence that either Boulton or Park had ever solicited themselves. Boulton and Park, the defense argued, were simply performers and portrayed their public outings as the harmless, frolicsome antics of fun-loving young men. They were acclaimed theatrical impersonators: “Boulton had as many as 14 bouquets thrown at him on one evening” and were frequently persuaded by several “sporting gentlemen” to venture out “in female costume” to see if they could be detected by the public. “We were generally invited somewhere to supper and the lady of the house sometimes invited Mr. Boulton home in his costume… this happened on two or three occasions,” said one defense witness. The defense also introduced Boulton’s mother as a character witness. Calling him a “kind and dutiful son” she testified that Boulton had been crossdressing since age 6, that she knew of his current dressing habits, and had even provided him with dresses and fashion advice. As a youngster Boulton even occasionally dressed up as a parlour-maid and waited on unsuspecting house guests. How, the defense argued, could there possibly be any impropriety with Boulton’s own dear mother so involved?

The prosecution then introduced evidence from a Dr. Paul, who had bodily examined the pair for evidence of sodomy. Again, the authorities had not troubled themselves to obtain the proper warrants for this examination. Under cross-examination, however, it became painfully apparent that Dr. Paul had absolutely no medical knowledge or experience whatsoever of how to look for evidence of sodomy. His only information on the subject came from a half-remembered case history from the book of Medical Jurisprudence. The Attorney General admitted that a second examination conducted six weeks afterward by Drs. Gibson and Taylor had also been inconclusive. The Attorney General explained this away by declaring, “Fortunately, doctors in England know very little about this matter.”

Most damning seemed to be the intimate letters confiscated by the prosecution. But the defense played upon their ambiguous, flowery language and countered that they were simply jovial, affectionate exchanges between male friends and did not constitute proof of anything immoral.

With both sides resting, it fell to Lord Chief Justice Cockburn to sum up the case for the jury. He was not a happy man. At first Cockburn felt compelled to go on at some length about the evils of persons “unsexing themselves” by crossdressing and lamented that harsher penalties were not available for this “outrage upon public decency.” But he then fixed his sights squarely on the prosecution. Cockburn had been dismayed the case came to trial in the first place, declaring: “The police took the matter into their own hands and this case tends to confirm strongly what every day’s experience has shown to my mind – the necessity of some public authority to control the prosecutions that take place in this country.” He then lambasted the police for arresting the defendants, searching their homes, and seizing their private documents with “no more authority than any one of you, without a warrant… without authority from any… magistrate or judge or authority of any sort.” The Chief Justice heatedly continued: “The police having acted thus far without I will not say the authority of the attorney general but without the authority of anybody, transfer the case…and the public prosecutor, to my utter astonishment, adopts the whole proceeding… I must denounce not only as impolitic but as improper such a course as that which has been pursued here.” As to the medical evidence, Chief Justice Cockburn pointed reminded the jury that Dr. Paul was not only completely unqualified to determine sodomy but also that “he had no more authority to examine the defendants than if he had caught a man in the street and asked him to unbutton his breeches and let him see what was behind.”

The jury retired at 4:00 p.m. They were back in less than 50 minutes. Their unanimous verdict: Not Guilty on all counts. The spectators in the gallery immediately burst into cheers. Cries of “Bravo!! Bravo!!” rang through the courtroom. Boulton fainted.

Now, in reading this story it might seem like you’ve just stumbled onto a skit from an old Monty Python rerun. Still, it’s not hard to see a dark side to this comedy. “Conspiracy to commit a felony” has historically been such a vaguely defined charge that it was often broadly used against perceived enemies of the state (the 1950’s McCarthy hearings immediately come to mind). The prosecution’s zeal would be an ominous preview of things to come. As the 19th Century gave way to the harsh legal persecution of the early 20th Century gays and the transgendered would soon find the closet was the only safe place to be. Also it should be noted that Lord Clinton died during the trial, reportedly of scarlet fever, but if rumors of suicide were actually true then it adds a very needless human cost to this farce.

But they won. They won and, best of all, they were as guilty as hell – Boulton and Park really were crossdressers and they really were gay at a time when both were against the law. On top of which they faced down a hell-bent, out-of-control prosecution – and they won anyway. People casually examining the Boulton and Park case sometimes assume they must have been spared by a naïve 19th Century jury. But even a short read of the court transcripts shows the appalling number of procedural violations and illegal acts that so enraged the presiding Chief Justice. The jury heard nearly a year’s worth of explicit testimony, then wasted little time freeing them because they saw the case for what it was: a colossal, wasteful abuse of police power that never should have gone to trial in the first place. The underdogs won. Justice triumphed. You have to love that.

Yet perhaps the greatest tribute to the Boulton and Park case is simply this: it couldn’t have happened today. Boulton and Park’s case provided a legal precedent for later court challenges establishing that crossdressing alone didn’t constitute proof to commit a felony, helping to decriminalize crossdressing. The cause of their arrest vanished when Great Britain decriminalized consensual sodomy in 1967 and other Western countries including America followed suit. Even more, the kind of illegal searches and seizures Boulton and Park endured are prohibited now. Any evidence so obtained would be ruled inadmissible today and promptly thrown out by any sane prosecutor – closely followed by an investigation against the offending police department. And we can only imagine the millions of dollars Boulton and Park would have reaped today from their undoubtedly successful lawsuit after undergoing all those humiliating illegal body searches blundering about for sodomy evidence. In his summary, Chief Justice Cockburn advocated public oversight of prosecution investigations – that too eventually came to pass. All this serves to remind us that we don’t live in the 19th Century anymore and, for all its faults, neither does law enforcement. The world today is a much better place for that.

You’d like to think that if an amused Fanny and Stella happen to be looking down our way from that Great Hereafter they must be feeling rather proud of themselves about now.

Primary reference is the official Court Transcript of the case itself with reprintings and source material also obtained from the following:

The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events At Home and Abroad, 1871 Remarkable Trials
Reports of Cases in Criminal Law Argued and Determined in All the Courts, Edward William Cox
Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality, Jonathan Ned Katz
Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction, William A. Cohen
Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century, Harry Cocks
Transgender Warriors, Leslie Feinberg
Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender, Vern & Bonnie Bullough

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Category: Transgender History


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Comments (4)

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  1. Michelle Michelle says:

    In that respect nothing’s changed. Human nature, even regarding crossdressing, is pretty consistent. You have to admire trans people living during more difficult times who had the courage to do their thing – and still have fun doing it.

  2. ronnierho ronnierho says:

    Well, my idea was that they dressed up and went out for fun…and so do we today. 🙂

  3. Michelle Michelle says:

    I guess that would depend on what part of the world you’re in – and at what point in time. As bad as it was for Boulton and Park if they’d been tried just a decade earlier they could have faced the death penalty instead of prison. Historically the problem with being crossdressed or transgendered wasn’t that it was against the law but that it was considered by itself to be proof of intent to commit some kind of felony (prostitution, consensual gay sex, disguise to rob a bank, etc). Now someone can be publicly crossdressed without automatically being hauled off to jail unless some other probable cause exists. So things are certainly better than in the past but as long as prejudice exists the need for being vigilant and careful hasn’t changed at all.

  4. ronnierho ronnierho says:

    Fantastic article, as always!
    What this also goes to show is that the more we change, the more we’ve stayed the same. Are the activities of Fanny and Stella all that different from what many of us do? And has the attitude of authorities altered that much?

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